Murder in the time of virality

(For today’s social media landscape, invert the megaphone)

That the beheading of journalist James Foley is ‘media’ is horrific. Whether it is ‘social’ falls on all of us.

I, like millions of others, learned about the death of journalist James Foley on social media. But it just so happened that the news was delivered to me in as sensitive and sombre a way as possible. A Facebook friend had shared a statement about Foley – a New Hampshire native – issued by Granite State Governor Maggie Hassan. The short message praised Foley’s work and mourned his loss, but only briefly mentioned ISIS, his killers, and didn’t once refer to the way in which Foley was murdered.

For others, no doubt, the news was delivered differently – by way of links to a graphic video, of direct exposure to the brutal murder itself. This, of course, is exactly what the killers intended: the video serves as part publicity ‘stunt’ and part recruiting drive.

No doubt, there are certain details of the murder which the Governor’s statement didn’t include that are newsworthy, not least that the executioner spoke with a British accent. But by throwing our hands up and acquiescing to the ‘power of social media’ in spreading this horrific content is to confuse the fact of Foley’s murder with the act of it – a seemingly semantic distinction, but one on which the prospects of ISIS’s propaganda strategy largely depend.

That someone beheaded Foley is itself barbaric. That someone else recorded it, making it ‘media’ is just as heinous. But its status as ‘social’ media mostly depends on our complicity in making it so. ISIS’s medieval brutality is matched by its very modern assumptions over our media culture – and thus far their reasoning has been proved correct: something as graphic as an execution can ‘go viral’ just as quickly and comprehensively as other, more benign sorts of content. In our modern media age, removing someone’s head in the name of war competes on a level playing field with throwing freezing water over someone’s head in the name of charity.

Compare the ease with which the content has flowed over the Internet with the caution displayed in its coverage on traditional media. The New York Post, not for the first time, has pushed the boundaries further than any other mainstream newspaper by displaying an image from the video on its front page. For doing so it has met with a storm of criticism, despite the fact that the freeze-frame shows the scene (just) prior to the murder. Other newspapers have not followed suit, at least in part because norms and laws restrain and restrict what they are able to show.

Of course, the legal, commercial and technical situation differs with online social media. Technically, content spreads much more easily over the Internet, and legal regimes are yet to fully catch up. The people formerly known as the audience are themselves able to participate in the spread of content, and platforms built on the currency of clicks generates the centrifugal force for ‘popular’ content to rapidly gain network centrality.

Which is what makes the moral forces behind the spread of content all the more significant. ISIS’s strategy assumes that the truly immoral character of the content it produces will not limit its spread – indeed, that the sheer depravity displayed in this and other videos will only add to its dissemination. Happily, there are early signs of a backlash. Efforts have been led by, amongst others, the US Muslim Public Affairs Council, to limit the spread of the video, using the hashtag #ISISmediablackout. These efforts are being supported by the platform providers themselves: the original video was quickly removed from YouTube, and Twitter has begun suspending accounts of those linking to the video.

Yet the technical challenges are still immense. Twitter and YouTube are nothing like newspaper editors deciding what appears on the front page, relying instead on users themselves to flag content for removal. Relying, in other words, on our own sense of taste and decency. And certainly a wider conversation needs to be held on how newsworthiness online: the corollary to this case is that of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has lamented the relative paucity of coverage that Ferguson is receiving on Facebook as compared with Twitter.

The Ferguson protests and the Foley murder thus provoke different discussions – Ferguson relates to the sin of omission of coverage and Foley more to our commission in sharing content. Yet despite their different conclusions for our technology, we should hope that both cases jumpstart debates over the broader normative consequences of our modern social media landscape.

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