Twitter and YouTube moved quickly on Tuesday -- but with decidedly mixed results -- to suspend accounts that linked to a jihadi propaganda video purporting to show the murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamist terrorists. The crackdown provided a vivid example of the pressure on social media companies to police violent terrorist propaganda, but at the same time it showed the difficulty they have in stopping individuals intent on spreading violent images and rhetoric.
The video, which shows a member of the Islamic State beheading Foley, appeared on YouTube shortly after 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time. Within minutes, Twitter users were noting the video's existence, and many people encouraged others not to share the video or post any links to it. The video was reportedly produced by al-Furqan Media, the official news outlet for the Islamic State, which formerly used the acronym ISIS.
Less than an hour after the video was first posted to YouTube, the company removed it. But the same video was soon posted by a different YouTube user, and it remained accessible for at least another half an hour. The company eventually removed the video from the user's account, but it didn't suspend the account itself, and within minutes, the user had posted it again. Twitter suspended the user's account after he included a link to the video in his feed. Foreign Policy is not linking to the video or to accounts posting it.
The Foley case highlights how Twitter and YouTube, two of the most widely used social media platforms on the planet, are increasingly finding themselves on the front lines of a war against the shadowy militants who have proved increasingly adept at using social media to disseminate gruesome videos of killings and mutilations as a way of recruiting new followers and raising more money. At a briefing for reporters last week, U.S. intelligence officials said Islamic State supporters managed thousands of Twitter accounts that translated the group's propaganda into German, Indonesian, and Russian, as well as English.
But the social media companies are fighting a losing battle. They depend on users to flag offensive content or material that violates their terms of service -- videos of murder undoubtedly do -- but they don't proactively police the photos, videos, and messages posted to their sites. The companies also have to determine whether posting violent rhetoric or messages constitutes promoting terrorists' messages or is an act of free speech, and the distinction is not always clear.
In response to how social media companies responded to the video of Foley, who disappeared in Syria in 2012, a Twitter spokesperson cited the company's policy of removing "imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances." The spokesperson didn't elaborate on whether Twitter made that decision when suspending users who were linking to the video.
A spokesperson for YouTube, who also didn't elaborate on the company's actions with regards to the Foley video, said the company "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." YouTube also terminates any account registered by a member of a designated foreign terrorist organization, the spokesperson said.
In the video showing Foley's murder, the Islamic State threatened to kill another journalist, Steven Sotloff, unless U.S. President Barack Obama met the group's unspecific demands. (The Foley video strongly condemns recent U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.) Sotloff, who went missing in Syria in August 2013, has written for numerous publications, including Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Foreign Policy, including two dispatches from Syria. One, from December 2012, chronicled the toll that the civil war was taking on civilians in Aleppo. Another, published in January 2013, reported on thousands of Syrians displaced by the fighting and living in a makeshift tent city.
Twitter's response to news of the Foley killing -- which was shared widely and swiftly on the platform -- appears to have had unintended consequences, as when the company briefly suspended the account of a journalist reporting on Foley's death. That contradicted Twitter's policy of not suspending accounts that tweet or comment on violent propaganda for journalistic purposes or in the process of news gathering. The journalist, Zaid Benjamin, is the Washington correspondent for Radio Sawa and appeared to be the first reporter to note that the Foley video was online. He tweeted numerous messages analyzing the video and responded to questions from followers. Benjamin also showed still images of the video, but not the moment of Foley's death. Benjamin also didn't link to the video itself.
After his account was reinstated, Benjamin reported that he lost 30,000 followers during the time he was blocked from the social media site. Benjamin told Foreign Policy that he received no explanation from Twitter for his suspension. A spokesperson for the company, when asked, didn't provide one.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the White House said that U.S. intelligence agencies are "working as quickly as possible" to determine the Foley video's authenticity. "If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We will provide more information when it is available," the spokesperson said.
Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images