Yesterday the shocking news emerged that US journalist James Foley had been brutally executed in Syria. The group calling itself ‘The Islamic State’ (previously known as ISIS or ISIL) posted a graphic video online of them carrying out the decapitation killing, under the title “A Message to America”. In this video, the group blames the US government for the journalists death, which claim is in retaliation for recent US Air Force strikes against the group.
Almost immediately after the execution, Islamic State (IS) affiliated Twitter accounts began posting images of, as well as links to the video of the killing. Indeed, it was only through this twisted form of online PR, that most of the world media actually found out about the journalist’s death, given that he had been in captivity since 2012. The action immediately brought about condemnation from major world leaders, and lead to questions about how this online action should be dealt with.
Twitter’s response was to begin banning large numbers of IS-affiliated and sympathizer accounts from their social network. By the end of the day, at least 30 accounts had been shut down, according to tweets from surviving IS accounts. In reality the true number of banned accounts probably far exceeds this figure. Questions about how successful this will be aside, a bigger question needs to be asked of Twitter: Why did it take so long for them to do this?
While the death of Peter Foley was horrific, it pales in comparison to other atrocities carried out by the Islamic State.
While the death of James Foley was indeed brutal and tragic, it pales in comparison to other atrocities carried out by the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. In the past months they have used Twitter to share images of them killing hundreds of Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Kurds and Iraqi Christians in mass executions, often after forcing them to dig their own graves. Other notable atrocities shared on Twitter include posed pictures of severed heads, with the caption “this is our #WorldCup ball”, and the ‘sale’ of slave women taken by the terrorist group.
Why then was the death of a single US citizen worth so much more than that of thousands of others to Twitter? Why did the tech company not move faster to eliminate these accounts that had been widely reported to be serving both as terrorist propaganda outlets, as well as potential recruiting tools?
Sadly, the answer probably is media attention. Twitter may have decided that it would be bad PR for the website to be known as the go-to site for people to find the video of Foley’s death. In addition, it may have had its hand forced by western governments, such as the UK, which strangely declared that not only sharing this video, but also watching it, would be amountable to a terrorism-related crime.
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