Bennett Haselton writes After footage of James Foley's beheading by ISIS terrorists was posted online on Tuesday, Twitter and Youtube elected to remove any footage or links to the footage posted by users. Obviously this reduces the incentive for terrorist groups to post such content, by shrinking their audience, but it also reduces the public's access to information. Would it be ethical to make the content available, if it was preceded by an advertisement for a cause that runs counter to everything ISIS stands for? Read below to see what Bennett has to say.
This Slate article by Lily Hay Newman summarizes the pros and cons of Twitter's and Youtube's decision to remove the footage. (Interestingly, note that the quotes in favor of censoring the images all came from average users, while the arguments against censoring the content, were quotations from respected journalism experts.) In addition to agreeing more with the anti-censorship arguments, I've also felt that for a news organization to tell their readers, "We have elected not to publish the link," smacks of elitism -- because certainly they feel that they are entitled to view the video in the course of their research. If a group of journalists in a news office were working together to find the video online, and one of them announced to the room, "Well, I've found the link, but I've made a decision not to share it with the rest of you," they would rightly be fired. But when the same journalists announce they're not going to share the link with the rest of us, that's considered an ethics call.
But that's in a simple binary choice between publishing and not publishing the content. Suppose you had the option of posting the video, preceded by a (non-skippable) message exhorting users to donate to the Red Cross, or some other organization that was either fighting ISIS directly, or mitigating the damage they're doing? (And then if users post links to the video at any other source, then rather than suspending those users' accounts or removing the content outright, Twitter and Youtube could mandate that users link instead to the PSA-prepended version.)
If this sounds idiotic at first, I'm not suggesting just taking the average banal Red Cross PSA and splicing it in at the beginning, followed by the execution video. The Red Cross could (hastily) record an announcement specifically addressing the situation, reminding people of the similar brutalities that are being committed every day, and the need for support and help. Attempting to secure permission from the victim's family would be a good idea too. To avoid accusations that the Red Cross was attempting to "profit" from the tragedy, any funds raised via a direct prompt in the ad (such as as 5-digit number that you can text to make a donation) would have to go into an account earmarked strictly to be used only for aid to victims, not for Red Cross employees' salaries or for any other purpose whatsoever.
Of course, no matter how many times you emphasize that funds being raised are absolutely being used only to help victims, some viewers will react with disgust at the idea of the video pre-mercial being used for "fundraising". But while it would be very tricky to get the message right in practice, I don't think I would object in principle to a pre-pended message in front of the video, that either raised funds for humanitarian aid, or otherwise counteracted the goals of the terrorists.
So if Youtube allows the video to be posted along with a pre-pended PSA, this trivially achieves the goal of "making the information available to the public"; does it also prevent the dissemination of the video from helping ISIS, and does it reduce the incentive for terrorists to release similar videos in the future? Or to put it precisely, (1) does releasing the video this way, sufficiently undermine the goals of ISIS? and (2) would ISIS perceive that their goals are undermined if we release the video this way?
Unfortunately, when the goal of an organization is to spread terror, then humanitarian aid to their victims may not undermine their goal as much as we might hope, because the point of launching a newsworthy terror attack is usually not to harm the victims directly but to terrorize the rest of the population. If the original victims are rescued and nursed back to health after the cameras have stopped rolling, that doesn't neutralize the intimidating effect on everyone else.
But perhaps that just means that the Red Cross is not the right organization to benefit from a PSA posted at the beginning of the video. If we want to make sure ISIS is harmed every time someone watches the video -- and more importantly, that ISIS knows it is being harmed every time someone watches the video -- then maybe it should be pre-pended with a message exhorting people to sign up for training with the armed services, to help wipe ISIS off the face of the Earth.
Yes, that would elicit howls of protest from some people who might not have objected to the Red Cross PSA, but the goal should not be to favor some cuddly organization that is the least controversial to everybody. The goal should be to punish ISIS to the maximum extent with every additional viewing of the video, in order to reduce the chances that ISIS, or anyone else, would release a video like that again. What is the one thing that ISIS would least want people to see before watching their gruesome propaganda clip? If the answer is, "A message urging people to join the military and fight against ISIS," then that's what should be put in front of the video.
It all still sounds like quite a bizarre idea, to me as well, but the fact remains that if we're going to support making the video available at all, this seems like the way to do it that would harm ISIS instead of benefiting them. Perhaps someone else can think of a better way. (On the other hand, to people who think the video should be suppressed, it's all a moot point anyway.)