Skip to main content

Beheading video poses challenge for social media

By David Weinberger
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Video of ISIS beheading U.S. journalist James Foley appears on social media
  • David Weinberger: Twitter and YouTube can post anything they want
  • He says private websites have no obligation to support free speech
  • Weinberger: But since Twitter is a hub for debates, it has more duty to the public

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- At first glance, it seems obvious -- of course Twitter and YouTube have the right to take down a video showing the American journalist, James Foley, being beheaded. The question is why taking it down is controversial at all. The answer, I think, shows how important services like Twitter have become, and how this has thrust unexpected responsibilities onto them.

Twitter and YouTube both have rules telling users what they can and cannot post, even though the volume of material they deal with necessarily means they're inconsistent in the application of those rules. YouTube's community guidelines go beyond saying that you can't post "bad stuff" that's against the law, "like animal abuse, drug abuse, under-age drinking and smoking, or bomb making." The site also won't let you post legal content that depicts "graphic or gratuitous violence."

Twitter's rules are more minimal, explicitly forbidding only porn in your profile photos, threats and harassment, and spam. But, if Twitter wants to add a new rule in response to a grotesquely violent posting, it's perfectly within its rights to do so.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

That's because YouTube and Twitter are private websites. They don't have to post anything they don't want to. You'd feel the same way if you set up a site for people to post photos of their pets and someone started feeding it pictures of animals being beheaded.

Private sites have no obligation to support free speech. Free speech in America means the government can't tell you what not to say in public. If you don't like a private website's rules, go somewhere else on the Web or start your own site. That's how it works and it's how it should work.

Was the ISIS militant a British citizen?
Parents: Foley 'had a big heart'
American beheaded by terror group ISIS

And yet, it feels different for sites the size of Twitter and YouTube than for a little pet photos site. Our society has higher aspirations for free speech than that the government not censor us. We want a robust, vibrant public sphere in which ideas of every sort are welcomed and debated. And now we have the Internet, the greatest venue for free speech in human history.

Would you watch the video?

Sort of. Yes, anyone can talk on the Internet. We're no longer held back by the limited real estate of a daily newspaper or by the judgment of an editorial board. But talking on the Internet is like shouting into the ocean unless you find a place where there are lots of people ready to listen.

YouTube and Twitter are just such places. Not everyone will hear you, but your voice may not be totally drowned out, for these sites also provide ways for friends to connect with one another and with others who share their interests.

That makes sites like Twitter and YouTube especially important to our society. Their special role comes from what's known as "the network effect" -- they gain value simply from the fact that there are so many people there. This also makes them difficult to replace, because it would require masses of people to move to a new site that at its start has very few people there to speak with.

With a great network effect comes great responsibility.

Opinion: What is ISIS hoping its abhorrent beheading video will achieve?

We look to Twitter for special care in handling content fairly not only because free speech needs sites with lots of people, but also because Twitter has begun to play a unique and remarkable role in the ecosystem of news so important to informing us as citizens.

In one sense, Twitter is just a distribution system for news, most of which has first appeared on a professional news site. But, as the tweets from Ferguson have shown, it has also become the leading platform where news breaks before it gets picked up by the professional media. Twitter's stream of tweets is not only an amazing pool of eyewitness accounts of the sort compiled by journalists in their research, it is also a contextualized, socially refined end product.

This puts a special responsibility on Twitter to accept some of the norms of journalism. Twitter is not a news site, but if it were caught removing conservative or liberal tweets, there would be a firestorm for violating a prime journalistic ethic. Twitter has been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, it did not ask for.

Removing accounts responsible for propagating a video of the political murder of a journalist does not violate that trust; the national news sites also are not linking to that video. But the fact that we even wonder about Twitter's social and journalistic responsibilities shows how deeply the Internet has transformed our social and media ecosystems.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT