Twitter Changes Its Policy On The Deceased

In especially trying times, the ugly side of social media can rear its head. In the wake of Robin Williams' suicide and the horrific video showing the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley released by the Islamic State (ISIS), Twitter has come under fire for enabling the dissemination of sensitive material — Twitter's whole concept is easy information sharing, after all. But after Williams' daughter, Zelda, was cyberbullied after her father's death, Twitter announced it will remove photos of the deceased upon family members' requests.

Immediately after Williams' death, Twitter trolls taunted Zelda with cruel, vitriolic messages and Photoshopped images of her father, prompting her to close her account. In response, Twitter blocked two of the trolling accounts and Del Harvey, Twitter's vice president of trust and safety, released the following statement.

We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter. We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.

On Tuesday, Twitter announced its new policy regarding deceased users, writing on its support page:

In order to respect the wishes of loved ones, Twitter will remove imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances" at the request of "immediate family members and other authorized individuals.

This move may have been in response to Zelda Williams' cyberbullies, but it will undoubtedly impact a more recent incident. Twitter's announcement was made the same day that Islamic State militants released a video showing the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, who had been captured in Syria in 2012.

On Wednesday, the U.S. intelligence community confirmed Foley's identity in the video, and President Obama gave a statement from Martha's Vineyard:

The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley. ISIL speaks for no religion. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, or what they do every day. No faith teaches people to murder innocents.

Obama also added that he would continue efforts to "confront this awful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility."

Though the New York Post published a still from the video on the cover of its Wednesday issue, the large majority of journalists, along with Foley's family, are standing in solidarity against releasing images from the video, reminding the public that spreading the message is exactly what ISIS wants.

Hours after the video was posted to YouTube, jihadists on Twitter used the hashtag #NewMessageFromISIStoUS in thousands of tweets. And mere hours after announcing its policy change, Twitter was forced to forgo the request step of the new protocol. Instead, it has been immediately suspending any accounts that have posted the video or imagery related to the video.

Users have been just as firm about opposing the posting of the video, echoing the message that sharing the gruesome clip is essentially helping ISIS spread its warning.

Some users have rightfully encouraged posting positive images of Foley's life instead, reminding the public that we should honor his life, not gawk at his awful death.