“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark;
the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
The Guardian recently published an article in which a Norwegian newspaper editor blasted Mark Zuckerberg for deleting a Facebook post featuring an iconic photo taken more than 40 years ago. The social media behemoth deleted the post of a journalist who had used the photo in a story about war – and then followed up by punitively suspending the writer’s Facebook account. A media storm ensued after editor Espen Egil Hansen skewered Mark Zuckerberg, accusing him of “limiting freedom” in an “authoritarian way”.
Facebook has since reversed its initial decision to censor the photo, allowing users to freely share the image without fear of being blocked or having their account suspended. The back down is welcome, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem of Facebook’s power in controlling what its 1.23 billion users see. Especially when you take into account the fact that more than 40% of people (in America, anyway) use Facebook as their primary source of news.
Did you know that the news stories Facebook promotes are decided by computers? An algorithm dictates what news we get to see. And what’s scary is that it also dictates what news we don’t see. But what’s scarier than that, to me, is that some people actually welcome this kind of regulation. Or let’s call it what it really is: censorship. When I posted the Guardian’s story of the napalm photo (with the caption, “WTF, Facebook”) one of my FB friends responded that she thought the picture should actually be censored by pixelating the image of the naked girl, and that if people wanted to see it, they could click through to the website. I respect that people have different opinions than me about things but to welcome censorship seems small-minded and a huge step in the wrong direction. Especially when information is a freedom that has been bloodily fought for throughout history. And I choose to exert my right to oppose it.
I live in a country where the media does not have the right to publish the truth. It’s a place where the news is censored as a matter of course. In a Muslim autocracy, perhaps this is to be expected. But the western world doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) operate in this way. We already get a very filtered version of what’s going on around us. As well as Facebook’s algorithms, we also have news agencies cherry-picking what stories to broadcast or publish, meaning we do not get the full picture. I was watching the six o’clock news in Melbourne a couple of days ago and was appalled that the top two stories of the day were about football. Not just one story, but two. In the meantime, on the same day five people were murdered in Washington, USA after a 20 year old gunman shot them in a rampage in a shopping mall, and 85 innocent people were killed in Aleppo in Russian airstrikes supported by the Syrian government. The mass shooting was mentioned, briefly, after even more features about football, including six minutes of airtime in which Footscray Bulldogs fans gushed about how their team making the finals was the best thing that had ever happened to them. I mean, for fuck’s sake. I am totally on board with the Doggies and really hope they win the grand final next weekend. But this is not news. This is a feel good story. It’s human interest. It belongs at the end of the program, as a snippet. When did Australian news become so watered down? And why aren’t people pissed off about it.
I’m pissed off about it. The Aleppo story didn’t even rank a spot in that day’s news. I’m posting a photo here of a man who died trying to protect his child during the attack, not because I want to shock people but because it happened, and we need to know that it happened. And to those of you who would rather go on Facebook to just look at pictures of cats and post inspirational memes, I am not sorry. If you don’t like it, you can unfriend me.
I can’t help going back to that picture of Kim Phúc as a nine year old girl running away from her home after being bombed with napalm. The photo, titled “The Terror of War” is so confronting because of its stark depiction of a horrible event. It simply would not have the same impact if the little girl was Photoshopped to be wearing clothes (and if you ask me, pixelating her is the same as putting clothes on her – you might as well dress her up as Santa Claus). If the photo is censored, it loses its power. The reason the little girl is naked is because napalm burned the clothes right off her body, melting her skin in the process. Phúc herself has spoken out about the outcry, saying “I’m saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys. I fully support the documentary image taken by Nick Ut as a moment of truth that capture the horror of war and its effects on innocent victims.”
I’m saddened too. Are people calling for censorship of the photo because they think that the image is sexual?? If so, they’re stupid. Initially, Facebook claimed they removed the photo because “it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others”. But if people can’t tell the difference between child pornography and journalistic fact reporting, then the problem lies with them. Let’s not pander to the lowest common denominator.
The person that told me Facebook should have pixelated the photo, went on to argue that she also hadn’t enjoyed her feed being filled with images and videos of two black men being killed by police officers in routine traffic stops in the US a couple of months ago. She thought that these images in Facebook should also have been pixelated, and that if people were interested in the headline, they could click the link to read the full article. She was worried that allowing the pictures of these atrocities to be so readily available, would de-sensitise people to violent death by normalising it.
I disagree. I think that when people are able to see incidents like police brutality against African-Americans themselves, they become more aware of the problem than if they were to just read a report about it. I believe that when we see photos of dead children washed up on the beach after trying to escape war-torn countries, we are more likely to have empathy for refugees. I personally do not like to see death. I baulk at photos of dead bodies. But I would rather be uncomfortable than be in the dark. War is hell. Burying your head in the sand might make you feel better in the short term, but the fact is that this shit is going on out there in the world and just because you can’t see it does not mean that you are immune to it. Choosing to live in a bubble might feel safe, but it is not safe. When information is withheld from us, we are being controlled. And that’s dangerous. We must insist on a free flow of information. Plato knew this, so why are we still debating it?
It might not seem like such a big deal to agree to censor a photo in which a young girl is depicted naked. But I see it as the beginning of a slippery slope of suppression which is difficult to control. If we pixelate the napalm girl, why don’t we also start banning books again. There are some pretty offensive things written in books. Vile, nasty things that perhaps we’d be better off not reading. Right? But who gets to decide which books are offensive, and which books are acceptable for public consumption? Did you know that “Winnie-The-Pooh” was once banned for “dubious sexuality” and “inappropriate dress”? Some idiot decided that. When you court the “protection” of censorship, you actively relinquish control and you give away your power and your freedom of choice to somebody else. Somebody that might not have your best interests at heart. Why would you allow that? My Facebook friend said, “I really didn’t want to see it. I think I still have a choice as in to what I see on Facebook”. But the problem is that if she is happy for her Facebook news to be censored, she’s actually not the one making the choice at all.