Terrorist Imagery Meets the Marketplace of Ideas

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Terrorist Imagery Meets the Marketplace of Ideas

by Christian ChristensenThere is a bitter irony to be found in the spread of terrorist imagery. In order for politically motivated acts of violence to have the desired effect, maximum exposure is needed. In other words, mainstream media exposure. And therein lies the irony: that the institutions so often held up (often by themselves) as the guardians of democracy are used as distribution platforms for the spread of imagery intended to spread fear and instability. The common refrain from editors and journalists has been “newsworthiness”: over the years, how could a news organization not cover Oklahoma City, Munich, Entebbe or Brighton? We should not be naïve, however, about the relationship between these types of news events and the political economy of journalism. Not only are these spectacular events “newsworthy”, but they also attract viewers and readers, thus neatly dove-tailing with the profit drive of commercial media organizations.Of course, in all of these cases the instigators of violence understood the importance of spectacle: in order to gain coverage, the targets had to be high profile and the attacks spectacular in nature.  Critically, however, news editors still held a gatekeeper position, with the ability to censor images, cut away from live feeds, by-pass particularly violent imagery and provide commentary to the events that (potentially) undermined the political aims of the political organization in question.  With the rise of groups such as ISIS, however, we have seen a shift in not only gatekeeping power, but also a shift in debate from journalistic ethics and responsibility to broader questions of free speech and corporate control of information.When ISIS posted still and video images purporting to show the beheading of US hostage James Foley, the spread of these images across social media platforms was swift and unrelenting. Gone were the days when major news organizations had power to decide which images would be shown to a mass audience, and which would not. The role of gatekeeper – at least in theory – had now been transferred to the individual social media user who could decide whether or not images would be relayed to their respective followers.What followed the release of the Foley video (and the now infamous still image of Foley, in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling before a knife-wielding ISIS member) was a debate about the rights of individual social media users to spread such violent imagery. With the sheer brutality of the images produced, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that ISIS proved itself to be very savvy in its understanding of dramaturgy, voyeurism and social media dynamics. Twitter, for example, is a waterfall of information, and even if 95% of the people you follow did not tweet the images in question, it was almost impossible to avoid them flowing across your screen. Those who chose to relay these pictures offered a fairly uniform set of explanations, including the argument that this was a free speech issue, and that the images and videos served as a reminder of the brutality of ISIS. In response, many on Twitter called upon fellow users to refrain from re-posting (as it simply served the interests of the killers), while others were more aggressive, calling for an outright ban and for violators to face the suspension or closure of their accounts.While the CEO of Twitter, Dick Costello, has famously claimed that the company represents,  ”the free speech wing of the free speech party,” the argument that the ability to circulate violent imagery such as the material produced by ISIS is a “free speech” issue hinges upon the problematic assumption that commercial platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube offer the same protected speech rights as those offered to someone writing a book or making a film. Thus, violent imagery such as the Foley beheading posed (and will continue to pose) problems for platforms that tout their free speech credentials, while in reality having to answer to commercial pressure from users, governments and the families of those killed. In a piece for Forbes, journalist Jeff Bercovici summarized the quandary the terrorist images pose for social media platform owners:For a group like ISIS, a video showing the beheading of an American captive is a twisted sort of win-win: Either it succeeds in turning the world’s most powerful and admired tech firms into distribution partners for a message of violent extremism, or those firms clamp down on the content, betraying their stated commitment to the American principle of free speech.The response of social media platforms to the ISIS videos was consistent. YouTube, where the Foley video was originally posted (and then removed), made it clear that these terrorist videos were in violation of “Community Guidelines” that restrict violent, hateful or criminal content. After an initial period of uncertainty, Twitter took the aggressive position of not only deactivating accounts it considered to be linked to ISIS, but also suspending Twitter users who spread images of the Foley killing.  In addition, Twitter amended their content policies, allowing families (under certain circumstances) to request the, “removal of images or video of deceased individuals, from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death.” Twitter, however, still reserved the right to consider the “newsworthiness” to the content and to refuse such requests. In response to Twitter’s take-down of accounts, ISIS released a statement telling the organization that, “your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you,” and calling on followers to murder Twitter staff.The production and spread of videos such as the one showing the murder of James Foley forces us to consider the presence of terrorist imagery in a restructured media environment, where users and privately-owned technology corporations determine, at least to a certain extent, the degree to which such imagery can flow. (Even with the efforts of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, however, the Foley material is still easy to find.) In this new environment, mainstream editorial news control and journalistic ethics no longer dictate when and how such images will be made available, and this shift has had a clear impact upon the types of images selected by terrorist organizations for dissemination. Single acts of carefully staged violence, which 10 years ago would likely never have seen the light of day, are now fodder for going viral. This virality is not simply a function of sympathetic viewers passing the clips on to their followers, but is also the result of “ordinary” users who – for reasons of newsworthiness, a macabre fascination or pure voyeurism – decide to share the violent scenes. And, in addition, many of these “ordinary” users lean upon a libertarian rationale to spread such images: a belief that the internet should be a space free of all censorship and/or restrictions, be it state or corporate. In the marketplace ideas, large technology corporations are unlikely to take the financial risk of allowing such an unfettered spread to take place (in case users and advertisers revolt), but the very fact that it is they, and not news organizations, who now make those decisions marks an important shift in how we need to think about the impact and future direction of such iconography.----Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001. Christensen’s research focuses upon the relationship between media and power: be it economic, political or military. Having started his research career looking at news and journalism (in Sweden, the US, UK and Turkey), he has expanded his work to include the use of social media during times of warfare, as well as how governments and activist organizations such as WikiLeaks have begun to harness tools such as Twitter for the purposes of information distribution. Within these contexts, his work has also addressed freedom of speech and journalism in Turkey, the representation of Islam in the international media, as well the use of documentary film in the expression of anti-war sentiment.

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