The group calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) did something truly abominable by any humane standard today: They posted onto several Internet video services footage of a masked, black-robed man appearing to kill James Foley, a young freelance reporter who had moved to Syria to cover the unrest there and was abducted in 2012 from Aleppo.
The video itself is about two minutes of President Obama discussing foreign policy with Arabic subtitles, then a forced speech by the captive Foley, the apparent murder, and some meandering threats of "bloodshed" by the murderer. We are not going to post any links to the video here, so you can relax.
Twitter was quick to respond to the breaking story, but unfortunately, much of the immediate reaction was simply reposts and screencaps of the video's most horrible sections and then immediate outrage. YouTube took action after a little while and removed the original post, but ISIS is exploiting a particular hole in the video ecosphere that has plagued law enforcement for a while: Anything that's disgusting or titillating enough gets posted, reposted and re-reposted with new tricks every few weeks to fool YouTube's automatic censors.
For example, a few years ago, for a brief period, you could find any episode of a television show you wanted because uploaders had reversed the screen image; Marge vs. the Monorail was just as good flipped left to right, so for a while, illegal uploads flourished. Then YouTube got wise, and this trick no longer works.
Recently, there's been a spate of video uploads that are simply a camerman filming a screen playing copyrighted content—that, too, is hard to flag, unless it's by hand, and YouTube says it deals with an average of 100 hours of new content per minute.
With video content like the ISIS footage, the problem becomes even more complex, because users can upload and post information that is playing in a screencap, or is cropped or subtitled differently from the original post.
Journo backlash to the post was swift—Foley was well-liked and his friends, colleagues and acquaintances were quick to push handout photos of him available at his family's website, which replaced his blog while he was missing. The site, FreeJamesFoley.org, seems to have been overloaded by traffic at this writing.
More frighteningly, ISIS sympathizers tweeted bloody frames from the video at working journalists. Their accounts were quickly suspended, but their message was very clear. Indeed, plenty of accounts are still live with ISIS handles. Most journos responded with cutting remarks, but many said they were shaken by the experience.
.@gladiatory48 thanks for my daily reminder that evil exists— Anthony B. L. Smith (@AnthonyBLSmith) August 19, 2014
And some services simply don't discriminate: LiveLeak has kept the video up and indeed, does a brisk business in gory images (another popular video on the site at the moment: Man Was Still Alive After He Was Hit by Train). The whole enterprise makes it that much easier for organizations—even small ones, and ISIS is likely much smaller than it claims to be—to find an audience, especially when that is the last thing civilization needs.