We’ve all done it, journalists and generally inquisitive types alike. When someone does something incomprehensively shocking — such as a high school shooting, say — and their name is released, we immediately hit Google and try to find the person’s social media websites to read what they’ve been writing recently and have a good gawk at any photos. Sadly, it’s human nature to be so nosey.

Media outlets — lacking facts in the immediate aftermath of such events but desperate to report something, anything — tend to broadcast any information they can glean from Myspace, Facebook, YouTube, et al, giving killers, to paraphrase Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted maxim, “15 minutes of fame”.

The attempted assassination of US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and slaying of six innocent people, including a nine-year-old girl, at a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona in January followed this pattern. CNN and NBC were among media outlets happy to give accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner’s bizarre ramblings about the US government’s “brainwashing” of the American people by controlling grammar an international platform.

Most people will ignore such baseless claims but it’s worrying that some maladjusted individuals could feel this is a way to get their previously rightly ignored grievances aired to a worldwide audience.

Should social media websites shut down such accounts and take them offline?

In the case of Loughner, Myspace — owned by News Corp — took the page offline two days after the shootings, citing company policy to place a page in a state of “purgatory” so it can be preserved for law enforcement. By then, of course, the mainstream media — including outlets in Australia — had extensively quoted from the site.

Despite fake profiles appearing in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, it appears Loughner did not have a Facebook page. Facebook has been removing these pages as they are reported by users.

Loughner’s YouTube channel, however, remains active and has had more than 4 million views to date. It’s a good bet very few watched his videos before the horrific events of January 8. Again, many media outlets feasted on the trail left by Loughner.

YouTube spokesperson David Marx, when quizzed on why the channel was still openly accessible, told Crikey that while it is YouTube policy not to comment on individual users, the company “does have a bias towards free speech if videos don’t violate [our] community guidelines”.

He also explained that “checks and balances are in place and this can lead to heated discussions if the YouTube community flags a video as inappropriate” but “shock videos and messages that are an incitement to violence will be deleted”. YouTube would not confirm whether Loughner’s channel had been flagged as inappropriate.

Should the media spread the views of the likes of Loughner, or should they self regulate — much like they do reporting suicides — lest they unwittingly trigger copycats to take action? It’s a moral dilemma that, unfortunately, may need to be increasingly debated in the near future. After all, no matter how quickly social media websites remove accounts, there will always be media outlets that have already copied and pasted comments into their news coverage.

In its terms of service YouTube attempts to cover itself against any liability by advising it “does not endorse any content submitted to the service by any user or other licensor, or any opinion, recommendation, or advice expressed therein, and YouTube expressly disclaims any and all liability in connection with content”.

Marx also highlighted the challenge YouTube faces in monitoring everything placed on the Google-owned site advising “35 hours of footage is uploaded every minute”. To give an idea on how staggeringly high this statistic is, consider the maximum YouTube individual video time limit. It’s 15 minutes.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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