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Beheading Video Sets Off Debate Over How — Or Whether — To Portray It

A video that shows an American journalist being beheaded by extremist militants has sparked outrage, along with arguments over whether the images should be restricted online.

On one side of the issue are those who believe the images give publicity to the Islamic State, the Sunni group that killed James Foley, an American who had been held captive since 2012. They're using a hashtag, #ISISMediaBlackout, to urge people not to spread the images.

But others come at the question from a range of angles. There are those who see the video as proof of the militants' barbarity and of the tragedy of Foley's death. Some see the restriction of images as censorship. Others question why the killing of an innocent American should be treated differently from other cases.

Those positions represent an overview of the responses to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo after he sent a message about the beheading video early Wednesday morning that said, "We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you."

In their replies, some people simply thanked Costolo. But others questioned whether he was changing Twitter's rules — and some said the company should suspend the account of the New York Post, which tweeted an image of its cover that shows Foley being attacked.

Those urging people not to watch the video reportedly include Kelly Foley, James Foley's cousin, who posted a message to Twitter that was retweeted more than 1,000 times: "Please honor James Foley and respect my family's privacy. Don't watch the video. Don't share it. That's not how life should be."

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Foley's parents, John and Diane, said they had not watched the video.

"We knew it was Jim," Diane Foley said.

"Twitter allows immediate family members of someone who dies to request image removals, the AP reports, "although the company weighs public interest against privacy concerns."

"A Message to America," the title of the video that sparked the debate, was taken down shortly after it was posted to YouTube on Tuesday. But it quickly resurfaced elsewhere online, including on the video sites LiveLeak and Vimeo, and in still images pulled from the footage.

On a link to one version of the video, LiveLeak included a note: "for people looking for the original video released by IS click here at your own risk." And on another, it warned that the video "might contain content that is not suitable for all ages." Users were told to click "Continue" only if they are at least 18 years old.

Responding to a question about its policy, Vimeo said, "We are taking proactive steps to remove the videos showing Mr. Foley's murder, terminate the accounts that uploaded them, and prevent further uploads of exact same videos."

The company says its terms of service ban images of "extreme violence," noting that it relies on the site's users to flag such material. And it said it is "preserving all data associated with these accounts in the event we receive a subpoena from a law enforcement agency, and we encourage law enforcement officials to reach out to our legal department about this matter."

"We are extremely saddened by the news of Mr. Foley's death," a Vimeo spokesperson says. "It is unfortunate that people are attempting to use our service to publish these gruesome materials."

Writing for the BBC, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley says the video is likely meant to publicize the Islamic State as being in a conflict with the U.S. — and to attract new recruits for that struggle:

"The Islamic State is unlikely to sway all that many minds through this video. Notwithstanding its stunning successes in recent months, there is little indication Muslims around the world or even in Iraq want to live in such a repressive society."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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