Facebook employees say deleting ‘napalm girl’ photo was a mistake

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said today that the company faced “difficult decisions” when it deleted a post by a Norwegian journalist containing an iconic photograph of a girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Sandberg expressed regret at her company’s decision to repeatedly delete the photograph and said Facebook would do better at preserving newsworthy content in the future.

In a letter to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Sandberg said, “We don’t always get it right,” adding, “Even with clear standards, screening millions of posts on a case-by-case basis every week is challenging. Nonetheless, we intend to do better. We are committed to listening to our community and evolving. Thank you for helping us get this right.”

Solberg entered the debate after posts by journalists at Norway’s biggest newspaper, Aftenposten, were deleted from the social media site. The Norwegian leader posted the 1972 photograph, “Terror of War,” to her own Facebook page, writing, “Facebook is wrong when they censor these pictures. It helps to slow down freedom of speech. I say yes to a healthy, open and free debate on the internet … but I say no to this form of censorship.”

Facebook had objected to the content of the photo, which shows a young girl running nude from the napalm attack.

In her letter to Solberg which was obtained by Reuters, Sandberg said that the merits of the photo outweighed Facebook’s nudity concern. Sandberg wrote, “The global and historical importance of a photo like ‘Terror of War’ outweighs the importance of keeping nudity off Facebook.”

Sandberg isn’t the only Facebook employee to speak out about the deletion of “Terror of War.”

Justin Osofsky, a platform lead at Facebook, said that the company had erred in deleting the photo. “Because it depicts a naked child, we initially removed Tom’s post — and other posts that shared the same photo — for violating our community standards.,” he wrote. “Still, we can do better. In this case, we tried to strike a difficult balance between enabling expression and protecting our community and ended up making a mistake.”

The stir over “Terror of War” is the latest controversy over how Facebook curates news, and it likely won’t be the last. Tune in to Disrupt SF on Wednesday, when we’ll be talking about Facebook’s News Feed with Adam Mosseri, VP of product management for News Feed.