Was Twitter Right in Removing James Foley’s Beheading Video?

In 2014, ISIS released a video of them beheading American Journalist James Foley on YouTube. The video followed the regular module of such terrorist shot threats, with a kidnapped victim becoming the mouthpiece for what the terrorists have to say, reading their words into the screen before she/he is brutally murdered.

Several news sites, including CNN, decided not to air the video, although they reported on it. Twitter was then full of people posting the video and tweeting about it, calling out the brutality of the video. Soon, public opinion seemed to call for taking down the images of the beheading and the video itself. The CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, said that, “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you.” Soon, and following Foley’s family’s wishes, Twitter had removed all traces of the video.

While Twitter followed what a huge number of its users asked for, and respected the wishes of the Foley family, was the removal of the video the right decision that Twitter took?

Looking at Twitter’s policy, it’s evident that the platform has “content boundaries” concerning graphic imagery. “You may not use pornographic or excessively violent media in your profile image or header image. Twitter may allow some forms of graphic content in Tweets marked as sensitive media. When content crosses the line into gratuitous images of death, Twitter may ask that you remove the content out of respect for the deceased.”

Twitter is a platform whose slogan is “Twitter. It’s What’s Happening.” Twitter frames itself as a soapbox platform that allows all users to equally participate in worldwide conversations. Aside from algorithmic issues, this seems to be the way the website has functioned, or rather, is believed to function. However, with censorship being allowed, doesn’t this threaten the freedom of speech boasted by the site? How can outer elements not intervene with what voices are heard, and what voices aren’t? How can big owners of the site who benefit from certain narratives becoming the dominant discourse be stopped from controlling these narratives?

The small voices that may go against the mainstream are the voices most affected by media’s right to censor certain content, unchallenged. Twitter is supposed to be comprised entirely of people’s contributions, uncensored, and these contributions are either spread further through other Tweeters’ attention to them. If a Tweet doesn’t follow what these people agree with, then it won’t get the attention it needs to spread. In other words, if content truly goes against ideals held by users, it can only spread so far. Rather than having a top-down system of censorship, Twitter can self-monitor in a more horizontal way. This issue can be easily compared to what happens in the real world, voices that scream out opinions that don’t ring with the people, won’t be amplified by the people. On another hand, voices that show what the people think and challenge common ideals in a thought-provoking and interesting way are amplified and repeated for ages, whether they are popular or not. (The case of radical thought that was subversive at the time, such as the case of Malcom X).

Emotional trauma that may be caused by people viewing the video is the main reason behind banning it, and can easily be avoided through flagging graphic content so users would know before viewing it. As for the idea of becoming terrorist groups’ mouthpiece, the world’s news reporting on the video or showing it makes no difference, as people are aware of their ideals and the fact that it’s happening. News sites’ job is arguably to show audiences the most transparent possible image of the world, and that image is sadly full of graphic and violent content. Sheltering audiences from these images is a naïve attempt to control an uncontrollable flow of information.

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