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:
We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you https://t.co/jaYQBKVbBF
— dick costolo (@dickc) August 20, 2014
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:
— Nu Wexler (@wexler) August 19, 2014
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.