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Editor Calls Out Facebook For Decision To Block Iconic Vietnam War Photo


Facebook, the social media service, recently blocked a famous image from the Vietnam War. The photo shows a girl fleeing a napalm bomb attack. And Facebook said that violated rules on child nudity. The photo was restored, but Espen Egil Hansen finds the incident revealing. He is a Norwegian newspaper editor who thinks that Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have too much power.

Full disclosure - Facebook pays NPR to produce video streams. We talk about them anyway by Skype with Mr. Hansen.

What's wrong with Facebook?

ESPEN EGIL HANSEN: Well, it's a great service. I use it myself. But Facebook wants this to be about one photo and that was easy to fix. The harder question centers on the role - their role - as the world's most powerful editor.

INSKEEP: Would you explain what you mean by the world's most powerful editor?

HANSEN: Well, more than 1 billion people visit Facebook each day, and it's by far the largest platform for consuming news. And I think Facebook wants to frame themself as a neutral technology platform, but they are not.

They do millions of editorial decisions every day. They decide what news will be in your stream and what will not. They do that by algorithms, also by manual decisions. But they do edit.

INSKEEP: And what do you want them to do about that?

HANSEN: I think they have to engage much more actively in the discussion on how they edit and the effect of how they edit. And they just don't participate in this very important discussion.

INSKEEP: OK, I think we've gotten to the heart of your argument here. You write in The Guardian that you think that Facebook is more powerful than most state leaders because of the influence they have over that billion readers. And you seem to think that they just don't comment. They just hide from acknowledging their

HANSEN: Well, but they do send out ready written messages. But they never go to the core. They never reflect. They never participate in real deep discussions about their very important role in transporting news around the world. And I think that is dangerous. I think if it had been a traditional media company, they would have been forced to participate in that discussion. And they don't do that today.

INSKEEP: So it sounds like the first step that you want is Mark Zuckerberg, in your world, should acknowledge it's not a utility. It's not like the phone company. It's not a totally neutral service. It's a publishing company.

HANSEN: Exactly. I think it has to start with the man on the top. He has to be very clear with his own organization that we have to take part in this discussion.

INSKEEP: What is some change or reform that would flow from that acknowledgment? Is there something you could imagine Facebook doing differently on a day-to-day basis than they do now?

HANSEN: Well, I think it's pretty clear that their algorithms favor what we can call a filter bubble. You get more of the worldview you already have. And in a democratic society, we need information from other worldviews. I think also their policy on censorship should be discussed, also maybe the role of content from independent press.

INSKEEP: Would you like it if Facebook went out of its way to make sure that people got at least some material they totally disagree with?

HANSEN: I think for society at large that is important. How they can do it, I don't know. The most important thing now is that Facebook participate in this debate.

INSKEEP: Espen Egil Hansen, thanks very much.

HANSEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's an editor with Norway's largest daily newspaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.