A graphic video of the corpse of a 13-year-old boy who appears to have been physically tortured and sexually mutilated by Syrian security officials has become a rallying cry for Syrians and the tipping point for the international community.
The video, which shows young Hamza Ali al-Khatib with his penis severed, body covered in bullet holes and cigarette burns, chest seared by massive burns, kneecaps shattered, neck broken, and face covered in bruises, was posted to YouTube and then passed around thousands of times on social networks.
After the video was flagged for its graphic content, YouTube took the video down. But when reporters and human rights advocates petitioned YouTube administrators about the importance of the video being accessible in Syria and abroad, YouTube put the video back up. (A user must be 18 years old and have a log in to watch the video.)
The move suggested that YouTube had joined the ranks of Google and Twitter in wholly embracing the freedom of speech of the Middle East protesters, unlike Facebook, which has taken a more cautious stand.
Since the Middle East uprisings began, the role social networking sites have played in the revolutions has been an ongoing argument. Those who subscribe to techno-utopianism argue that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been largely responsible for the success at which dissidents have organized the protests, while Malcolm Gladwell has published pieces like “Why the revolution will not be tweeted” that fiercely argue the opposite.
But one thing is clear — while the social networking sites have all been used as tools by the protesters, the sites themselves have taken very different paths in how much they support them.
In a interview with Beet.TV, a site that covers online video and its impact on society, YouTube explains why it would put a video like the one of Hamza Ali al-Khatib back online.
“Normally, this type of violence would actually violate our community guidelines and our terms of service and we would remove them,”Olivia Ma, YouTube’s Manager of News says.
“But we have a clause in our community guidelines that makes an exception for videos that are educational, documentary or scientific in nature.... In these cases, we actually make an exception and say we understand that these videos have real news value.”
The video of al-Khatib’s corpse clearly has news value, but it also spurred on the protests. The video inspired thousands of Syrians to rally against al-Assad, some of them chanting “We Are All Hamza!”and dozens of pages that supported al-Khatib.
The video also verifies for the international community an April 2011 Human Rights Watch report on torture methods by Syrian security and intelligence services.
“It’s important that [these videos] remain accessible to people and stay up on the Web,” continues Ma. “We [have to] adjust our policies in real time to adapt to situations that happen around the world.”
Switched, a Web site that reports on technology, reports that Facebook has taken a different path: Reluctance. Unlike YouTube, Facebook has been reticent to celebrate its role in the Midlde East protests.
“If governments in neighboring Middle East countries thought that Facebook was ‘picking sides,’ they could retaliate by imposing restrictions or limiting access to the site within their borders,” Switched reports.
Facebook has also stuck to its policy of requiring users to sign up using their real names, even if it hurts political dissidents who would like to use pseudonyms to protect themselves. When Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) sent Facebook a letter requesting that it amend its no-anonymity policy to protect democratic activists in the Middle East, Facebook said no.
To be fair, Facebook helped protesters in Tunisia when the government hacked their Facebook accounts. But Facebook was clear to say that it helped the protesters because it had to protect user privacy, not because it was challenging the Tunisian regime.
Twitter and Google, however, have been much more willing to help dissidents in the Middle East.
Google was already known for supporting free speech after it pulled out of the China search engine market because of government censorship demands. When the Egypt protests started, Google teamed up with Twitter to create speak2tweet, a service that allowed protesters to circumvent the government's Internet shutdown.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone celebrated the collaboration as proof of his company's “mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely.”
He even went so far to tell NPR’s Terry Gross: “What I like to think of services like Twitter and other services is that it’s kind of a supporting role. We’re there to facilitate and to foster and to accelerate those folks’ missions.”
But while YouTube also wants to be “a platform for free expression, and a site where activists can get their message out,” according to Ma, it is clear that their decisions are very much rooted in the news value of the video more than the support of specific dissidents.
You can watch the video of Hamza Ali al-Khatib here. Please note that it is extremely graphic in nature.