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What Should Social-Media Sites Do About Syria’s Savage War Videos?

3 minute read
Bryan Walsh

If you try to post, say, the latest Taylor Swift music video on YouTube without permission, don’t expect it to stay up long. Swift’s record company will notify YouTube’s corporate owner, Google, of the copyright infringement, and Google will likely take down your video before Swift has found a new boyfriend.

But if you post a clip, say, of a Syrian rebel commander biting into the organs of his enemy, your content may well be safe. The graphic video that shows Khalid al-Hamad desecrating his victim’s body has already been viewed more than 885,000 times, and duplicates of the clip can be found elsewhere on YouTube. If those outcomes seem inconsistent–toughness on copyright, leniency on cannibalism–that’s because the rules of policing social media are still being invented. And the bloody, 26-month-old Syrian conflict represents a particularly challenging test case.

Some 72 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, which is far too much for the site to even attempt to prescreen for inappropriate content. And that, of course, assumes there’s a perfect definition of inappropriate. There’s not. The first people who weigh in are YouTube users, who can and do flag videos that contain graphic content. Once a clip has been flagged, YouTube staff–including Arabic speakers–take a look at it and try to make a judgment call based on the company’s guidelines. Videos that are violent for the sake of violence–like a hypothetical clip that exults over gangland murder–are likely to be taken down. But a graphic video that is posted with something closer to journalistic intent to inform is more likely to remain up–albeit with warnings and checks to make sure a user is over 18. (The Hamad video had both.)

That’s because YouTube sees itself as a global platform for news and information. “People around the world have used YouTube to document humanitarian disasters, war zones and human-rights abuses,” said a YouTube spokesperson, who was not identified, per corporate policy. “This material can be graphic, yet the Web is a vital source of news and information, and these are events and perspectives that may otherwise never be seen.”

Social-media sites can find themselves walking a fine line when it comes to graphic content–even content that purports to educate. Facebook recently decided to delete videos of decapitations after a clip that seemed to show a woman being beheaded in Mexico caused an outcry among some users. But other graphically violent videos that don’t depict beheadings will usually remain up. Facebook, like YouTube, says it tries to err on the side of public interest. But with more than 30 billion pieces of content shared on Facebook each month, the site is constantly playing catch-up.

That’s true for all of us. There are no clear boundaries yet for a world where anyone with a smartphone can be a video reporter. And so the online battle over Syria remains every bit as morally murky as the real one.

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