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Twitter draws criticism for showing graphic images of victims of Allen Mall shooting in Texas

Community in shock after Texas mall shooting
Community in shock after Texas mall shooting 03:34

Twitter and its owner Elon Musk are facing criticism after some of the social media network's users posted graphic images of the victims of the deadly Allen Premium Outlets mall shooting in Texas, with critics calling the presence of such images "unethical" and "horrible."

The spread of the graphic images on Twitter highlights the content moderation changes at the social media service under billionaire Elon Musk, who bought the company last year and has overhauled many of its policies. 

In an email to a question about the graphic images, Twitter responded with a poop emoji — the automated reply to any inquiries sent to Ella Irwin, vice president of trust and safety at Twitter, didn't respond to a request for comment. 

Musk has cut back on content moderation since he bought Twitter last year, firing workers who battled misinformation on the social media platform. Most big social media networks have teams dedicated to tracking hate speech and enforcing rules against harmful content, but under Musk, hate speech has proliferated at the service.

Some users complained about the graphic images of the attack, in which a gunman killed eight people and wounded several others, although it doesn't appear that the billionaire has responded as of Monday morning. In the days after the May 6 shooting, Musk tweeted a photo of himself on the cover of Time Magazine and posted a poll asking users if their feeds are as "compelling as possible," among other tweets.

"There is nothing virtuous or ethical about showing easily identifiable dead children and adults, whose families might not yet know they are dead," wrote Emily Bell, a professor and director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, on Twitter. "It's deeply unethical — it strips victims and their families of privacy and dignity in death."

She added, "It serves only Musk's click farm."

Texas community mourns following mall shooting that killed 8 people 03:08

One Twitter user posted that they reported an account for posting graphic images of the shooting, and received a response from the platform that the images didn't violate its "sensitive media policy." 

"Mind you, this was reporting the images of children and adults being brutally shot to death in Allen, TX," the user wrote.

An old debate

The controversy rekindles an old debate about whether U.S. media should show images of violence, including from war zones and crime scenes. In both World War I and World War II, for example, the government almost completely restricted the publication of photos of soldiers killed in battle. 

But the Vietnam War changed those norms as war correspondents filed articles, photos and film footage that unflinchingly depicted the ghastly images of war, including a famous 1972 photo of a naked South Vietnamese girl running in terror down a road after South Vietnamese planes had dropped napalm on her village. Some historians say the photo, along with other graphic images of the conflict, helped turn the tide of U.S. public opinion against the war.

Images of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in 1955, at his funeral also were published in JET magazine and later in other Black-owned newspapers. The horrific proof of racism is said to have animated the Civil Rights movement. 

In more recent years, a similar debate has raged over whether to show images of shootings and other crimes. Some critics argue that self-censorship of such material by the media, even in the interest of shielding their audience from disturbing images, inhibits public debate by preventing Americans from seeing the effects of gun violence.

"More people need to see the carnage so they GET what's happening to our families and friends," one Twitter user wrote. "It's not just physically damaging, it's emotionally scarring that can't be thought about and prayed away."

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