Does Facebook need to act more like a news organization?

Facebook’s decision Friday to reverse its ruling about an iconic photo from the Vietnam War that it initially said violated company policy is raising the issue about whether Facebook is a social media platform or a news distributor.

Photo dispute highlights news media's reliance on social media for much of their audience

Facebook's reversal of a decision to delete a historic photo from the Vietnam War because it violated the company's nudity policy is bringing up the question of whether it needs to act more like a news organization. (Mark Rourke/Associated Press)

Facebook's decision Friday to reverse its ruling about an iconic photo from the Vietnam War that it initially said violated company policy is raising the issue about whether it is a social media platform or a news distributor.

The reversal followed online uproar after Facebook deleted the famous photo of Kim Phuc running naked from a napalm attack from a Norwegian author's Facebook page.

This resulted in a front-page editorial in the daily Aftenposten newspaper accusing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of abusing his power.

Following the editorial, several Norwegian politicians, including Prime Minister Erna Solberg, posted the photo and had it deleted by Facebook administrators.

On Friday, Facebook lifted a censorship ban on Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a naked girl fleeing Napalm bombs during the Vietnam War. (Nick Ut/AP)

This kerfuffle comes on the tails of accusations that the social media giant was showing a left-wing bias by keeping conservative stories from its Trending Topics section and allowing a fake news story in the same section.

The debate involves whether Facebook should act like a news organization, which is expected to make unbiased choices about its content, or like a social media site using secret, constantly changing algorithms that may not take into account the context of the content it displays.

'Its own rules'

Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute, which aims "to elevate journalism," told CBC News he wasn't surprised that Facebook deleted the photo. "It is, after all, a company that can make its own rules."

Facebook has strict guidelines for nudity, and there isn't time for individual decisions on its many photos, Tompkins said.

The company doesn't have the same mandate as a journalism organization, he said. It can publish or promote whatever it wants.

"We don't have some right with Facebook," he said. "It's not a free speech or free press right."

Media companies attract a substantial portion of their audiences through Facebook, but Tompkins said sometimes publishers rely on Facebook too much.

Facebook is no longer just a site for status updates and may need to re-examine its one-size-fits-all approach, says technology writer Ramona Pringle. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

"If all you're doing is driving [your readers] to Facebook and delivering all the content, then you're doing great stuff for Facebook but not doing anything for yourself," he said.  

Lack of understanding

What doesn't help news organizations is that Facebook is constantly changing its rules, standards and algorithms so publishers are guessing what content Facebook will want to promote.

"It would be helpful to content generators to have a real clear understanding about the rules of engagement," Tompkins said.  

But Ramona Pringle, a technology writer whose work appears on CBC and an assistant professor at Ryerson University's Transmedia Zone, says Facebook is taking the easy way out by saying it's a technology company, not a media company.

"It has evolved into so much more than sharing photos with friends and family and status updates," Pringle said, adding one of Facebook's many roles is delivering news.

Algorithms without awareness

Facebook's reliance on algorithms means the site lacks the "contextual awareness" to identify photos that aren't just nudity, but could be art, science or news, Pringle said.

"It's not as easy as one size fits all," she said.

And if media companies try to play along with how Facebook works, they are giving in to the idea that the algorithm is untouchable.

Facebook's argument for removing the photo was flawed, she said, because of the image's historical presence.

The 44-year-old image, created by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, shows screaming children running from a burning Vietnamese village. Kim Phuc, the girl in in the center of the frame, is naked and crying as napalm melts away layers of her skin.

Pringle said, "It's not nudity, it's a story, it's a narrative, it's a moment."

The reversal was important, Pringle said, because it means Facebook admitted it was wrong and the paper was right.

"Otherwise it would be a huge step backwards," she said.

The company should acknowledge that it's changing and may need to look at hiring more engineers or journalists to handle the different kind of relationships Facebook has with its variety of users, Pringle said.


Nicole Riva is a multi-platform writer and social media presenter for CBC News based in Toronto.