A little more than a year ago, YouTube trumpeted the power of its powerful online social network in providing unfiltered footage of protests in Tahrir Square that would result in the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Now, a YouTube video is being blamed for fanning a wave of protests in Egypt and violence in Libya, including an attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other staffers.
The video, a 14-minute movie trailer for “Innocence of Muslims,” depicts Muhammad as a womanizing killer. The Muslim Times wrote Wednesday that the video, which ridicules the prophet and describes Islam as a “cancer,” amounted to a propaganda film “designed to enrage and incite violence.”
The incident underscores the complexity of the challenges that confront Google Inc.'s online video site, which reaches a global audience of about 800 million viewers every month. As it becomes a worldwide clearinghouse for video -- including citizen journalists’ accounts of lives lost to Pakistani floods, a deadly building collapse in Syria, and of South African coal miners striking -- it raises questions about YouTube’s role as a neutral distribution platform.
“It’s easy to think that technology is cool. Then, what we extrapolate from that with our little minds is that what’s made possible through technology is going to be cool and groovy too. We keep making that mistake that technology is just neutral,” said Ken Doctor, a longtime newspaper industry analyst. “But it can be cynically used. There are forces of darkness in the world that will rapidly use them, as well as forces for good.”
YouTube said it moved to temporarily restrict access to the video in Libya and Egypt in the wake of the violence. However, it said it will not remove the controversial video, saying it does not violate the community guidelines that prohibit sexually explicit content, graphic or gratuitous depictions of violence or other “bad stuff,” such as animal abuse, drug abuse or underage drinking. Nor does it tolerate hate speech.
“We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions,” a YouTube spokesman said in a statement. “This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video -- which is widely available on the Web -- is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.”
YouTube added expressed condolences to the families of those killed in the violence.
Media observers worry the incident may create a pretext for governments to block access to YouTube -- or spur calls for censorship.
“YouTube has become the default platform, which actually creates a lot of complications for YouTube and people who want their stuff seen,” said Dan Gillmor, a digital media professor at Arizona State University who has written about citizen journalism. “Because countries are blocking YouTube.”
Doctor said the violence may cause YouTube to grapple internally with questions about its responsibilities, given the power of technology to be manipulated by those who incite violence.
“It puts this big question before YouTube, before us as proponents of free speech: ‘What is our responsibility? What is our individual responsibility? What are corporate responsibilities?’” Doctor said. “I don’t have an easy answer to it, but I think the question has got to be confronted. “