The Complex

Social Media Companies Scramble to Block Terrorist Video of Journalist's Murder

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

The Complex

Hagel Taps Former Senate Aide to Lead Pentagon Front Office

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has selected Rexon Ryu as his new chief of staff, picking a former trusted aide over someone from inside the building with deep Pentagon experience, Foreign Policy has learned.

Ryu, who was U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Samantha Power’s deputy, worked for Hagel during his Senate days. Ryu starts in the Defense secretary’s front office later this week, fully taking over for Chief of Staff Mark Lippert by Labor Day. In picking Ryu, Hagel chose someone with whom he has a close bond, even if it may take Ryu, who doesn't have Pentagon experience, some time to navigate the Pentagon’s massive bureaucracy.

Ryu was one of three known candidates to replace Lippert, whose nomination to become ambassador to South Korea is pending in the Senate. When Leon Panetta was Defense secretary, he brought Jeremy Bash with him from the CIA to be his top staffer. Bash didn't necessarily know the Pentagon but his relationship with his boss was seen as the key to his success. Robert Gates, on the other hand, chose Robert Rangel, a Defense Department veteran with whom he had no personal ties. Hagel is clearly settling on someone he knows and trusts.

This will be Hagel’s third chief of staff in 18 months: Marcel Lettre was Hagel’s first right-hand man but only served briefly and in an acting capacity until Hagel picked Lippert, an Asia policy expert with close ties to President Barack Obama. But it is Ryu's long relationship with Hagel -- he was a Hagel Senate aide for nearly a decade -- that is considered one of his biggest strengths.

"Rexon is a great choice," said John Lettieri, who was Ryu's Senate deputy and who called him an "outstanding human being" in an email to FP. Ryu is "deeply familiar" with interagency and national security processes and players, Lettieri said. "He knows the Hill, and most importantly, he understands the way the secretary thinks and meshes well with his leadership style…. He's one of the few people who can hit the ground running in this position."

As a manager, Ryu is known for playing it straight. “He establishes clear expectations and sets the tone with a relentless work ethic,” Lettieri said. “People trust him as a professional -- there's no gamesmanship.”

Between 2009 and 2010, Ryu was director of the National Security Council’s nonproliferation section. He focused on Asia and the Middle East, and North Korea and Iran in particular, according to his bio. He led Susan Rice’s confirmation team when she was nominated as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; and between 2005 and 2009, Ryu was Hagel’s deputy chief of staff and senior foreign-policy advisor. Before that, he held various positions at the State Department, including postings in Cairo and Jerusalem. He also worked for Richard Armitage when he was deputy secretary of state.

"I am greatly looking forward to having Rexon Ryu back on my senior leadership team. He is a proven talent when it comes to working with the interagency, Congress, and outside groups and he will be a tremendous asset to the Defense Department," Hagel said in a statement to FP, noting that he recruited Ryu for some time. "[I] have long relied on his counsel and wise perspective on national security matters."

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns also spoke highly of Ryu.

“Rexon is one of the smartest and most promising public servants of his generation," Burns said in an email to FP, noting that Ryu is "remarkably versatile" given his Hill, State Department, National Security Council, and U.N. experiences. "He has excellent policy judgment, and is universally respected for both his professional skill and personal decency," Burns wrote.

Wendy Anderson and Elissa Slotkin were also in the running to lead Hagel’s staff. Anderson, who was chief of staff for Ash Carter when he was deputy defense secretary and worked in Hagel's front office, was considered the frontrunner. But Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker plucked Anderson from the Pentagon to be her chief of staff. Slotkin, meanwhile, whose formal title is "performing the duties of the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy," is seen as more of a policy expert. She is now the leading candidate to replace Derek Chollet as assistant secretary of defense for international affairs, a key policy job within the Pentagon. Chollet departs that post in January, as FP previously reported.

The transition could start this week, as Lippert is presumably moving to Habib House in Seoul. The Senate hasn’t signed off on his ambassadorship but is expected to this fall. Although he’s never worked in the building, Ryu steps into the Pentagon already knowing people like the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office’s Jamie Morin, the Pentagon policy shop’s Brian McKeon, and Comptroller Mike McCord.

A senior defense official tells FP that Ryu will focus on obvious issue "buckets" such as the Islamic State, Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea, as well as budget and other Veterans Affairs Department-related matters. The Defense Department’s ongoing effort to digitize its health records of military personnel will also be on his plate. And the Asia pivot is still a key priority for Hagel.

"He wants to continue to play a leadership role in the pivot," a senior defense official told FP.

Bill Clark/Roll Call/(Getty Images)