Knowing the difference … and our history

Editorial by Simon Herbert

Context is everything in life; so perhaps it’s no surprise that, as digital social platforms such as Facebook begin to supplant more traditional news sources (even digital online newspapers), the boundaries of both taste and fact are being explored in new ways. The most recent high-profile case is the (now settled) row that blew up between Erna Holberg, Prime Minister of Norway, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Zuckerberg never responded personally, but through his PR machine; but Holberg made his address directly to the founder). Holberg posted a photograph in support of writer Tom Egeland; after Facebook removed the same image of a naked female child from Egeland’s Facebook page.

For those who support vigilance against child pornography, in the context of an Internet that hides a mass of pedophiles, this surely seemed like the right thing to do?

Well… no, because this was not child pornography: Solberg’s protest repost was of the iconic Vietnam war image, by acclaimed photojournalist Nick Ut, of napalm victim Kim Phúc; the small girl bombed in the town of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972. Her clothes hadn’t been salaciously removed by a pervert; but burned off by South Vietnamese napalm.

Since Solberg’s actions, Facebook has reinstated the image, in a clear statement of intention that there are contextual considerations for certain images. However, this story doesn’t really end there (in fact, it’s only just beginning), because the questions raised are so valid.

Is Facebook really a “new source” by default of our abandonment of traditional newspapers, and did it ever even ask for this? Does Facebook have an editorial board that regulates its own published content; or is it trying to adapt broad consensual societal standards of content, across its hundreds of millions of “publishers” in a vain and clunky attempt to ban salacious imagery? If the horror of child pornography is unacceptable on one polarity, and, on the other polarity, we must never stop seeing images of the horror of war; then where does “art” exist on this sliding scale? For instance, where do the photographs of Sally Mann’s children in her book, ‘Immediate Family’ lie on this scale? Seeing as there isn’t an “art versus porn” filter that Facebook users can adopt to self-regulate – so that Mann’s supporters could see her tasteful and evocative images; but her detractors will not have their more conservative tastes offended – then how can any platform police itself; and hit the balance between access and vigilance? Does your opinion count? Should it count?

Because taste is a mutable thing (insert your own favorite flashpoint topic: torture porn; raw comedy; hip-hop lyrics); and context is everything…

There are other questions to be raised here; such as knowing our visual history and how this pivotal image (and the work of so many journalists) brought the Vietnam War up close and made it personal in a way never known before. How and when did we, as a collective community, allow this to be forgotten?

There is more good commentary in The Guardian newspaper.

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