Paula Todd is an investigative reporter, lawyer and digital media professor at Seneca@York. Her latest book is Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online.
Twitter has gone from social media to moral mediator these days, banning the video of journalist James Foley’s decapitation in Syria as well as the fake photo of actor Robin Williams’s corpse. In the comedian’s case, the Photoshopped image was a lie, but in Mr. Foley’s case the video bears witness to the brutal injustice of the Islamic State (IS) rebels.
Twitter, with an eye on its bottom line, is increasingly sensitive to the demands of its most vocal customers and removed the photo that drove Mr. Williams’s daughter, Zelda, away from her account. Mr. Foley’s friends are also demanding decorum, insisting that the public record show his compassionate and accomplished journalism rather than his barbaric beheading at the hands of the enemy he helped to reveal to the world.
Ironically, though, following Mr. Foley’s own logic, there is an argument to be made for leaving the video up, not exploiting it, but lodging it on the public record as a powerful indictment of the IS. That is what he tried to do with his own photojournalism. He understood the power of images to unite the public in political and moral action.
In one particularly harrowing video, Mr. Foley documented the suffering of everyday Syrians struggling to survive the remorseless violence – but mainly through wrenching images of children, their limp bodies covered in blood, their eyes glazed with incomprehension. His images were intended to shock, to startle humane people into action. That the images disturb was precisely his point.
Now, Mr. Foley’s death has prompted world leaders, including Interpol, to call for a co-ordinated campaign against the Islamic State.
Images move from records to iconic statements when they strike a chord, typically a turning point in history: the slumped figure of president John F. Kennedy as the assassin’s bullet struck; an American pilot’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu; a naked Vietnamese girl running toward us, her flesh melting from napalm.
Equally, James Foley risked his life to document the agony of Syrian and Iraqi civilians held hostage by violent ideology. He went there to capture the violence that Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms are now trying to balance against the public’s right to know. Where do we draw the line, now that the mischievous, the sick, the angry and religious zealots use the Internet to spread – and distort – images many of us cannot bear to see?
It is a legitimate concern that airing the beheading video gives the Islamic State precisely what it wants: to instill fear in the West, to intimidate journalists and to spread the sort of thug propaganda that attracts the mentally ill and the inhumane to join terrorist cells. But that is only if we think like the IS – and the point is, we must not.
When journalists are killed around the world – as they are in increasing numbers – we lose our eyes on conflicts that make us vulnerable to further violence. Yet the protection of journalists is ridiculously low on the world’s agenda. I know because I volunteer for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, which finds it almost impossible to raise the scant funds needed to celebrate the heroism of journalists such as Mr. Foley. Are we being forced by the venal to truly appreciate the cost of speaking up for others? As his mother, Diane Foley, said, he “gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Understandably, many of us want to remember only the 40-year-old’s dedication, talent and hunger for truth. But all of that has been snuffed out by men so ruthless we cannot fathom their primitiveness. What they did should never be forgotten.
We are not debating in a vacuum, of course. The Internet is now held hostage by people who traffic in human pain and manipulate violence for comedy. After years of researching the motivations of cyber-abusers, I have concluded that RIP trolls, harassers and ghouls are motivated by more than the anonymity: everyday sadism, psychopathy, alienation, mental illness, substance abuse and an inability to empathize. Research also shows that “accidental” cyber-abusers sometimes share gruesome material because they do not recognize it as such, or value attention more.
Failing to understand what hurts others is one of the greatest handicaps online these days. And cyber-tormentors are forcing us to censor ourselves for fear of being attacked. Yet those who are speaking out right now online – both for and against the showing of graphic images – are helping to educate the world about the balancing act between human decency and a reality we do not want to see, precisely because it is so horrific and unjust.