Nude pictures of national hero were censored by Facebook

by John Einar Sandvand on October 15, 2011 · 15 comments

Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten published nude pictures of the national hero Fridtjof Nansen. That was too much for Facebook – and references to the photos were removed from Aftenposten’s Facebook page.

Facsimile of Aftenposten October 15th, 2011

No nudity, please!, asks Facebook. And photos from 1929 of the Norwegian national hero Fridtjof Nansen were removed from Aftenposten’s Facebook page, which has almost 70.000 fans. In addition the newspaper received a warning that its Facebook page might be removed if new violations of Facebook’s policy were discovered.

Disclaimer: I work for Media Norge, which is the company owning Aftenposten.

The clash between Facebook and Aftenposten raises some interesting principal questions, especially to what extent it is fair that Facebook restricts what a media company (or any other company or person for that matter) publishes on its Facebook page.

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a Norwegian national hero, well known both for his Arctic expeditions as well as his work to help refugees after the first world war.

Aftenposten tells the story of how Nansen at the age of 67 fell in love with the 30 year younger journalist Brenda Ueland, an American feminist and journalist.

In a new book letters Nansen wrote to Ueland are published, including nude photos Nansen took of himself and sent to his love hoping that whe would returns photos of herself without clothes.

Aftenposten published two of the photos in its article about the book – and also shared the link to the article to the 70.000 friends on its Facebook page. The article received a number of reactions from readers.

The link to the controversial article was shared on Aftenposten's Facebook page

And then Facebook stepped in.

Within a few hours the link had been removed by Facebook from Aftenposten’s Facebook page.

Aftenposten also received a message warning that this photo was violating Facebook’s regulations, and that Aftenposten would risk being thrown out of Facebook if more violations were discovered.

“This message is a warning. Further violations may lead to your account being closed. Please read carefully through the declaration of duties and rights, and refrain from publishing offensive content in the future”, Facebook wrote.

Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Hilde Haugsgjerd, argues that Nansen is one of Norway’s biggest national heroes, and that it is known that he had relationships to many women. “Now there is a book on the market with this as the main topic, and we found it in order to cover this editorially”, she says to her own news site.

The photos in question are all from 1929.

So what do you think? Is it OK that Facebook censors this type of content? Or should the social network give media organizations some flexibility to decide for themselves what is proper content to be published under its bran?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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  • http://www.baekdal.com Thomas Baekdal

    There is one thing missing here. The reason Facebook acted was not because of the nude picture. That was why it was blocked, but not why they acted.

    What happened was that several of Aftenposten’s fans deleted the post and/or reported it as offensive. Because of the action of Aftenposten’s fans, Facebook stepped in and blocked the post. That is a very important distinction. The people who caused this was not Facebook (they just reacted), it was your fans who demanded that it was taking down. 

    Is it okay for FB to censor post. In my opinion, no (unless it involves unlawful activities). But the real question is, “is it alright for your fans to ask Facebook to remove a post they find offensive?” Is it alright for your readers to say, “I don’t want to see a picture of a naked man when I log into Facebook?” 

    (I think I will write an article about this :))

    • http://twitter.com/gard_jenssen Gard Jenssen (NO)

      What if the Facebook users didn’t react to the “picture of a naked man” but the fact that this particular naked man took these pictures himself for the purpose of sending them to a woman he was in love with. They are private pictures and should never have been published, let alone written about.

      What the Aftenposten Editor-in-chief is doing when publishing these pictures is the same as if I would publish a nude picture of an ex-girlfriend and tag her in the picture. Except Nansen (the national hero in question) has no way of refusing the tag.

      My instinct here tells me the Facebook users who reported the pictures where not offended by nudity but by the publication of the pics. Even very young kids these days understand that the publication was simply something they would not like done to themselves one day.

      On the subject of whether Facebook should be allowed to cencor or not it’s simple. No society will work without rules or morality systems. The rest is just a discussion of where to draw the line and who should decide. Personally I would be in favour of Facebook setting up a “user parliament” to decide on issues like these, right now Facebook works more like a “business state”, not unlike Singapore.

      • http://www.baekdal.com Thomas Baekdal

        Gard, it may be that people thought of it that way. Personally I think it was just a negative reaction to seeing a naked man. I know how I would react. I would immediately block that post. 

        If I get up on a Saturday morning and go to Facebook to catch up on what my friends are doing, the last thing I want to see is some guy’s penis! 

    • http://twitter.com/JohnEi John Einar Sandvand

      Thomas and Gard,
      I don’t have all the details here. But it is clear that the publication of the photos in itself caused a lot of reactions from readers. It was also much discussed on Twitter in Norway yesterday. Probably also some of them reported it to Facebook as offensive.

      Whether Aftenposten was right or wrong in publishing the photos is not really the issue here, and I will at least not have any opinion about it. That is a decision made by the editor-in-chief of the newspaper – after careful consideration, I am sure. 

      The real interesting question in my opinion is to what extent it is acceptable that Facebook take action on what content media companies – and other parties for that matter – choose to publish on their Facebook page. 

      The discussion is similar to Apple’s rejection of a number of media apps on the basis of the content in the app, whether it be photos of nude women or politically sensitive cartoons. 

      Both Facebook and Apple are so powerful distribution platforms of content today that how they deal with perceived controversial content is an important aspect of freedom of speech. Is it OK that Facebook and Apple behave like super-editors-in-chief for the content we read?

      Personally I don’t feel comfortable when Apple and Facebook get involved in what content I should have access to. That’s simply not the role of either companies, in my opinion. I realize there should be some restrictions, like not allowing porn, for instance. But that’s a big step from the case we are discussing today. 

      After all nobody is forcing me to follow Aftenposten or any other media company on Facebook. I can always choose to unlike their pages with a single click if I don’t like what they are sharing. 

      • http://twitter.com/gard_jenssen Gard Jenssen (NO)

        I see what you mean, but let me try to be the devil’s advocate: The way Apple and Facebook operate as “super-editors” today may not feel particularly  controversial to most users/readers today. In fact maybe they find it more or equally controversial that some other company (like Aftenposten) should act as editors of what is news, who gets to say things in national media etc.

        You could argue that the press should have this right because of the tradition of the press as a semi-democratic institution but as long as this doesn’t land with new generations of users/readers it becomes just another internal discussion amongst the elite cadres of society. The press is of course partly to blame themselves; every day they publish crap on their front pages that is not newsworty or important to society they are proving the point that they too can make a meaningless “blog”, if you see what I mean.

        What the press has to realize is many to them important boundaries are increasingly blurred: The boundary between the press and the people. (on the net we’re all publishers, what makes the press so special one might ask). The boundary between privacy and publicity. The boundary between opinions and facts. The boundary between commercial and non-commercial. The boundary between cultures and countries. Traditional media are historically caught up in a parasitic relationship with the elite in society – no wonder they struggle in this day and age to get used to the masses sifting into their previously controllable world.

        Say what you will about the ethics of Apple and Facebook but my guess is that they are closer to reacting to the pulse of their users than most national media are to the pulse of their readers. Which I suspect the users like, if not they would normally stop buying/using their products.

        Another, perhaps more interesting debate is the super-editor-in-the-sky role of our friends at Google. Most national media today are really starting to take search engine optimization seriously. What this means in practice for traditional media editors (on- or offline) is that your new editor in chief is the tiny group at Google guarding and developing their ranking algorithm. Because you want your online distribution maximised they will indirectly govern what you write on a massive scale far beyond the case-per-case no-nudity interventions of Facebook and Apple.

      • http://www.baekdal.com Thomas Baekdal

        John, I understand what your are trying to say and as a publisher I partly agree. But I also have to agree with Gard. 

        Facebook has just as much right to “moderate” what is published on Facebook, as a newspaper has the right to moderate what it is in the newspaper. Take comments on newspaper sites. Should newspapers not have the right to remove comments that they feel is inappropriate? 

        We see the same with blogs hosted on newspaper sites. The terms of use of those are just as strict as on Facebook.

        The truth is that Facebook is a newspaper and like a newspaper it has a certain set of editorial standards that everyone must follow. We may not like those standards, but I do not see why Facebook (or Google) may not impose editorial requirements, while others may.

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