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Tragedy on Twitter: James Foley Case Raises Hard Social Media Questions

Image: U.S. journalist James Foley after being released by the Libyan government in 2011

U.S. journalist James Foley (R) after being released by the Libyan government, at Rixos hotel in Tripoli, in 2011. LOUAFI LARBI / Reuters file

Shortly after news of journalist James Foley’s death, Twitter announced that it would suspend accounts that shared graphic imagery from a video showing his beheading by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants.

As Twitter becomes an increasingly popular news source, the social network now faces the tough questions that have plagued traditional news organizations for decades: to ban or not to ban graphic images.

For Twitter and other social media companies, "it's a balancing act that repeats itself day to day, issue by issue, country by country," PJ Crowley, former U.S. assistant secretary of state, told NBC News.

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Ban too many images and Twitter could be accused of censoring information. On the other hand, many Twitter users would prefer not to see explicitly violent images in their feeds.

"I have been monitoring NBC News, CNN — they won’t show those graphic pictures," Sandy Davidson, a professor of media law at the University of Missouri, told NBC News. "I think the argument could be made that Twitter is acting responsibly and that these instances have to be looked at case by case."

Disturbing images

The ban started early Wednesday morning, when Twitter CEO Dick Costolo sent out this message:

This came after a number of Twitter users expressed their outrage over the graphic images, rallying around the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout.

Twitter doesn't actively monitor user content. Instead, it has a short list of rules that, among other things, bans "direct, specific threats of violence against others." It's a statement that Twitter uses to ban some violent images, but not others.

Like any newspaper, Twitter has to make a moral judgment with the sensibilities of its users in mind. (It does not, however, have to worry about getting sued for libel, since it's not legally considered the publisher of what shows up in people's feeds).

"The mainstream media deals with this all of the time, but there is an established filtering process," Crowley told NBC News. "The nature of social media is that people post things, and the question is not how you cover something in advance, but how you deal with it once it has been posted."

Growing pains

In 2006, when Twitter launched, the joke was that tweens used it to share every inane detail of their lives. Last year, according to a Pew Research Center report, more than half of the people on Twitter used it to get news.

It currently has 271 million active users tweeting in more than 35 languages. Compare that to the combined digital and print audience of the most popular newspaper in the country, USA Today, which has a daily circulation of 3.3 million.

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Its wide reach and millions of users means Twitter must constantly navigate the social norms of radically different cultures around the world. What is considered obscene by the government of Saudi Arabia might not be taboo in Sweden. That makes it hard to create more specific guidelines, especially as new and unexpected situations arise.

"Twitter has become much more sophisticated over time in dealing with this, but over a number of years, there have been some growing pains," Crowley said. Ultimately, however, the social network did the right thing, he said.

"For the millions of tweets that are posted every day, we’re talking about a relatively few that create great angst."