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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT