4 Reasons YouTube Takes Heat Over Beheading Video [OP-ED]

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Footage of a journalist being beheaded by Muslim extremists popping up tends to make things harder for YouTube when they are trying to get their ducks in a row for a “kid-friendly” version of the site. But sometimes real life has to creep inside our bubble.

To be fair, with the beheading of James Foley, social media just can’t win. People are angry with YouTube for posting the video (however briefly), and they’re angry with Twitter for taking posts containing images of the video down. And you thought it was tough being a teenager.

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The video, called “A Message to America,” was meant as a condemnation of American action in the Middle East, specifically President Obama’s recent declaration allowing bombing in Syria. The alleged videotaped beheading (“alleged,” because in the video, which has since been pulled from YouTube and my editors won’t allow posted here, there is some nifty editing that shows the start of the beheading and then cuts to the headless body with the head laid on its own back) has had the unique result of poking the bear in a way that has seldom been seen since 9/11. Likely the resulting fuss is a result of people feeling like the “War on Terror” ended with the death of Osama Bin Laden. We thought extremists had learned their lesson and the world could resume its march towards putting a McDonald’s in every country. This tape was a vile indication that we’d gotten too complacent in our naivete. But NMR’s focus is more on the reaction garnered by people in the wake of its posting on YouTube than what happens next.

Why were so many people angered by YouTube carrying the video (no ads)? After all, sites like LiveLeak carry the video with no backlash. So what makes YouTube the “whipping boy”? Here are a few different possible reasons:

1. James Foley’s family is pushing for a media blackout

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 3.08.01 PMWhen the media gives credence to these sorts of horrors, the terrorists’ goals are effectively achieved. ISIS, the splinter group behind the murder, wants every man, woman and child in America to see this video, so when the biggest video server hosts it, it gives it much more exposure and a much greater chance to be seen. The Foley family therefore doesn’t want the killers’ message glorified. LiveLeak and sites that typically host gruesome footage are much more niche, and therefore, people who see it are much more inclined to be seeking it out.

2. It seemed like YouTube was “trying to be edgy.”

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Never mind that the video was clearly against YouTube’s stated terms of use and was taken down fairly quickly after its posting. Of course, there was a “failing” on the part of the moderators in letting the video get to the site at all. For that, we reference a quote from ThinkProgress.org in regards to the “slip-up”: “I think ten years ago, most news organizations would have opted to not show the video,” Jillian York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Berlin-based director for international freedom of expression, told ThinkProgress. “YouTube, which is owned by Google, has exceptions, and allows violent content for information that is educational or documentary purpose,” said York, who focuses on free expression and privacy in the Middle East.

“All of these platforms have rules that ban violent content. Personally, I don’t have an issue with them taking the video down. But there is a problem with consistency.”

YouTube waged a battle for free speech when they refused to take down footage of an “anti-Muslim” movie trailer that caused outbursts and murder in the Middle East. Letting this video through was perhaps a litmus test for what level of acceptable violence YouTubers would stand for; apparently the Foley beheading was a step too far and pundits wanted to send YouTube a negative message relating as such.

3. YouTube is the Disneyland of video sites

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No matter what YouTube plans to do about creating a “kid-friendly” YouTube, YouTube already seems “kid friendly.” Sure, there is nudity, freaks, drug use, profanity and violence, but it all seems pretty innocent when contrasted with what everybody else has going. So for YouTube to post that video, it was like the violence of Los Angeles had spilled temporarily into the wholesomeness of Orange County. And people just weren’t ready for that to happen.

4. Money

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People erroneously believe that by simply hosting the videos, YouTube is profiting off this young journalist’s death. Fortuitously, we recently ran a story on YouTube and their “profit off of tragedy” issues. The site was able to clear up this oft-misunderstood issue: YouTube does not show advertising on age-restricted content, and therefore, no revenue would be earned. Whether they make money incidentally is a matter of debate.

I personally don’t have a problem with violent imagery — on or off YouTube. I dislike people feeling the need to shield their children from the horrors of life — kids are much more savvy (especially these days) than we give them credit for. It’s fine to want them to exist in that bubble of wonder and innocence, but to try and trap them in it is a whole other story. I could go on a whole rant about how kids are forced to mature faster in war-torn countries and how that makes them more capable and healthier adults, but the point here is that YouTube isn’t LiveLeak — and that’s probably why they are as popular as they are.