When a Pulitzer Prize-winning picture was pulled from Facebook feeds recently, Mark Zuckerberg was called out for abusing his editorial power by a Norwegian newspaper. Mediawatch discovers its publisher is also fighting the online giant's dominance of the modern media marketplace - and winning.
There was editorial egg on some red faces at Facebook this month when some dodgy stories ended up on its 'Trending' feed, which sends selected news to users’ accounts.
Millions of Facebook users were startled by them - in particular, a story about a man interacting with a McDonald's hamburger.
It turned out that Facebook had fired the human editors of the news feed days earlier, and replaced them with “a more algorithmically-driven process”.
While this was just a hiccup for Facebook, it was significant.
Facebook, with an estimated 1.7 billion users worldwide, is by far the world’s biggest platform for news these days. How it filters the news its users see really does matter.
Filtering the truth?
Last week, Facebook’s filtering of content became a much bigger issue when it censored a famous photograph of the Vietnam war.
Norwegian writer Tom Egelan posted Nick Ut’s 1972 picture of severely burned and naked Kim Phuc, 9, fleeing a napalm attack in terror. It was part of a discussion about photographs that had changed the course of history.
Facebook quickly deleted his post and suspended Tom Egeland’s account, claiming he had violated Facebook’s content standards which prohibit most forms of nudity.
Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten wrote about this and published Ut’s famous photo on its own Facebook page - and that article too was summarily deleted by Facebook.
Norway's Prime Minister waded into the row, criticising Facebook and posting the image on her own official government Facebook account. Facebook deleted that as well.
A dispute about ethics had become diplomatic: an American technology company had censored a foreign head of state, and struck out a sovereign government’s communications.
“While we recognise that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others," Facebook said in a statement.
"We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community.”
Facebook eventually backed down and issued a statement removing the photograph from its blacklist. Aftenposten reported that Kim Phuc herself - who now lives in Canada - was “relieved” by the decision.
But Aftenposten didn’t let the matter lie.
Aiming for the head
Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen published an open letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on on the newspaper's front page, accusing Facebook of abusing its enormous power over modern media:
"Listen, Mark, this is serious. First you create rules that don’t distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs. Then you practice these rules without allowing space for good judgement. Finally you even censor criticism against and a discussion about the decision – and you punish the person who dares to voice criticism."
”Editors cannot live with you as a master editor,” Espen Egil Hansen told Mark Zuckerberg and he urged Facebook’s founding boss to review how the company handles news.
Others applauded his stance.
"In the case of the napalm girl picture censorship, the whole chain of command ended up on the desk of a poor soul somewhere in Hamburg, in charge of supervising contents for Nordic countries," explained tech commentator Frederic Filloux.
"This person . . might have had the cultural background of a cabbage, but no one really cared at Facebook’s headquarters in California. All they were asked for was to play by the book. The company's ways make it a dangerously incompetent editor if left unattended," wrote Mr Filloux.
Mr Hansen told Mediawatch that Aftenposten had not had a response from Mr Zuckerberg - but he wasn't really expecting one.
But he said he succeeded with his main aim.
"I wanted to start a conversation about Facebook's role as the most important distributor of news," he said. "With that position comes responsibility to come out and discuss things. But I want Facebook to take part in this discussion and it's just not possible to get them to do that."
"They need people who can answer questions and work to find better solutions for news".
For years people have complained about media moguls like Rupert Murdoch having too much influence on the news of their publications. If Mark Zuckerberg is disengaged from decisions about news for a platform as powerful as Facebook, isn't that a good thing?
"If you look as the size of Facebook, it's almost like a country," Mr Hansen said. "If Mark Zuckerberg was a prime minister or a president, he would have to engage in discussion about the decisions they make."
A recipe for digital success?
While Mr Zuckerbeg is adamant that Facebook is not a media company, it is sucking up a lot of the online advertising revenue from media companies who have their content online. It is estimated Facebook and Google get as much as 55 percent of it in New Zealand. In the US, the proportion is even greater, and increasing.
But Norway-based publisher Schibsted - which publishes Aftenposten - has bucked the trend.
Almost 40 percent of the company’s revenue comes from its own online classified advertising operations in 30 countries, and earlier this month it announced it would be combining all its digital publishing in Europe into a single group and its mobile-focused news platform Omni in a bid to to push back against Google and Facebook:
Should news organisations boycott Facebook?
“If you look at both distribution and journalism, the biggest competitors that steal attention from our end users and from the digital revenue base are the big global players, like Google and Facebook,” Schibsted product management vice president Espen Sundve said.
“We really push for this to be done with the intention of strengthening editorial responsibility, as opposed to creating filter bubbles," he said.
"I don't think (withdrawing) is the solution because it is the most important platform to reach people," Mr Hansen said.
"I just want them to recognise the power they have today and they responsibility they need to exercise."