What, if anything, do James Foley’s beheading video and Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nudes have in common?
When an Isis fighter beheaded James Foley on camera and the organization proceeded to spread the video on social media, the world reeled in shock and terror. Social media sites attempted to remove the video as quickly as it was shared, and major news organisations chose to not play it. At the start of September, Isis released another video, this time showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff. Then, David Haines, a British citizen aid worker from Salford, was murdered. On October 4th, Alan Henning, another voluntary aid worker, was the next victim.
The radical fundamentalist group Isis has been making headlines for months due to its on-going campaign across Syria and Iraq, with its ultimate goal to form a caliphate across Iraq (although the exact boundaries of this caliphate are unclear). The videos are always attacking the values of the west – Foley’s video was in retaliation for the deaths of innocent Muslims in Iraq, and the most recent video of Alan Henning was a response to the UK’s decision to launch airstrikes against the group in Iraq.
If the truth is violent and horrible, why should that change how the media disseminate information?
Under the UK’s terrorism laws, viewing any of these videos is considered a crime. At the same time, though, Isis has always published pictures and videos of their militants in the act of murder, and some of these pictures are embedded within many articles relating to Isis. Similarly, during the worst of the Palestine-Israel conflict this summer, gory photos and videos of rockets being launched were shared on social media repeatedly, sometimes by IDF soldiers. There is reportedly an account on Instagram owned by Kurdish militia forces that posts pictures of the dead bodies of captured Isis fighters. If terrorism laws prevent us from watching the Isis videos, is it fair to say that these lives are somehow more important than those on the ‘other side’ who sometimes were murdered in the same cold blood?
Is the role of the media not to present to the population the truth about what happens in the world? If the truth is violent and horrible, why should that change how the media disseminate information?
Conversely, though, it’s part of human nature to want to protect our own. As such, these images of British citizens hit closer to home than other images might, and therefore shock us more. The media’s job is to provide pertinent information to the public. The barbaric video itself is unnecessary to convey the news. After all, the videos are still accessible, just not on YouTube or media websites – as we all know, if it exists, it’s somewhere on the internet.
In comparing Foley’s and Sotloff’s deaths, Foley’s received more coverage because it was twinned with the controversy surrounding the video. Once it was settled that news organisations would not play the video and only show the most benign of stills from them, Sotloff’s, Haines’s, and Henning’s videos received the same treatment. The sites that previously worked to remove Foley’s video from the internet were poised for the same action the second time around.
The media’s job is to provide pertinent information to the public. The barbaric video itself is unnecessary to convey the news.
Twitter, YouTube, and the countless other social media platforms available today do have the right to edit the content published on their websites, if it violates the terms and conditions that all users must agree to before opening an account. However, almost by definition the internet is a place where the lines about what should and should not be shared are drawn in the sand. The truth is the ethics of free speech on the internet will always be in debate.
In fact, one of the primary tensions of modern times is the human desire for privacy in the wake of the open, uncontrolled, and widespread nature of the internet. In just two recent examples, hackers tapped into the photos of several female actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, and unleashed their private nude pictures on 4chan. Robin Williams’ (fake) autopsy photos were released on Twitter and the details of his death were shared constantly and widely.
But the 4chan leaks also present a similar ethical concern. Since they are non-consensually shared, they constitute not only a breach of privacy but also an act of sexual violation. Morally speaking, this is reprehensible, but it’s easy to forget about morals and how your actions will affect others when you’re online.
Isis’ videos, perhaps the most visually shocking, inhabit the grey space between news and all-out gore. When is information in fact too much information? There isn’t a definition, but it’s been collectively assumed that the videos are simply too much.
Are we, as a society, more comfortable knowing less about the horrors of the world, or is social media abolishing the traditional concept of privacy in lieu of a more desensitised vision of the world? The verdict is not out – but sooner or later the issue will need to be dealt with directly.
Featured image credit: Brian Katt/Wikipedia