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Facebook backtracks to allow iconic Vietnam War photo of child napalm victims

Facebook backtracks to allow iconic Vietnam War photo of child napalm victims
In 1972, Nick Ut made this historic picture of Vietnamese children fleeing an attack. (Nick Ut / AP)

Facebook Inc. has reversed its decision to remove posts featuring an iconic 1972 image of a naked, screaming girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam.

The change comes after the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph emerged at the center of a free speech fight in Norway. Protests started last month after Facebook deleted photographer Nick Ut's picture from a Norwegian author's page, saying it violated the social network's rules on nudity.

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The controversy escalated Friday when Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted the image on her account and Facebook deleted that too.

Initially, Facebook stood by its decision, saying it was difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others. But on Friday it said it would allow sharing of the photo.

"In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time," Facebook said in a statement. "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, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed."

The Los Angeles Times photo department also recently had a Facebook post including the war photo deleted, with a notification from the social network saying it violated the company's terms of service.

Politicians of all stripes, journalists and regular Norwegians had backed Solberg's decision to share the image.

The prime minister told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that she was pleased with Facebook's change of heart and that it shows social media users' opinions matter.

"To speak up and say we want change — it matters and it works. And that makes me happy," she said.

The image shows screaming children running from a burning Vietnamese village. The little girl in in the center of the frame, Kim Phuc, is naked and crying as the napalm melts away layers of her skin.

"Today, pictures are such an important element in making an impression, that if you edit past events or people, you change history and you change reality," Solberg said Friday, adding that it was the first time that one of her Facebook posts was deleted.

Solberg later reposted the image with a black box covering the girl from the thighs up. She also posted other iconic photos of historic events, such as the man standing in front of a tank in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, with black boxes covering the protagonists.

Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Norway takes pride in its freedom of speech. It's also a largely secular nation with relaxed attitudes about nudity.

Several members of the Norwegian government followed Solberg's lead and posted the photo on their Facebook pages. One of them, Education Minister Torbjorn Roe Isaksen, said it was "an iconic photo, part of our history."

Many of the posts were deleted but Isaksen's was still up Friday afternoon. The photo was also left untouched on a number of other Facebook accounts.

It would be physically impossible for Facebook to comb through the hundreds of millions of photos posted each day, so it relies on user reports and algorithms to weed out pictures that violate its terms of service.

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Photos are often automatically removed if enough people report them. Facebook usually does not proactively remove photos, with some exceptions, such as child pornography.

Because of this, there can be inconsistency around which photos are removed and which aren't, sometimes leading to Facebook reinstating photos after removing them.

Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten published the photo on its front page Friday and wrote an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in which chief editor Espen Egil Hansen accused the social media giant of abusing its power.

Hansen said he was "upset, disappointed — well, in fact even afraid — of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society."

The uproar also spread outside Norway, with the head of Denmark's journalism union urging people to share Hansen's open letter. Germany's justice minister, Heiko Maas, who has previously clashed with Facebook over its failure to remove hate speech deemed illegal in Germany, also weighed in, saying "illegal content should vanish from the Internet, not photos that move the whole world."

Facebook's statement said the company would adjust its review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image.

"We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions," it said.

Before it was published 44 years ago, the AP also had a discussion about the image because it violated the news agency's policy on full-frontal nudity.

Hal Buell, then the AP's executive news photo editor in New York, said he received a message from Saigon photo editor Horst Faas saying a "controversial picture" was coming up.

"Maybe we discussed it on the desk for 10 or 15 minutes," said Buell, who is now retired. "But there is nothing about this picture that is prurient. How can we not publish this picture? It captures the horrors of war. It captures the terrible situation of innocents caught in the cross-fire of the war."

The AP published the image and media worldwide used it, though some chose not to, Buell said. Ut, a native of Vietnam, is still an AP photographer based in Los Angeles. Last month, after 51 years at the news service, he announced that he will retire next year. He was traveling Friday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Times staff writer Paresh Dave contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

1:40 p.m.: This article was updated with details of a Los Angeles Times Facebook post with the image being removed.

11:35 a.m.: This article was updated with Facebook saying it will allow postings of the photo.

This article was originally published at 10:20 a.m.

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