Following the apparent execution of American journalists James Foley and more recently Steven Sotloff by the militant group Islamic State (IS), Twitter has said it will remove distressing images and videos at the request of immediate family members.
A video showing the apparent beheading of the journalist has featured on news sites world wide following the promotion and circulation of the video online. Twitter has responded to calls for this and other images to be taken down by stating that it would remove images “from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death” but only after it had taken into account the public interest of any content, warning that it may not agree to all removal requests.
It is understood that since video footage of the executions emerged , the White House has contacted various social media sites seeking their consent to remove the images.
What amounts to censorship?
Current concerns once again raise important questions about regulation, censorship and freedom of speech and expression. No matter how horrific the images are, it may be claimed that they are newsworthy and in the public interest. It seems that it is currently in the hands of the social media platform to assess and determine what is in the public interest and what should remain private, regardless of the wishes of close family and friends.
Twitter has indicated that it takes its power very seriously. Indeed, the social media giant’s vice president of trust and safety, Del Harvey, said: “We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter. We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.”
Whether Twitter is or should be acting at the request of the White House, of grieving family members or the press will be a question which I suspect will not be resolved in the short term. There is little doubt that social media sites give a platform for militant and extremist organisations to push their agenda and promote propoganda, but until formal regulation is put in place, it seems that the public appetite for instant news will do little to persuade providers to curb users in what they post online.
For now, the current clampdown by Twitter has forced IS to turn to lesser known platform Diaspora to host it’s content, appearing to have set up a number of accounts on the site which have been promoted and shared by followers through their personal social media accounts. This could be a case where if one outlet is blocked, several more take it’s place, causing a problem not only for social networks but also for the security and policing services.