Twitter may be within its rights to block ISIS beheading content, but is it right?

Twitter may be within its rights to block ISIS beheading content, but is it right?

The subject of US journalist James Foley's recent beheading is obviously a sensitive one, but Twitter's decision to suspend the account of users sharing the video made it about censorship as well as politics. As you are no doubt aware by now, Foley was kidnapped in Syria a couple of years ago, held captive, and on Tuesday a video was released by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It shows Foley kneeling on the ground, reading from a script before a masked captor draws a knife, and executes him. It is grisly, horrific, depressing, heart-wrenching, and real. It spread like wildfire across YouTube, Twitter, and countless websites, but it wasn't long before censorship was seen.

YouTube quickly removed the video, but this did not stem the flow. Copies of the video were hosted elsewhere and then posted to Twitter, as were stills from the footage. This is when Twitter stepped in. Posts containing the images or video were removed, and accounts suspended. Dick Costolo, Twitter's CEO, tweeted:

Your first reaction might well be "damn right!", even "why the hell would anyone want to see such a video, let alone share it?". These are valid reactions. But was Twitter right to act as a content gatekeeper in this instance? Of course, the simple answer is "yes". Twitter is free to dictate how its network is used in whatever way it wants. If it decided that the word "the" was banned, there would be little, if anything, that could be done about it. In signing up for a Twitter account, we have all agreed to abide by whatever terms and conditions were in place at the time, any that may be added, and to take account of any changes that may have been made to them. This may sound glib or trite, but it's true. Twitter is able to permit or ban whatever the hell it wants to on its service. But the simple answer is rarely good enough, and it certainly isn't here. There are several things to consider when thinking about possible reasons for Twitter choosing to censor the images. This is, or course, a tremendously distressing time for Foley's friends and relatives so this is one thing to take into consideration. As heartless as this might sound, the fact that a video is distressing is, in itself, not a reason to block it or suspend the associated accounts. The flipside is the good old freedom of speech argument -- what "right" does Twitter have to decide what is acceptable or to set the political agenda? The politics and actions of ISIS may be objectionable to many people, but that does not mean that the group does not have a right to a platform. There is the famous quote from Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall (no, not Voltaire himself):

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

This is the paradox of freedom of speech. If you want the freedom to be able to say whatever you want, be it online or through another medium, that freedom also has to be extended to others. Freedom of speech means that people you disagree with, people you hate, people you would prefer dead, have the same freedom as you. ISIS has a right to freedom of speech. But as I said above, Twitter is also free to control who uses its service and for what. It gets slightly more complicated, though. The content of the video could be seen as a call to arms, propaganda, or an incitement to cause violence, and this means it should be treated slightly differently perhaps. In the video, Foley is heard to say:

I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers -- the US government -- for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacent criminality.

Is this why the video was banned? Because it calls on people to rise up against the US? What was more influential in the decision to censor and suspend accounts -- the desire to stem the flow of extremist propaganda, the fact that it is a violently bloody act, or the fact that it is anti-American? If the aim was to stop people from hearing about ISIS, it clearly failed -- we are still talking about it now. The act took place. A man died in truly horrific circumstances. It should not just be swept under the carpet. This is one of the side-effects of wars, invasions, oppression, terrorism, the "war on terror" -- we cannot pretend that it doesn't happen. We need to know what is going on in the world and events such as this, appalling as they are, serve as a reminder. In the UK, police issued a statement reminding people that "viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation":

But the key words here are '"extremist" (a term which is open to interpretation), and "may".

Twitter has a responsibility to allow events to unfold without intervention. The sheer number of people using the site means that it is possible to get a fairly balanced view of what is going on in the world -- do a little research and you should be able to find supporters of every side of just about any story or argument. But for this to work, censorship just cannot happen.

It is also interesting to see how Twitter has decided to take account on this particular occasion. There have been various cases of bullying in the past where the site has refused to intervene. GigaOM points out that Twitter only seems to have taken a hard line with individuals. News outlets posting stills of the video have been left untouched, while individuals' accounts have been closed down. No explanation has been forthcoming from Twitter for this discrepancy. Was the killing of an American what it took to make Twitter prick up its ears.

Do you trust Twitter to vet and edit content for you -- or, more to the point, do you want it to? As soon as one instance of censorship, or editing, is publicized questions are raised about what else is going on that we don’t yet know about. Does Twitter have a political agenda? Should the service be seen as a medium or a publisher?

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