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Should Twitter and YouTube remove images of James Foley’s beheading, or do we have a right to see them?

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Late Tuesday, the terrorist group known as ISIS released a video that appeared to show members of the group beheading freelance journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped almost two years ago while reporting in Iraq. As they so often do, screenshots and links to the video circulated rapidly through social media — even as some journalists begged others to stop sharing them — while Twitter and YouTube tried to remove them as quickly as possible. But as well-meaning as their behavior might be, do we really want those platforms to be the ones deciding what content we can see or not see? It’s not an easy question.

When I asked that question on Twitter, Nu Wexler — a member of Twitter’s public policy team — said the company removed screenshots from the video at the request of Foley’s relatives, in accordance with a new company policy, which states that the company will remove images at the request of the family, although it “will consider public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content.” A number of people had their accounts suspended after they shared the images, including Zaid Benjamin of Radio Sawa, but media outlets that posted photos did not.

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It’s easy to understand why the victim’s family and friends wouldn’t want the video or screenshots circulating, just as the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — who was beheaded on video by Al-Qaeda in 2002 — or businessman Nick Berg didn’t want their sons’ deaths broadcast across the internet. And it’s not surprising that many of those who knew Foley, including a number of journalists, would implore others not to share those images, especially since doing so could be seen as promoting (even involuntarily) the interests of ISIS.

Who decides what qualifies as violence?

For whatever it’s worth, I think we owe it to Foley — and others who risk their lives to report the news — to watch the video, out of respect for their commitment. But regardless, shouldn’t that be our choice to make? Should Twitter and YouTube be so quick to remove content because it happens to be violent? And who defines what violence is? What if it was a photo of a young Vietnamese girl who had burned by napalm, or a man being shot by police?

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Some of those who responded to my question argued that removing images of someone being beheaded is a fairly obvious case where censorship should be required, if only because they are shocking and repulsive — and because Twitter in particular shows users photos and videos automatically now, unlike in the past when you had to click on a link (a change Twitter ironically made to increase engagement with multimedia content). TV networks don’t show violent or graphic images, the argument goes, so why should Twitter or YouTube?

The difference, of course, is that while Twitter may seem more and more like TV all the time — as Zach Seward at Quartz describes it — it’s supposed to be a channel that we control, not one that is moderated by unseen editors somewhere. Twitter has become a global force in part because it is a source of real-time information about conflicts like the Arab Spring in Egypt or the police action in Ferguson, and the company has repeatedly staked its reputation on being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

Twitter management have been struggling for some time to find a happy medium between censorship and free speech when it comes to ISIS, a group that is renowned for its use of social media to promote its cause — accounts associated with the group have been suspended a number of times, but more keep appearing. Some, including conservative commentator Ronan Farrow, have argued that the company and other social platforms should do a lot more to keep terrorist propaganda and other content out of their networks.

How does Twitter define free speech?

A source at Twitter said that ISIS is especially difficult, because the group is on a U.S. government list of terrorist organizations, and it’s considered a criminal offence to provide “aid or comfort” to such groups — something that could theoretically cover providing them with a platform on social media. But then the Palestinian group Hamas is defined by many as a terrorist group, and it posts on Twitter regularly, including an infamous exchange with the official Twitter account for the Israeli army in 2012.

After Ronan Farrow compared ISIS content to the radio broadcasts in Rwanda that many believe helped fuel a genocide in that country in the 1990s, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci argued that in some cases social platforms probably should remove violent content, because of the risk that distributing it will help fuel similar behavior. But others, including First Look Media’s Glenn Greenwald, said leaving those decisions up to corporations like Twitter or YouTube is the last thing that a free society should want to promote.

In some ways, it’s a lot easier to let Twitter or YouTube or Facebook decide what content we should see and not see, since it protects us from being exposed to violent imagery and repulsive behavior. But in some cases it can also prevent us from knowing things that need to be known, as investigative blogger Brown Moses says Facebook does when it removes content posted by dissident groups in Syria. Shouldn’t that be our decision as users?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Yuriz

25 Responses to “Should Twitter and YouTube remove images of James Foley’s beheading, or do we have a right to see them?”

  1. Stephanie Zimmerman

    I did not watch the video ,but I did share it, nor have I seen the clips on 911. This was my choice. To have a small group decide for me is dangerous grounds to limit my freedom to choose, and smacks of censorship and control.

  2. Irrate Intellectual

    Without all this discussion about the ethics/morality/politics of watching the video, and the related efforts to scrub the web of the file, I wouldn’t have thought twice about viewing the material. I wouldn’t have bothered, because, for me, it has no informational value; kinda like a White House briefing, which, in the course of an hour, beheads the English language many times over, every day. However, after all the coverage of the video, and having been talked at about what I should and should not be viewing, I’m inclined to watch it simply as an act of resistance to anyone telling me what media I can/cannot consume. Thing is, I still do want to watch it, and if folks would just stop talking about their personal/corporate/government opinions on the matter, I’d forget it ever exist in a day or two. In anycase, if Twitter and other platforms continue to narrow the range of what they consider appropriate for me to watch/read, I’ll stop using them, like I did Fa(r)cebook.

  3. I confess, curiosity caused me to click on a link to the video and I am glad when it was not there when I did so.

    I think recent events have marked a watershed. Enough was simply enough, regardless of what free speech advocates think.

    Do not give these people a propaganda outlet.

  4. Peter Sigrist

    It seems we are gradually reaching an accommodation, whereby social media adopt many of the cultural and procedural hallmarks of old media. People like you Matthew (and I) feel regret that we’re reverting to type. But we are not the mainstream viewpoint, it would seem. Social media is dead; long live social media!

  5. yaelikimberly

    Do you agree that this group wants, for whatever reason, the publicity and notoriety that publishing and promoting their barbarism will bring them? Do you agree that the choice to broadcast this murder, is rooted in their desire to further their agenda?
    Do you want to be party to furthering their agenda?
    What is one thing we can do in protest of this detestable act, sitting behind our monitors in the safety of our own homes etc.?
    We can deny them an audience!
    Deny them the legitimacy they desire!
    The video is out there for all to see!
    Twitter and Youtube are well within their rights as providers of a service, to choose not to give this group a ready made audience.
    Our own individual responsibility, is to make the choice.
    Do I want to be party to furthering the agenda of these barbarians?

  6. The video should be removed first because it is evil and second because offering it gives ISIS exactly what it wants, publicity and notoriety for spreading evil.

    I hope then that media will consider the same issues in everything it reports, and not just when it involves threats directly to journalists. The media cannot continue to pretend it is just an “objective” observer of evil in the world, it has to take a side.

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  8. “…since it protects us from being exposed to violent imagery and repulsive behavior.”
    So that people can go on pretending it doesn’t exist and never happens? That’s what this sort of censorship does. There is nothing wrong with being exposed to violent imagery. In fact, it might inspire more people to take a stand against the actions. It makes things just a bit more real, a little closer to home.

    If it’s censored, what’s “out of sight” is also “out of mind”. It doesn’t leave a lasting impression on anyone. It doesn’t seem as real to only hear about it without seeing it.

    If you want to respect the dead – feel their pain. Watch their struggle. See their torment. Sympathize. Mourn. Then fight to prevent it from ever happening to anyone else.

    • Stewart Wills

      “There is nothing wrong with being exposed to violent imagery. In fact, it might inspire more people to take a stand against the actions.”

      Of course, it’s also possible that it will *desensitize* people to the suffering of others. That, indeed, is what the most recent research seems to suggest.

      • All studies I’ve read on the subject only deal with media/”faked” violence desensitizing people and the affects of violent video games on adolescents. Which often has the person themselves “committing” the acts through shooting enemies, or the media “glorifying” it through war films and “badasses”. Which gives quite a different message and does desensitize people to the violence, because it isn’t being seen as bad. After all, they’re killing “bad guys”.

        If you can link me to research that studies showing pictures of actual violence desensitizing people to violence, fine. Until then – it’s glorified media violence that desensitizes people to violence.

        • Stewart Wills

          A fair point. Most research on this has indeed focused on the effects of violence in gaming and entertainment. It does seem to me a bit of a leap to go from that to suggest that viewing “real” violence will somehow galvanize people into action or righteous indignation. It seems more likely to me that, once you’ve seen one beheading, the next one will pack less power to shock you, and that apathy will be the ultimate result. But I acknowledge that that is ultimately an intuition, rather than something grounded in research. So touché.

          • Unfortunately, research often contradicts intuition, so I’ve given less and less credit to personal intuition over the years (my own intuition included) as research has often shown me what I thought was a “safe assumption that seemed logical” was actually wrong.

            I do watch some of the films on Liveleak, to know what’s really going on in the world, and I will admit to being desensitized as far as my physical repulsion of the acts go. My hairs no longer rise on their ends and send shivers down my spine; but they also ignite a spark for action. To write my local politicians to raise awareness of the issues, to speak about the issues in public, to make others more aware of the atrocities in hopes that they, too, will speak of the issue.

            People ignoring the problem will change nothing. Alone, I can change nothing. But working together with others and raising awareness of the issue – there is a chance for change. Censorship solves nothing. It hinders change by maintaining the status quo.

            Please do not assume I am completely tossing aside your intuition however. I do not think it is too far from home, but it is not directly backed by studies. However, looking around it is easy to tell which people are protesting and asking for change and which are sitting docile, not making a fuss — and it’s strongly correlated to who has uncensored information and who is having their information censored.

  9. Reblogged this on The Cryptosphere and commented:
    The whole discussion is moot, as YouTube and Twitter are corporations that do whatever the hell they feel like. But it’s still around on non-mainstream platforms and will continue to be. The question is do we have a right to see them at all? My answer is yes.

    For the record, I didn’t watch the video. It hits a little too close to home. But I will fight for the right to watch it, you bet I will. You can’t force corporations to serve human rights instead of human needs, though. If it’s important to you, download it before whatever platform you’re viewing it on takes it down.

  10. Stewart Wills

    Matthew Ingram writes: “For whatever it’s worth, I think we owe it to Foley — and others who risk their lives to report the news — to watch the video, out of respect for their commitment.”

    Really? And how, precisely, does *that* work? Watching a snuff film released by a terrorist group to publicize their atrocity does not strike me as a way to show “respect for [the] commitment” of their victim.

    The comparison with “a photo of a young Vietnamese girl who had burned by napalm, or a man being shot by police” strikes me as a false analogy. The motivations of those purveying the material, it seems to me, also need to be taken into account — if not relative to the free-speech question, then at least with respect to the moral compass that we bring to the matter as individuals.

    • Thanks for the comment, Stewart. I agree that the motives of those who released the video are troubling, but I think if James Foley risked everything to go to that part of the world and report on the violence there, the least we can do as a tribute to him is watch the video — the one he paid for with his life.

      • “For whatever it’s worth, I think we owe it to Foley — and others who risk their lives to report the news — to watch the video, out of respect for their commitment.”

        You’re joking, right? You think this guy’s last thought, on his knees, as he’s being killed is, “Gee whiz, well, I sure hope everyone at least gets to see this.”

        And “the least we can do as a tribute to him is watch the video”…?! I have not seen the video and never hope to, but I understand he was not a willing participant. So how on earth is watching the video a “tribute to him”? By that measure, it would make sense to show it at his funeral. “Thank you for those comforting words and remembrances, friends and family of James. And now, as a tribute to James, we’d like you to watch him being beheaded on camera. Lights please.”

        Watching a man on the worst day of his life, on the last day of his life, having his life violently ended in pretty much the worst possible way, is in no way a tribute. While I don’t know you, I can’t help but wonder if there’s some ghoulish interest behind you watching it and then trying to justify it so you can feel better about yourself.

        Plenty of desensitized others I’m sure found seeing an innocent man beheaded on camera disturbingly fascinating and left it at that. Maybe that’s what you should have done.

        • a trehern

          I totally agree with you human compassion is a , worthwhile pursuit, much of the world is obviously lacking!!): it’s a very desirable “HUMAN” trait!!!!!!the heart can be desperately wicked,who can know it? ISIS needs no audience or glor uhh given…rest in peace jim Foley. You will be remembered in my heart!

      • Patrick

        Simply disgusting. He went to report on the violence not reporting to be killed. How is watching him die a tribute to him? A tribute is for the work he had done leading up to this, not this last action. Your line of thought is simply disgusting.

      • Totally agree Mathew. If I was killed like that I would have wanted the whole world to see it. How will things ever change of we refuse to look them in the eye.

      • Jim Thornton

        I agree with the commenters. There are better ways to pay tribute and families should have rights to privacy. How about writing a timeline of his accomplishments? No reason you couldn’t do that as an established blogger.

        And why does freedom of speech trump someone else’s (the family’s) right to privacy? Or someone’s right not to see a beheading all over their social feeds. This is a constitutional issue, not a social media trending/buzz opportunity.

      • i believe these kinds of videos should be taken off u tube and twitter as soon as they show up.I have not seen the video and had no interest to. It is hard to imagine what the man must have gone through during his captivity and especially his last moments on this earth. Why would anyone want to watch that. This is not some Hollywood horror movie, it’s real life.!! That was a real person.
        I understand how people feel news shouldn’t be censored and people have the right to all the events that happen in the world.
        Can’t all the relevant details of a news story be published without the aid of murder
        videos. These kinds of videos only give those maniacs the publicity they crave. The whole world sees what they have done and probably attracts vulnerable young people to joint their extremist groups.