Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Macabre James Foley video showed how low 'new media' will go

James Foley in the video of his last moments
James Foley in the video of his last moments

Last week's decision not to show any part of the video of the murder of the hostage James Foley was widely applauded.

Indeed, as the day wore on, many other reputable news outlets took the same stance, reversing earlier decisions to screen parts of the Isis video.

Reaction from Belfast Telegraph readers in print and online was incredibly supportive – there is, in my opinion, a groundswell of opinion in times like this that the media to trust is, in fact, so-called "old media".

Yes, print and television/radio. Supposedly not as fleet of foot as "new" media. Supposedly out of touch with the new generation.

Er, no. The people who are out of touch are the social media billionaires and their eager chief executives. I felt nothing but contempt for Twitter's belated attempts to stop the showing of the Islamic State video, which reportedly showed the terrorist beginning to cut at Mr Foley's throat and then switched to his body lying on the ground with his head placed on top.

Why contempt? Because Twitter had finally – finally – realised it has crossed the line with its permissible attitude to links to beheadings and other video horrors. In fact, you can see far more horrific videos than the one featuring Mr Foley's murder.

In the James Foley case, it seems to me Twitter had begun to sense impending commercial danger if it continued to permit pathways to the video.

This is quite cynical. What difference Mr Foley's beheading as compared to that of other captives?

The difference is that Twitter knew it was courting a potential public relations and, therefore, financial disaster. Ominously, the hashtag #ISISmediablackout was trending.

The bottom line is that horrific murders should not be shown on social media.

There is no need to criminalise people who naively watch or distribute these things (although we should, of course, prosecute those who distribute with the intention to promote the commission, instigation or preparation of acts of terrorism).

So, no new laws are needed. But how, then, to deal with social media? The answer is with public, political and commercial pressure.

Facebook was stung a few years back over sickening chainsaw beheadings by Mexican narco-beasts. Search Facebook now and it's much harder to find such videos, and the Facebook community is noticing again.

This is the way forward with Twitter, Google, YouTube and the rest. When there is a compelling commercial imperative for them to block horrific videos, they will start to do so.

I am convinced there is an element of copycat in these videos that triggers further bestiality. I believe it is no coincidence that the rise in beheadings mirrors the rise in social media.

I challenge Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, Google CEO Larry Page and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to introduce proper filters and report buttons to block these horrors.

I challenge Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass to force their creations to adopt ethical practices. I challenge the social media community to recognise the role they play in spreading this cancer.

And I challenge crowd-funders to insist on ethical clauses in new social media start-ups that might try to take advantage of any change of policy.

Most of all, I challenge you, the public, to stand up and be counted.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com @BelTelReaderEd

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