Disturbing Video Virality Influences Twitter Policies
August 20, 2014
August 20, 2014
A violent video posted by terrorist group Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq or ISIL) posted on YouTube Tuesday night spread like wildfire across social media. The video shows the beheading of freelance photojournalist James Wright Foley, who disappeared in northwest Syria on November 22, 2012. (This Politico article describes the video.) On Wednesday, the National Security Council said the video appears to be genuine.
About 20 minutes after posting, the video was removed from YouTube. However, prior to its removal the video and screen shots of the video were most widely shared on Twitter. As a result, late Tuesday, Twitter announced a new policy:
In order to respect the wishes of loved ones, Twitter will remove imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances. Immediate family members and other authorized individuals may request the removal of images or video of deceased individuals, from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death, by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
Not only were tweets removed but accounts were suspended. According to Mashable, Twitter has generally erred on the side of freedom of speech when it comes to policing content. It has suspended accounts only when they break any of its content rules, which include a prohibition against posting “direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
Traditionally, suspensions normally depend on other users reporting the abusive behavior. Some Twitter users were confused and even expressed anger when Twitter spokesperson told Business Insider that the New York Post's account would not be suspended for tweeting a picture of its Wednesday cover, which shows an image of Foley just moments before his death (nor that of the Daily News, which tweeted a somewhat less graphic image).
However, Twitter’s statement says: “When reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honor every request.”
Additionally, following the video’s release on Tuesday, #ISISmediablackout went viral, as Twitter users urged others not to share the video or any other graphic images released by the militant group and supported the suspension of Twitter accounts that posted the video and/or images from the video. However there were mixed reactions from Twitter accounts.
“I don't agree with #ISISMediaBlackout,” wrote Twitter user @LCplSwofford. “Sometimes people need be confronted with reality. People are more likely to care when there's images.”
“Don’t share ISIS’s beheading video of journalist #jamesfoley,” Twitter user @WajahatAli wrote. “That’s what they want – don’t give them the satisfaction #ISISmediaBlackout”
Is there a middle ground in Twitter’s new policy debate and the #ISISmediaBlackout discussion? Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Del Harvey promised that Twitter would expand “our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and [improve] support for family members of deceased users.” With such a disturbing and sad story surrounding Twitter’s new policy it’s hard to say whether there’s a way to please those who want newsworthy information with appealing images but also wish to respect those who are grieving.
The discussion brings up the subject of ethics in the communications field. Of course newsworthy stories should be told and shared, but is it ethical to show such a disturbing video or image with the story? I would argue that in defense of James Foley and his family, an image from the video that does not show such a horrifying moment could be used while being respectful to the family and conveying the same message that the New York Post and other news sources were attempting to convey.