Future Tense

Did Twitter and YouTube Make the Right Call in Suppressing Images of James Foley’s Beheading?

Support buttons from a 2013 Free James Foley event.

Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Footage of the ISIS murder of journalist James Foley swept social media on Tuesday afternoon, with Twitter as a ready source of screenshots and links to the video, which documents the beginning and immediate aftermath of Foley’s beheading. Early Wednesday morning, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tweeted, “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you.” 

When big news breaks, Twitter converts from a social forum to a news service, and the company’s decisions have a direct impact on what kind of information users can access. By quashing the images and footage, is Twitter refusing to participate in the spread of violent propaganda that could incentivize future acts and videos like this one? Or is Twitter keeping many people who use the site as a news source from seeing what’s really going on? Or both? And as a technology company, is Twitter equipped to make decisions usually left to trained journalists? (Of course, journalists struggle with these questions at times, too.)

Twitter won’t comment on the decision beyond pointing to its policy on “removal of certain imagery,” which states:

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 … when reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content.

The language allows for Twitter to deny a request if footage of a death is newsworthy, which it certainly is in the case of Foley’s murder. But Twitter apparently feels that other factors outweigh the news value. And between the graphic nature of the footage, the emotional toll it will take on anyone who sees it—to say nothing of Foley’s family and friends—and the risk of implicating itself in ISIS’ grotesque propaganda scheme, there’s plenty of public interest factors for Twitter to choose from, though currently the company isn’t elaborating on which are at play in its decision.

Many Twitter users who saw the beheading video on Tuesday were clicking on links from YouTube, which has also acted to take down any footage of Foley’s murder. “YouTube has clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech, and incitement to commit violent acts, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users,” a YouTube spokesperson told me over email. “We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and used in an official capacity to further its interests.”

Regardless of why Twitter and YouTube are suppressing the images, many agree with the choice, as expressed through the #ISISMediaBlackout hashtag:

Tulane law professor and former journalist Amy Gajda defines Twitter as a “conduit” for information, not a news organization. “In my mind, Twitter is making an ethics call,” she says, “and that ethics call is very similar to one that Slate might make—if a commenter decides to publish a really heinous photograph, you would very likely take it down immediately, even though you probably wouldn’t need to legally. I suspect that that’s what Twitter is doing as well—responding to its own internal sense of ethics.”

Kelly McBride, co-editor of The New Ethics of Journalism and vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute, thinks that because social media services are so young, they may not yet have clearly established core values for their companies. Those “who run Twitter and Facebook and YouTube have the power to make information disappear,” McBride says. “They think they are using that power for good, but I don’t know that they’ve thought through the democratic implications of it. I can see why, obviously, you wouldn’t put [the ISIS] video on the nightly news, or publish photos of it in your newspaper. But you also wouldn’t make the evidence of the existence of it disappear.”

Robert Hernandez, a professor at the USC Annenberg journalism school and co-founder of open- and crowd-sourced journalism discussion #wjchat, said that Twitter’s stand on the Foley images has placed it on a slippery slope toward moderating everything. “If I ran Twitter, I wouldn’t have done this,” he said. “Whether you allow it or not, it’s on the Internet. Whether you admit it or not, there are people in our community who want to see it. It’s a tricky precedent.” But Hernandez adds, “Bottom line: Their product, their rules, and if we don’t like it, we go elsewhere.”