The video showing the gruesome beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff had all the elements to go viral.
But before it spread across the web and became a digital victory for Islamic State militants, something decidedly un-Internet happened: the video footage was scrubbed from virtually all corners of the web.
While chatter about the video exploded across all social networks, the video itself, hosted on the SITE Intelligence Group website, was made inaccessible. (It was unclear if SITE had pulled the video, or if its servers were overwhelmed by traffic.) LiveLeak, which weeks earlier posted a similar video of the decapitation of American journalist James Foley, removed their footage of the Sotloff killing.
The video couldn’t be found on YouTube, which regularly features content far more graphic, or on Facebook, the ubiquitous social network which sometimes unwittingly hosts graphic content for hours or days before it's detected and removed by site administrators.
Liveleak, which is no stranger to hosting controversial content, posted an explanation early in the day. Later, Hayden Hewitt, founder of the UK-based video sharing site that purports to "change the media," spoke with Fusion.
"It's incredibly cynical, and we don't feel like helping them," Hewitt said. "For the very first time I made a political choice, I guess."
Hewitt says LiveLeak has rejected graphic media in the past, but only because it lacked relevance, according to the judgement of site administrators. For example, a random killing in the streets would be less likely to appear on the site than a soldier killing a protester. Sotloff's killing is certainly relevant, but Hewitt says he still won't post it.
"We kind of draw the line at being played this way," he said. "We just don't feel like helping the Islamic State in any way."
Many may agree with Hewitt's call, but other champions of Internet transparency railed against the decision as a form of censorship.
"It's landed us on the wrong side of a lot of people," Hewitt acknowledged. "We get a lot of feedback on Facebook. There's a principle involved in showing things or not showing things. I still uphold everyone's rights to see it if they wish, and if other sites wish to host it I don't think they should prevent it."
In the video, a haggard, enervated Sotloff reads a script under clear duress, moments before his apparent execution.
Kneeling before his captor, Sotloff addresses President Barack Obama for his “foreign policy of intervention in Iraq [that] was supposed to be for the preservation of American lives and interests. So why is it that I’m having to pay the price of your interference with my life? Am I not an American citizen?”
The ISIS executioner, dressed in black robes, cajoles Obama further before putting a knife to Sotloff's neck. The camera fades out momentarily, then focuses on what appears to be Sotloff's head and decollated body. The captor reappears, this time with another prisoner, identified as David Cawthorne Haines, a Briton who was reportedly working with a peacekeeping organization in Syria when he was captured in early 2013.
One former high-ranking U.S. military officials believes publishing the video could help the terrorist organization reach its ends.
"I would hope Americans wouldn't see it. Because it serves the enemy's purpose," said Wesley Clark, retired Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe.
"It's not about military strategy, it's all about politics," Clark told Fusion. "This is an effort to manipulate public opinion in the United States; to force the president to act, to deepen the conflict by putting U.S. ground troops in. So that [ISIS] can claim to be defenders of the faith, instead of merely terrorists."
Clark says he doesn't understand people's fascination with watching the video, nor their disappointment with its removal from the Internet.
"I don't know why any American would want to see a horrible, disgusting, tragic video like that," He said. "But if it generates American anger, that anger will translate into political pressure on the Obama administration. And ISIS hopes that the Obama administration will act inappropriately by sending U.S. ground combat troops in, which will serve as a recruiting magnet for ISIS."
Clark says the U.S. should provide air support for Sunni Arab forces, but says sending American troops in will be "like pouring gasoline on a fire."
This video is only the latest piece of propaganda to come from the extremist group. Its purpose apparently is not influence opinion, paint ISIS in a sympathetic light, or even appeal to ISIS’ constituency in its controlled territories. Instead, the Internet posts seem designed to play on the U.S. public's war fatigue, to compel Americans to pressure politicians into leaving the region. The message Sotloff is forced to deliver, followed by the brief speech from his executioner, place the blame at Obama’s feet.
In some ways, it's a bit reminiscent of the images broadcast on the nightly news during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Pentagon put the kibosh on such images in 1993, when it banned photography of caskets bearing U.S. soldiers. Candidate Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton on the strength of his opposition to the war in Iraq, which the U.S. public seems to have tired of long ago.
ISIS' media savvy should come as no surprise for those who follow them. A comparatively small militia that numbered somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 at the start of the summer (their ranks may have grown incrementally since then), ISIS has worked hard to cultivate a vicious reputation it also happens to deserve. Its slogan, "too extreme for al Qaeda," was itself the result of a concentrated PR effort. In fact, as the pseudonymed Middle East war expert Gary Brecher wrote insightfully, ISIS's beef with al Qaeda was more organizational and rooted in a turf dispute. Still, the media ran with the catchy descriptor and suddenly the group was legitimized, all on the strength of a slick marketing campaign and a few overthrown towns in northern Iraq.
While the media has been eager to run with ISIS' communiques, Hewitt and other content managers are making decisions their critics call "censorship."
"I think we simply are seeing more sophisticated, in some cases more responsible, social media policies developed internally," said Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center. "Policies are maturing."
The hastag #ISISMediaBlackout, coined on Aug. 19 — the day the Foley video was released — has gained steam on Twitter, where more than 48,000 users shared it Tuesday.
Predictably, in the hours it has taken to write this post, the video has increased its reach and can now be viewed in numerous obscure sites and some semi-legitimate ones. We won't be posting links to them here.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.