Photo of a Starving Girl in Yemen Prompts Facebook to Remove Posts of Article

For a few hours after The New York Times published an article about conflict and hunger in Yemen, Facebook temporarily removed posts from readers who had tried to share the report on the social platform.

At issue was a photograph of a starving child.

The article included several images of emaciated children. Some were crying. Some were listless. One, a 7-year-old girl named Amal, was shown gazing to the side, with flesh so paper-thin that her collarbone and rib cage were plainly visible. Tens of thousands of readers shared the article on Facebook, but some got a message notifying them that the post was not in line with Facebook’s community standards.

Facebook had addressed the issue by Friday night.

“As our community standards explain, we don’t allow nude images of children on Facebook, but we know this is an important image of global significance,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “We’re restoring the posts we removed on this basis.”

The article highlighted the suffering of Yemeni civilians amid a devastating war pitting Houthi rebels and their allies against a Saudi-led coalition whose campaign of airstrikes, which are aided by American-supplied bombs and intelligence, have killed thousands of civilians. Economic warfare has worsened the despair for many Yemeni families, and the country is at risk of a catastrophic famine. The conflict began more than three years ago, and it received more attention when the killing of a Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, led to outrage and turned a spotlight on Saudi actions in the region.

In another article on Friday, New York Times editors explained why they decided to publish the photos of the starving children.

“They are brutal,” it said. “But they are also brutally honest. They reveal the horror that is Yemen today. You may choose not to look at them. But we thought you should be the ones to decide.”

When Jarjieh Fang, a graduate student in Washington, saw the article about Yemen around noon on Friday, he found the photographs shocking. “I thought it would be something worth sharing, to sort of jolt people to start paying attention to what’s going on in Yemen,” he said.

He posted a link to the article on his Facebook page, and couple hours later, he got a notification. His post had been taken down, and there was a message from Facebook.

“On Facebook, we don’t allow offers of sexual services, solicitation of sexual material, threats or depictions of sexual violence, threats to share intimate images or any sexual content involving minors,” it said.

Image
After Jarjieh Fang posted a link to a New York Times article about Yemen on his Facebook page, he received a message about the social media company’s standards.CreditJarjieh Fang

Dozens of people complained about similar issues on social media or in emails to the journalists who originally reported the story. But it is unclear how many people were affected. Tens of thousands of people shared the story on Facebook, and many posts — including the one on The New York Times’ own Facebook page — were not taken down.

The experience left Mr. Fang confused about Facebook’s policies. “I was disappointed when it was taken down so quickly, and that something so important was being scrubbed from people’s News Feeds,” he said.

Facebook uses a combination of algorithms, employees and flags from users to screen for content that may need to be removed. The company did not have information about the number of people whose posts were removed on Friday.

“We’re glad to hear that Facebook has reversed itself on this issue,” said Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The New York Times. “It’s incredibly disappointing to think that this story would be blocked in violation of their community guidelines. The job of journalists is to bear witness and give voice to those who otherwise would not be heard.

“This story is a stunning example of exactly that kind of work, from some of the very few journalists who are on the ground detailing the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Denying any readers access to the story is wrong.”

Facebook’s temporary removal of the posts on Friday recalled a similar episode in 2016, when the social media company temporarily took down a post featuring a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from the Vietnam War. It shows a 9-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing napalm bombs in 1972.

And in 2015, Facebook had to revise its community standards after photos of women breast-feeding were removed from its pages.

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