Beheading videos: Would you watch?
- James Foley seen with the terrorist who later beheaded him. (ABC News file photo)
News organizations have grappled with these kinds of questions for decades. Now, with the prevalence of social media, website operators and ordinary Internet users face the same question.
When ISIS published videos showing the murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff, most Western news outlets shunned the goriest portion of the videos but chose to show still photos from the minutes before the beheadings.
Some commentators urged news outlets to exercise even more restraint and refrain from using the photos at all.
That same dynamic has played out on Twitter and Facebook, as well. As some users shared photos and links to the videos, others exhorted them to share earlier photos of Foley's and Sotloff's lives and links to examples of their reporting work instead. It's almost as if users were collectively developing their own sets of standards.
Kelly Foley, a cousin of Foley, wrote on Twitter, "Don't watch the video. Don't share it. That's not how life should be."
But there's a big difference between individual user decisions and institutional decisions by Twitter and YouTube. For the Web sites, blocking objectionable content is a form of editing.
The slickly-produced, high-definition video of Foley was originally uploaded to YouTube, but was taken off the site within a matter of hours. YouTube also sought to take down duplicates whenever they were posted.
A YouTube representative said the site, owned by Google, has "clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users."
"We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and used in an official capacity to further its interests," the representative added.
Videos of ISIS executions are still accessible through other sites, however. One such site, LiveLeak, said it recently has been "experiencing an abnormally high volume of traffic."
Twitter is facing similar issues -- and a tremendous amount of pressure from its users about the balancing act between freedom of expression and basic human decency.
"We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery," Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo said.
It's all amounting to a particularly grotesque version of whack-a-mole. At one point after the Foley execution, simply tweeting the word "beheading" resulted in replies from spam accounts that attached a photo of Foley's severed head. Twitter briefly suspended the account of a journalist who shared photos of the beheading, but reinstated it later.
Most American news organizations - including ABC7 and NewsChannel 8 - have not aired the be heading videos on television or online, but have shown stills from the minutes before the beheadings.
"It's news that the executioner's accent may offer a hint about his identity," CNN anchor Jonathan Mann said of his network's decision-making.
"It's news that may change what governments and armies do next. It's news that other journalists will spread... and that social media will spread without any journalists involved, no matter what we do. It's news that extremists wanted us all to spread... and they killed a man, at least in part, so that we'd do it."
Mann added, "What should we do? We thought about it, and we hope we made the right choice."
The tabloid New York Post newspaper decided to go further than most, when it recently published on its front page a frame from the video that showed a terrorist beginning to cut into Foley's head. The newspaper headline read: "SAVAGES."
Some Internet users subsequently suggested that the Post's Twitter account should be suspended, too.
The horrific case revived long-running debates about whether news coverage of a terrorist act gives the terrorists the publicity they seek. Many Internet users' arguments against showing even still images from the Foley or Sotloff videos cited the propaganda value of the videos.
One of the counter arguments is that people should see -- must see -- the atrocities.
Some of the same debates took place in 2002, after al Qaeda extremists beheaded the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and published the video on the Internet.
Steve Goldstein, who was the head of corporate communications for the Journal at the time, said he had to "urge the networks not to run the video." In these recent cases, he said, "it's good to see that the networks are acting so responsibly in this case by refusing to show this barbaric action."