Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.

Navneet Alang

Facebook algorithms can’t replace good judgment Add to ...

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.

Everybody knows the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc. She’s the Vietnamese-Canadian depicted as a child in a 1972 photo by Nick Ut, naked, badly burned, running from a napalm attack in South Vietnam. It has become one the defining images of both the Vietnam War specifically, and what would be the otherwise hidden horrors of modern military conflict.

For those reasons and more, Norwegian newspaper editor Tom Egeland posted the photo to Facebook as part of a history of war photography. It was promptly removed. Then, Aftenposten, the newspaper Mr. Edeland works for, put the photo on the front page of the paper in protest, along with a letter complaining of Facebook’s censorship. Many prominent Norwegians – including Prime Minister Erna Solberg – posted the photo on Facebook again in protest. Her post was also deleted.

On the surface, Facebook’s explanation almost sounded reasonable. A spokesperson for the company said: “While we recognize 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.”

But given the patently obvious difference between this and an unacceptable image – and after deleting the post of a head of state making a political statement – an understandable storm of outrage was unleashed against Facebook. So on Friday, the company allowed the photo to go up again, citing the very reason it should have never been removed in the first place: its cultural and historical importance.

That said, the fact Facebook could have ever deleted the post in the first place represents a significant threat to the dissemination of controversial images or views, particularly when the company has 1.65 billion users.

Yet, while it is only implied in this mess, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently stated explicitly, if inadvertently, what the real problem is: Facebook does not see itself as a media company.

Unfortunately for Mr. Zuckerberg, it constantly acts like one. Its refusal to see itself as one is not only hypocritical and damaging – it also doesn’t acknowledge Facebook’s own role in changing the very definition of media itself.

More than any other entity, Facebook is responsible for the mainstreaming of social media. And what is media if not the layer between us and the wider world at large that informs us? In the 20th century, that space was occupied predominantly by TV and newspapers. Today, Facebook is undeniably a media company, because it is intimately involved with what people see and how they understand their place in history.

But Facebook likes to insist it is a technology company, simply an infrastructure for delivering information created by its users and partners. It relies on algorithms to decide what people see. It’s this mentality that led Facebook to recently fire its Trending Topics staff, and have those little news items that appear on the right of your feed be decided upon by software – which has led to it displaying false stories about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and 9/11 Truther conspiracies.

The trouble is that by virtue of occupying so much attention, Facebook has become the de facto media norm – and with that status comes the inescapable responsibility of exercising editorial judgment. As both the photo and the trending topics debacle highlight, algorithms are not neutral. They put forward or suppress particular views. It is true, balancing free speech and dealing with the unprecedented scale of content on the network presents an immensely difficult problem.

Disruption, however, does not come free. After very deliberately redefining media, Facebook now wants to adhere to the definition the company itself helped make obsolete. Unfortunately for Mr. Zuckerberg and company, if you want to upend an industry that has a such a crucial social role to play, you have to accept the responsibility that comes with it. As in the shocking photo Facebook temporarily suppressed, reality is harsh, and cannot be shied away from.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

Next story


In the know

The Globe Recommends


Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular