Almost every week, it seems, we have a new case in which social platforms and media outlets — which are increasingly becoming the same thing, in many ways — are faced with a difficult choice: Should they post that video of someone being beheaded, or some other horrible thing? Or should they save users and viewers from seeing it by never publishing it, or taking it down if it’s posted? In the most recent case, YouTube chose to remove a video of a Jordanian pilot being set on fire by ISIS, while Fox News published it.
The argument in favor of not publishing such videos — or taking them down when they are posted — is fairly obvious: Namely, that it’s horrific, and many people will be offended by seeing it, especially the family and friends of the victim. Also, these videos are essentially recruiting tools for ISIS, and so many argue that by publishing them, Fox News and others are aiding the enemy.
Assuming these things are true, what justification could there be for arguing that media outlets should publish them, or that YouTube and Twitter and Facebook are wrong to remove them? At the risk of agreeing with Fox News, I think there are a couple of good reasons. One is that there’s a public interest in allowing free speech, even speech we disagree with or find abhorrent. In fact, the real test of our commitment to this principle is whether we defend someone’s right to say offensive things.
Freedom of speech
One common response to the free-speech argument is that platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook are private companies, and therefore they don’t really have any commitment to uphold free speech, because the First Amendment only applies to actions taken by the government. But this doesn’t really hold water for a number of reasons: for one thing, freedom of speech is a principle many believe is worth upholding even when it doesn’t apply to government — that’s why there were “Je Suis Charlie” marches.
Also, media outlets like the New York Times are private companies just the same as Facebook is, and yet most people see these traditional media entities as having a public duty to freedom of information and free speech. So why doesn’t YouTube have the same duty? Why do we complain when the New York Times hides important information, but we don’t see it as a breach of social responsibility when Facebook takes down pages with information about Syrian chemical weapon attacks, or breastfeeding videos?
There’s a clear risk to handing over much of our free-speech rights to private platforms like Facebook, or even Twitter — a risk that critics like Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices have written about. How do we know what they are removing, or why? You may agree with their decision to not show a beheading video, or to filter Google searches so that “How do I join ISIS?” doesn’t come up, but what else are they hiding from you for your own good? You don’t know.
A duty to be informed
But free speech isn’t the only reason why I think we should be pressuring YouTube and Facebook not to remove this kind of content. The second reason was summed up well by Sylvie Barak — when I asked on Twitter whether such videos should be banned. She (and several others) argued that it is our duty as citizens to be as informed as we can be about the behavior of groups like ISIS, especially when we are committing significant military resources to fighting them:
@mathewi also, during the Holocaust, many Germans claimed they "didn't know" the horrors of the death camps. With ISIS, we know.
— sylvie barak (@sylviebarak) February 4, 2015
Piers Morgan made essentially the same argument in a post he wrote about why he forced himself to watch the video of the Jordanian pilot being set on fire: he said he felt it was necessary in order to fully appreciate the barbaric nature of ISIS — something he said wouldn’t be accomplished by just reading a description of the incident. A writer with the Times of Israel made a very similar casein a piece she wrote about watching the video.
My friend Andy Carvin wrote a post recently in which he talked about wrestling with the issue of whether to link to or embed this kind of content — something he ran up against during his time reporting on the Arab Spring uprisings. Such behavior is horrific, he said, and yet there are dozens of cases in which media entities have made the decision to show similar things: naked children running from U.S. napalm attacks on Vietnam, for example, or American soldiers dead on a beach.
The argument in these cases is that there is a social duty that trumps the digust such images produce: that people need to see this kind of behavior in order to appreciate what is happening in the world — either what is being done to our citizens by others, or what we are doing to someone else. Isn’t that a duty that should apply to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube as well as the New York Times? And if not, why not? If you want to see the video in question, there’s a Fox News version here.