Here’s why that’s a good thing.
By Jared Keller
(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
In early September, Aftenposten, the largest daily newspaper in Norway published an angry letter by its own editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “I have no illusions that you will read this letter,” Hansen wrote. “The reason why I will still make this attempt, is that I am upset, disappointed — well, in fact even afraid — of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.”
Hansen had reason to be angry: The social networking giant had recently censored a post by a Norwegian writer that included The Terror of War, the infamous photograph of Vietnamese children fleeing from American napalm gas that won photographer Nick Ut a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. The photograph is both a horrifying and iconic image, and somewhere deep within Facebook headquarters, an anonymous engineer decided to censor it.
Zuckerberg, Hansen wrote, had done more than conflate a historically significant piece of photography with child pornography. While Facebook has inevitably been a boon for civil society, Hansen saw its monopoly on information as a threat to the debate and discourse that prefigure free societies. “Dear Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor,” he writes. “I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.
Facebook has long struggled with how to arbitrate the maelstrom of content that flows between its 1.7 billion users each day. Consider the company’s love-hate relationship with editors and fake news, or the choice to censor Facebook Live video of Philando Castile bleeding to death after being shot by a police officer in July.
Hansen’s letter sparked widespread outrage and criticism of Facebook, and, as a result, the company quickly reinstated the image and pledged to review and adjust its standards for removing suspect media from its sprawling network. “Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal,” Facebook said in a statement.
The photograph is both a horrifying and iconic image, and somewhere deep within Facebook headquarters, an anonymous engineer decided to censor it.
One month later, Facebook seems to be making good on its promise. The company announced last week that it would soon permit more content like “Naplam Girl,” including violence and nudity, “as long as the imagery is newsworthy or important enough,” TechCrunch reports.
“Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them,” Facebook global policy vice president Joel Kaplan wrote on Friday. It’s an implicit acknowledgement that Facebook is, in fact, the world’s largest and most influential editorial operation. It’s also an affirmation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ principle that the best response to vile and despicable speech — in this case, offensive media — is more and better speech.
This is a good thing, and not just because censorship is diametrically opposed to the freedom of expression on which democracies are built; Facebook’s retreat represents a victory for historical testimony. As I wrote following the death of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel this July, first-person testimony is the essential vehicle through which we understand the heaviness and significance of human events. Official documents that are the lifeblood of modern bureaucracies may offer a clinical objectivity to historical events, but it’s testimony that gives us our sense of why these events matter. As Wiesel himself once said, literature is “the poetic memory of humanity.”
This isn’t to say that testimony should serve as fact: Historiographically, reliability and authenticity are often mutually exclusive, as Heather MacNeil points out in her book Trusting Records. But the proliferation of visual media has added depth and force to our capacity for testimony, and for caring. “Naplam Girl” is just one example. There’s also Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution,” an earlier portrait of murder from the Vietnam War; Kenneth Jarecke’s disturbing photo of an Iraqi man burned alive from the Gulf War; the Falling Man, the photo of an anonymous figure tumbling from the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. (The latter photograph prompted an American theologian to declare that “perhaps the most powerful image of despair at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not found in art, or literature, or even popular music…. It is found in a single photograph.”)
This is where the power of Facebook lies. Consider the video of Castile’s dying moments and the in-the-moment narration of events by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, a testimony broadcast in real-time through Facebook Live.
“I told him not to reach for it,” the police officer who shot Castile blares. “You told him to get his ID, sir,” Reynolds responds. It’s a horrible scene, and a deeply visceral one. It’s not just Reynolds bearing witness; it’s the thousands of other Facebook users who saw and shared the live video too.
The chaos of live video lends it both authenticity and reliability; by contrast, the scripted videos that tend to dominate Facebook “[reduce] everything to a level of stupidity that is stunning in its contempt for those who watch it,” as the Awl’s Alex Balkwrites. There’s a reason why, philosophically, we tend to believe bystander videos instead of the scientifically unreliable eyewitnesses: They are historical testimony given to the masses.
It’s this historical potency that makes Facebook’s announcement so significant. Censoring news articles is bad, but censoring the personal histories that Facebook’s design and business model actively demands from its users is worse. There are limits, of course: While I argued last year that it’s certainly not unethical to watch murder caught on tape, it’s not great to have it shoved down our throats, as was the case when former television broadcaster Vester Flanagan fatally shot and killed two former colleagues and streamed the crime live on Twitter. While social-media companies were then forced to grapple with their role forcing users to bear witness, Facebook is now coming forward and saying, maybe it’s for the best.
Aftenposten editor Hansen closed his letter to Zuckerberg on a hopeful note. “I have written this letter to you because I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,” he wrote, “but I am also writing … because I take a positive attitude to the possibilities that Facebook has opened up.”
More than almost any library, Facebook may be the single greatest home for historical testimony in the history of humankind. One can only hope that, with this step, the technology company is realizing the weight of its awesome responsibility.