Platform or publisher? That’s the question facing Facebook and Twitter executives as they grapple with the fall-out from the ugly and escalating conflicts across the Middle East.
Both social media sites have now imposed restrictions on the use of gory images from wars in Iraq and Syria, including banning video footage of the beheading of US photojournalist James Foley.
And both have also suspended an account run by the Raqqa Media Center, which is based in a part of Syria controlled by Islamic State, after it posted photographs of beheadings.
But the decisions highlight the tightrope the sites are walking between their long-standing commitment to free speech and taking editorial decisions that could lead to accusations of censorship.
It is, of course, hard to fathom why anyone would want to see images of beheadings. But, while Facebook and Twitter were busy removing them, the New York Post and New York Daily News’ were using graphic stills from the Foley footage on their front pages.
So what’s the difference? Conventional media editors justify whether or not to use images of a crime on the public interest grounds.
Twitter, meanwhile, insists it was not acting like an editor in removing the beheadings and had merely carried out a long standing policy of responding to requests from immediate family members to remove ‘images or video of deceased individuals’.
But the site has been accused of inconsistency. In the Foley case, Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo intervened personally, tweeting to his 1.2 million followers, “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.”
This contrasts with Twitter’s slowness to act last year when feminist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to a barrage of abuse and rape threats over her successful campaign for Jane Austen to become the new face of the £10 banknote. The site told her she had to use its official harassment reporting procedures and left her struggling to deal with the attacks.
Twitter, Facebook and Google have between them an extraordinary amount of control over the information we see and share. If they are going to start behaving like publishers, it’s important they say so openly and tell us what their editorial policies are.
I’m a natural sceptic in these matters. I wonder if Twitter and Facebook were pro-active in the Foley case because it was so close to home. And I doubt Raqqa Media Center was of much concern a year or so ago when Islamic State was seen as part of the opposition to what the US then saw as the main enemy in Syria, the Assad regime.
It’s all a far cry from the days when social media was hailed as a democratising force, blowing winds of change through the Middle East during the now barely-mentioned ‘Arab spring’.
In his best-selling book, The Circle, David Eggers foresees a danger of totalitarianism. “If you can control the flow of information, you can control everything,” says Ty, the founder of the Circle whose idealism has been betrayed.
“If you want to bury some piece of information, that’s two seconds work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and access to it?”
Far-fetched? Who knows? However, the paradox is that the main threat to social media as a channel for unfettered discussion may not be so much a drift towards censorship as an already entrenched tendency for people to avoid controversy.
Research published last week by the Pew Center suggests people are self-censoring. The US-based survey of 1,801 adults chose a subject on which opinion was evenly divided – whether government surveillance of e mail and phone records was good or bad – and found 86% were willing to discuss the issue face to face, whereas only 42% of Facebook or Twitter users would post about it online.
The survey also found that people were much more likely to share their views – whether in personal conversation or through social media – if they thought people agreed with them.
The desire to conform is surprisingly strong but, apologies, there is very little chance of it breaching my thick skin.