Twitter this week made two small changes that indicate a big shift in direction for everybody's favorite microblogging service.
The first was a two-part change: Twitter started suspending the accounts of users who posted a video showing the execution of an American journalist, and it adopted a new policy and process for handling requests from people who ask to have images of deceased family members removed from Twitter.
The second is that Twitter now adds tweets to users' timelines from people they don't follow. The posts are selected by Twitter for their popularity.
These aren't just isolated changes, but an entirely new direction for Twitter.
Twitter knows best
The video showing terrorists killing journalist James Foley must be horrible beyond words. I haven't seen it (unlike some on Facebook who saw it because of Facebook's reprehensible auto-playing video feature). I choose not to see it, regardless of what Twitter's policies are.
But Twitter's censorship of this content raises some big and fundamental questions. Among these are: Is Twitter the world's "town square"? Does Twitter exist as a neutral medium or does it exist for a handful of young, male Americans motivated by profit to impose their values on the world? And what is "engagement" if users are just passively getting the content Twitter decides they should like?
There are thousands of accounts on Twitter showing videos and other content as horrible as the recent terrorist execution video. I don't follow these accounts. If I do stumble across them, I block them. That is, and should be, my choice.
Before Twitter shuttered accounts sharing the video, a spontaneous hashtag emerged called #ISISmediaBlackout calling for people to stop sharing the video in order to take the wind out of the sails of the terrorists, who were relying on sites like Twitter to spread terror.
Involvement in such direct action has a psychological impact on people. In fact, that's what engagement really is -- engagement not for the sake of engagement, but to make a difference on social media based on real events. Should Twitter be standing in the way of people taking action collectively and spontaneously against video terrorism?
Twitter's meddling with violent imagery reminds me of the relationship between television access to images of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s and the evolution of the anti-war movement.
Americans got their impressions of World War II from cheerleading, sugar-coated newsreel shorts, such as this one. But by the time of the Vietnam War, the impressions came from prime-time TV news coverage like this (warning -- the images are still very disturbing).
Citizens in a democracy formulate their opinions about the impact of U.S. foreign policy from wherever it is they get their news about world events -- newsreels, network TV news, Twitter.
Making reality available to people who choose to confront it is important. Viewing the terrorist videos may cause one voter to support increased involvement in the Middle East in order to confront the terrorists, while it may cause another to want to reduce involvement and leave the whole mess behind.
By banning terrorist videos, Twitter is either abdicating its role as the world's public square or telling us that it knows what's good for us, based on the naive belief that censoring upsetting images is an unalloyed "good." Or maybe it just doesn't care because there's too much money to be made.