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Here’s why platforms like YouTube shouldn’t remove ISIS videos

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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.

Papers with 'I am Charlie' displayed are left near candles at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
Papers with ‘I am Charlie’ displayed are left near candles at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

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:

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.

17 Responses to “Here’s why platforms like YouTube shouldn’t remove ISIS videos”

  1. Bad Frog Sad Shocker

    You are full of shit, you terrorist scumbag. Murder is not speech. Rape is not speech. Speech is ideas. These are actions. Crimes. You’re either in league with terrorists or have no problem making money defending their practices, so I sincerely, truly hope you take a journalistic to over there and end up with you head on the ground for their next display. At least then they can claim they had a willing subject.

  2. What a stupid article. It has nothing to do with free speech. People can express views without creating a snuff film. People don’t become more informed by watching such videos.

    • Marvin Spencer

      That’s a bit of a distortion don’t you think? It’s proof that one’s perspective changes when they see first hand a threat is rather than hearing it from word of mouth. If I walked to you and said that Sudanese’s children are starving and under a genocidal terrorist group. You would respond by being concerned and later shrugged it off. But if I showed you the nightmares these people go through everyday I’m sure it would significantly change your perspective.

  3. Why take them down?
    Because THEY WANT THEM UP.
    It helps them recruit more followers.
    We can totally live without “freedom of speech” when it comes to these animals.

  4. Gooby Gaberer

    I’m from #Gamergate right, so when I recognize the name “Mathew Ingram” at the start of the article, my first thought is: “Goodness me Mr. Ingram, you’re not pro- free speech. You’re pro- narrative. When it suits you to be.” So I went back and checked his “Gamergate: A lightning rod for violence” article, and I have to say… while I don’t agree with the bloke, he *has* afforded us a right of reply. You’d be surprised how many journalists don’t do that. I expected the comments section to be full of “This comment has been deleted.” That isn’t the case, and I’m quite impressed.

    The thing is though… A video by itself doesn’t say much. You need independent verification. Quotes from qualified people in the field – to prove to me that the video is real, and that the people in it are who you’re claiming they are. I trust no journalist beyond what I can independently verify, you see. Because they lie. They lie chronically, because speed is more profitable than accuracy in the world of news. Most will (when people try to hold them to account) then even try to cover it up rather than admit that they were wrong.

    So I suspect that Fox News for example did it in the interest of profit and gratuity, rather than for the sake of accurate reporting. You can call me overly cynical for thinking that but again; you’d be surprised how often cynicism is accurate.

  5. Bryan Popka

    Both of these reasons are foolish.
    1. One of the qualifications of Freedom of speech is that it is an act of communication which does no physical harm to an individual or group. Nursing someone in video doesn’t meet that qualification by any means.
    2. Reading an article or watching a news report describing the incident fully accomplishes the “keeping people informed” argument without publishing the video itself. I don’t think you could argue that, “you need to watch the video to be fully informed about what happened.”

    The reason Fox News published the video is because they new it would draw traffic to their site, plain and simple. The chose a few extra advertising dollars over respect for the victims family and not enabling a terrorist organization.

    • Hank Uhl

      You exhibit the very “head-buried-in-the-sand” philosophy that Piers Morgan and this writer are conveying… and I hate Piers Morgan, but in this particular case, I agree with him. Images left in your memory of a man burning alive will leave a far greater impression than words on a page. That was the reason I watched it. I knew I’d be offended by such barbaric images, but ISIS, and other groups like them are no different than other groups and/or governments that carried our their own form of genocide. ISIS just isn’t on that level yet, and hopefully never will be. I see nothing wrong with wanting to see videos like this for yourself. Did Fox news have freedom of speech in mind when they posted the video, of course not, but don’t let their political and financial motivations keep you from seeing the video with your own two eyes and judging for yourself what ISIS is capable of.

  6. Art Graham

    So, given the same set of rules, should executions be videoed and put in the media, instead of closing the curtain except for those present. There have to be boundaries of civility that don’t encroach on first amendment rights. And not call it censorship.

  7. Niclas Johansson

    Wow. Logically, both arguments stated here could be applied on “showing child porn in media” as well. How are these ISIS atrocities LESS beyond the pale then child porn? Witnessing anything like that is simply too far away from what can be included in the human experience without a piece of your soul/humanity being irretrievably lost. Just my five cents.

    • Thomas Brierley

      Straw man…

      For instance, say i want to voice my opinion on how the introduction of a certain species of vicious squirrels to a particular country has resulted in an increase on the attacks of small children by squirrels. I also want to voice my opinion on how ISIS are evil and inhuman and cite this video as evidence to support my opinion.

      Also regardless of whether or not the general public consider their opinion valid… it if they commit an atrocity and everyone else things they are inhuman bastards, then it’s good thing that they got to say or somehow communicate those terrible things (their freedom of speech)… otherwise how would we know?

  8. They react to public pressure,they don’t have any principles. Nobody complains about a plane crash posted on Youtube even if hundreds of people die in it. It’s about money and sometimes politics.
    Maybe someone should sue them ,force them to have clear rules and set a precedent., take it out of their hands.