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Facebook Censors Iconic Vietnam War Photo Over Nudity

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Espen Egil Hansen, editor in chief of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, criticized Facebook for deleting a post that included Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked girl fleeing napalm during the Vietnam War. Credit Stein J. Bjorge/Aftenpost

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has been criticized by one of Norway’s largest newspapers after the social network deleted a post that included a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from the Vietnam War of a naked girl fleeing napalm bombs.

In an open letter to Mr. Zuckerberg published on Friday, Espen Egil Hansen, the editor in chief of Aftenposten, asserted that Facebook and its chief executive were harming press freedom by limiting what could be published on the social network.

The criticism of Facebook’s perceived heavy hand toward the news media comes soon after the technology giant was accused of intentionally suppressing conservative news articles in the United States so that they did not appear in its Trending Topics listing.

Many of the world’s largest newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, increasingly rely on Facebook to communicate with the social network’s 1.7 billion users worldwide.

The tech company earns billions of dollars from advertising based on individuals’ posts and has signed deals with global media brands to get them to use its products. Almost half of American adults now rely on Facebook as their main source of news, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

But amid seemingly constant changes to the Facebook algorithm that decides what content people see on the social network, a growing number of media companies and analysts have raised concerns that Facebook may hold too much sway over what can be read, watched and shared online.

“Facebook not only has become a media company, but Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor in chief in the world,” Mr. Hansen, whose newspaper has a print circulation of 200,000, said in an interview on Friday. “As the position of traditional media companies gets weaker and Facebook becomes stronger, the responsibility for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg grows.”

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A growing number of media companies and analysts warn that Facebook may hold too much sway over what can be read, watched and shared online. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In response, Facebook said that it was difficult to decide whether a photograph of a naked child could be published in one instance, but not in others. It added that it tried to find a balance between allowing people to express themselves online and protecting child safety.

“Our solutions won’t always be perfect,” Lena Pietsch, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement, “but we will continue to try to improve our policies.”

The controversy began when Tom Egeland, a Norwegian author, wrote a Facebook post in August that included seven photographs about the history of warfare.

One image — by The Associated Press photographer Nick Ut and showing people, including the naked Vietnamese girl, fleeing for their lives — was removed by Facebook, which cited its standards policy. After Mr. Egeland criticized the removal, according to Mr. Hansen, he was barred from posting on the social network for 24 hours.

Mr. Hansen said that he was taking a stand on behalf of Mr. Egeland and others, as Facebook is increasingly able to set the standards for what can, and cannot, be shared online. He met with his editorial team on Thursday to discuss whether to publish the open letter on the front page of Aftenposten’s print edition, adding that the newspaper’s Facebook page was “important, but not crucial” to its overall digital strategy. The letter also appeared on the newspaper’s website and its Facebook page.

The Norwegian journalist’s stance against Facebook’s editorial policies also received backing from national politicians. On Friday, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and cabinet ministers posted the Vietnam War photograph on their Facebook pages. “Facebook gets it wrong when they censor such images,” Ms. Solberg wrote in her post.

Yet soon after Ms. Solberg published that Facebook post, the social network removed it, citing the company’s standards policy.

“At least it shows that Facebook doesn’t discriminate,” Mr. Hansen said.

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