In the wake of Robin Williams’ death -- and gruesome photos of a beheading by radical Islamists -- Twitter is implementing a new policy. The microblogging service announced plans to consider taking down images of deceased people at the request of immediate family members.
According to Newsweek, Zelda Williams, the 25-year-old daughter of the late comedian, said she is quitting Instagram and Twitter “maybe forever” after several anonymous trolls harassed her. The trolling accounts were banned, but it appears Twitter is going a step further with its latest policy to consider the wider issue of grieving family members.
“In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated,” Twitter said in a Help Center post titled, “Contacting Twitter about a deceased user or media concerning a deceased family member.”
Jumping Through Hoops?
Of course, Twitter is taking steps to make sure the request is legit. In order for the social media platform to process an account deactivation, Twitter wants several items of it can verify. Those include the username of the deceased member's Twitter account, a copy of the member's death certificate, and a copy of the requester’s government-issued ID.
Twitter is also asking for a signed statement that includes first and last names, e-mail address, current contact information, relationship to the deceased user or his estate, action requested -- such as “please deactivate the Twitter account” -- and a brief description of the details that prove the account belongs to the deceased (only in cases where the name on the account does not match the name on the death certificate).
“In order to respect the wishes of loved ones, Twitter will remove imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances,” Twitter said. “Immediate family members and other authorized individuals may request the removal of images or video of deceased individuals, from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death, by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. When reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honor every request.”
Striking the Right Balance
In some cases, Twitter doesn’t make families jump through such hoops. One example is the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, who was apparently murdered by the militant group called Islamic State in Iraq. According to the Washington Post, Radio Sawa’s Washington correspondent Zaid Benjamin had his Twitter account temporarily blocked (and a tweet with the video deleted) after breaking the news.
"Officials from the Departments of State and Defense reached out to relevant social media sites to inform them of the video and requested that they take appropriate action consistent with their stated usage policies,” a White House official told the Washington Post late Tuesday.
We caught up with Greg Sterling, Vice President of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association, to get his take on Twitter’s moves. He told us he thinks the social media company is striking the right balance here between respect for victims and the deceased and the public interest.
“Obviously when a public figure is involved there are First Amendment issues raised by image removal. However some pictures and videos -- such as the beheading of the U.S. journalist in Iraq -- arguably should be removed for multiple reasons, even beyond ‘respect for the family,’” Sterling said. “Limiting these requests to verified family members is the right thing to do. However, in some situations it will be a close call or tricky and Twitter will be forced to make ‘editorial’ judgments.”