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Regarding James Foley, Should Twitter Decide What You See?

    August 20, 2014
    Josh Wolford
    Comments are off for this post.

Twitter is absolutely, one-hundred percent, within its right to remove whatever content they deem to be in violation of its rules and terms of service. Twitter can do this, and you’re not allowed to cry free speech! Twitter is not your government, and you are not guaranteed the right to freely express yourself on the social network. Twitter is a private company, and by using its services, you agree to play by its rules. As frustrating as this can be at time, this is a simple, and inarguable reality. Twitter can censor and remove whatever it wants.

Can. Twitter can, and Twitter has. Should is an entirely different thing. Should is what we can debate.

Should Twitter remove images and suspend accounts associated with spreading images and video of the horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley? I say no. Let’s discuss.

Should you watch members of the radical group ISIS murder James Foley? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know the answer to that and am rather torn myself. On one hand, we have an obligation to educate ourselves about what’s happening in the world – the type of brutality that permeates. Shying away from that brutality, at its most gut-wrenching expression, isn’t going to make the problem go away. James Foley died so that you could see. Don’t we owe it to him? To me, this argument resonates.

On the flip side – why? Why put yourself through something that’s beyond upsetting? I remember watching Daniel Pearl beheaded by Al-Qaeda in 2002 – do you? That, and I’m only saying this because I honestly can’t think of more apt words to describe it, was severely fucked up.

What does it change? What’s the point? Isn’t that what ISIS wants? Don’t you think they want the world to watch this video, pore over the images, and collectively recoil in horror? Shouldn’t we simply shun this propaganda?

Clearly, I’m conflicted.

But Twitter shouldn’t be conflicted about this. Twitter, whose most important reason for existing is the unfiltered spread of real-time news and information, should let me and you decide what we see.

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Early this morning, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tweeted this:

This came less than 12 hours after Twitter decided to enact a new policy concerning images of the deceased, as Twitter public policy’s Nu Wexler outlines here:

Later, in a tweet to GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, Wexler suggested that the reason for the site-wide search and destroy mission on any account posting images or videos of Foley’s execution had to do with a request from his family, per the new policy.

It’s important to note that Twitter is not being that discerning in deciding which accounts to suspend – journalists, regular users, and accounts thought to be associated with ISIS were all shut down. Some have been reinstated, some haven’t.

That new policy, enacted on Tuesday, allows the family of a deceased individual to petition Twitter to remove images “from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death.” The Foley video/images clearly satisfies this criteria.

But Twitter also says that “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.”

What could possibly be more newsworthy than these images?

FYI, Twitter’s terms of service states that “users are allowed to post content, including potentially inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service.” Twitter’s rules do not outlaw violent images. Twitter bars “direct, specific threats of violence against others,” but not simply violent content.

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There’s a movement on Twitter right now, under the hashtag #ISISmediablackout, in which people are pledging to share, link to, tweet about, or generally give any attention to ISIS’ clear attempts at propaganda. That’s a completely reasonable choice to make. Personally, I won’t be sharing the James Foley imagery.

But this is just one side of a complicated issue. Twitter, like it or not, is many people’s go-to place for the news. It’s the fastest-growing disseminator of information in the world. People rely on Twitter.

Is an image of James Foley moments before being beheaded the end all be all of new coverage? No. The story can be told without the image, and without the video. But it is newsworthy. As depraved as it is, it is a crucial element in an event that’s dominating global conversation. Twitter should let its users decide if it’s important enough to view.

The should Twitter censor offensive content question isn’t new. One could ask the same question of Facebook or YouTube, both of whom do plenty of that.

And we should ask that question of any corporation that has a huge influence on what information we see and how we see it. Should you watch James Foley’s execution? I don’t know. Do you want Twitter deciding for you? I don’t think so.

  • JH

    Of course they can and I just stopped spending money with them for doing so GFY twitter

  • Laura Hedgecock

    To add to your conflicted feelings about James Foley: He didn’t die so that we could see him die. He was killed. ISIS beheaded him in order to terrify, and presumably affect the behavior of, Americans. I don’t feel like we owe it to him to watch his horrific death. We probably owe it to him not to.

  • British American

    Who said this… “What could possibly be more newsworthy than these images?”, your a moron! Sickening, Horrific, Saddening…

  • Sean J Connolly

    Twitter needs to remember. They are not the law and they are not ABOVE the law, they are bound be the same laws governing freedom of speech just like everyone else. Problem is I reported a Twitter account for attacking anyone that was not a Muslim, yet their account is still active.

  • Mitch

    Perhaps you have chosen the wrong story to make your point. I absolutely believe that Twitter is right in banning images of James Foley, not just to respect his parents wishes but to help stem the spread of evil IS propaganda. Also, I don’t believe that anyone needs to see such images to understand the horrific nature of the terrorist’s actions.

  • Akasha Lonsdale

    I can’t believe why there is even debate around showing such images – it is horrific to say the least. People can debate all they like about how we maybe need to see first hand the barbarities of mans inhumanity to man, but as a psychotherapist I totally disagree. For many it is just an opportunity to feed morbid curiousity – just like rubber necking at a road accident. Ban away Twitter.

  • igor Griffiths

    Your last statement pretty much nails the issue on its head, we each have a personal responsibility to only watch what we can tolerate. News outlets have a responsibility to report news without editorial bias from their sponsors but deciding how graphic their reporting should remain with them, with the use of words the literate amongst us can get the idea of what occurred. A friend had a video of the Daniel Pearl beheading and I took his advice after he had watched it, not do the same, his description of what he saw was enough for me. Whether I watch the video or not makes little difference to ISIS or the family of James Foley however the fact should not be lost that consumption of the video is not as important as the magnitude of the crime committed.