Beheading Video Stirs Debate On Social Media Censorship

Aug 26, 2014
Originally published on August 28, 2014 8:43 am
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And another major story in the news has set off a debate, in this case over censorship and whether images are ever too graphic to be distributed by news outlets or shared by individuals on social media. We're talking about the video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley by Islamist militants.

The New York Post was widely criticized for running a still image of the moment before Foley was killed on its front page. YouTube quickly removed the video after militants posted it. Twitter briefly suspended the accounts of those who shared it. And we tried to sort out some of these questions with Robert Hernandez. He's a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication. And he draws a distinction between a news organization like the New York Post and a social media platform like Twitter.

ROBERT HERNANDEZ: From a journalist's perspective, I'm against censorship of any kind, right? As an American journalist, freedom of speech is the First Amendment - my job is covered by the First Amendment. And I don't want any government or industry to censor what I can and cannot say to my community in my attempt to ethically inform them. I do believe Twitter and others being proactive about censoring this information start to engage in a slippery slope. And they're framing themselves, at least with this particular case, as a proactive editor determining what is good or bad for their users. And that again, for me as a journalist, makes me uncomfortable.

GREENE: Let me just make sure I understand this because it seems like a very important point - you're saying the New York Post, they are journalists; they made the decision on their own. You might say that it was a bad decision, but it was a news organization, a publisher, so to speak, making a decision about what to publish. Twitter, in the eyes of many of us, you know, is a platform for us to share. And that's a different thing for them to censor you or I or other people in terms of what we want to share or not.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I would look at it as if the printing press operators decided that they wanted to censor the New York Post, right? That's if we view Twitter as a platform. Printing press operators wouldn't shape a newspaper. Those that are running the antennas for radio stations and satellites, they're not censoring or editing our content.

GREENE: Some have suggested that by allowing this video to be available, it is helping ISIS - these militants - spread their propaganda. What do you make of the argument someone would say that might hurt people if we're allowing this group to get their propaganda, you know, a wider reach?

HERNANDEZ: The reality is these organizations are really sophisticated with their propaganda, and this is just one video of many different types of strategies that they employ. And that's one group. And there are other groups domestically, from militias to neo-Nazis, that are also creating content and putting it out there in the world.

Viewing a video, I feel like you need to make that decision. You need to make that decision. The government shouldn't make that decision for you. A tech company shouldn't make it for you. Even if I was running the New York Post and I chose not to put that on the front page, you as a member of a community have the freedom to go Google it and look it up yourself. But for me to block you from it, to me, at least as a journalist, I think that's wrong.

GREENE: Let me ask - I mean, in the United States, the government regulates child pornography on the Internet, for example. I mean, is that a dangerous slippery slope?

HERNANDEZ: Well, now we're going to get into different gray areas, and everything could be a slippery slope depending on where you draw a line. I can only draw my own line. And I think that child pornography is different from the things of war.

Let me give you an example; if we were to have a technology company censoring images from the Vietnam War, think of the iconic images that would be censored and blanked. And these are the images that changed the tone, the country, the direction of that war. I think of the iconic image of the nude, young girl running and crying away from a scene. What would we classify that as? Would we sensor that because someone would be offended by it? I, as a journalist, want to make that decision.

I mean, the law is not blanket free speech. Hate speech and certain types of speech have been blocked. This one here is not the government censoring. This is a tech company that is censoring. Now, again, it's their platform. It's their rules. But it is something to be aware of. It's something different.

GREENE: Professor Hernandez, thanks so much for joining us on the program. We appreciate you talking about this.

HERNANDEZ: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Robert Hernandez teaches at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.