Facebook has recently been criticised for banning arguably the most iconic photo from the Vietnam War. The photo depicts children, including the naked Kim Phuc, fleeing from a US napalm attack.
A Norwegian newspaper covered the story and criticised Facebook for its indiscriminate editorial interventions. It also reproduced the famous photo, which they shared on the newspapers’ Facebook page, Facebook subsequently demanded to “either remove or pixelize” the image.
This is turn prompted Espen Egil Hansen the editor in chief of the Norwegian newspaper Afternposten to write a front page editorial voicing his anger about the decision but also touching on a few relevant and important tensions and contradictions inherent to Facebook as a social media platform.
My own take on this debate regarding editorial responsibilities of Facebook is that Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook is not a media company, but a tech company, a neutral tool, is utterly false. Facebook is of course a media company, as much as it is a tech company. The clue is in the name, it is social “media”, not social “tool”. It is high time that Facebook accepts this, as well as the important democratic responsibilities that come with it.
The tension to which Zuckerberg implicitly alludes with his comments relates to the distinction that is often made (also in terms of regulation) between media on the one hand and communication on the other. The postal services, the telegraph and the telecommunication industry have always argued that they cannot be held responsible (nor be liable) for the content that circulates through their networks, be it in a letter, a telegram or a telephone call, whereas “the media” is. However, this stark distinction between media and communication is a thing of the past. The internet and the many platforms and protocols that it offers has increasingly blurred this schism between media and communication.
A good example of this convergence, is how people who say silly or libelous things on Twitter or Facebook are increasingly prosecuted for what they say online. In the libel case of the false allegations against Lord McAlpine, the measure used to sue people was the amount of followers someone had on Twitter. In a way this could be seen as an acknowledgement that social media is also a broadcaster in the hands of elites. Hence, Sally Bercow got sued whereas someone with fifty followers saying the same thing was not.
Another example of this blurring between media and communication is the editorial power which Facebook and Twitter has to and does exercise on the content that circulates on their platforms. I say “has to” because its claim that it is merely an innocent platform ignores the fact that in various jurisdictions the distribution of certain content is illegal. Just one example, in Belgium and Germany it is illegal to deny the Holocaust, regardless of which media platform you use to voice such heinous views. Furthermore, we as an open multi-cultural society – nor Facebook or Twitter – would want to encourage the free and unfettered circulation of Isis propaganda and it is thus right that this kind of content is regulated and ultimately removed from the public space.
However, by saying that Facebook is a tool and not media, Zuckerberg also seeks to protect his company from the kind of content regulation that media organisations have to abide to. The press and broadcasters have a lot of power in our society but with that power comes some degree of responsibility. Part of that is the requirement that media organisations abide by certain rules and guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. In a democracy, such rules or guidelines, which tend to differ between press and broadcasting – are agreed upon by a profession, an industry or democratically through parliaments and enforced by regulators (in the UK: Ofcom and Ipso).
The establishment of the boundaries of what is acceptable as public speech online and what is not, is a very complex and highly sensitive matter. However, just as media organisations do, Facebook is a very powerful actor which needs to assume responsibility for the content that circulates on its network and walk a fine line between protecting its users – including children – from harmful and racist content and promoting an open space for the expression of a radical diversity of views, opinions, representations and identities. This drawing of the line should be done transparently and in respect of democratic values, involving humans rather than algorithms to make decisions and with fair and user-friendly means of appeal and redress in the case of mistakes being made. Acknowledging that Facebook is media rather than a benign “neutral” tool would be a good first step in that direction.
Bart Cammaerts is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the LSE.