Melquisedec Torres: the fine line between graphic and gory content

Melquisedec Torres: the fine line between graphic and gory content
Sensitive multimedia content
Content Moderation

On April 4, Colombian journalist Melquisedec Torres posted on his Twitter account images comparing the victims of a Nazi concentration camp with those of the recent massacre in Bucha, committed by the Russian army in the invasion of Ukraine. Although his purpose was to denounce this situation, Twitter took it differently.

Two weeks after making the tweet, the journalist received a notification. Those black-and-white photos of piled-up bodies, which had been reported by the press, constituted "gratuitous gory scenes" for Twitter. That is the name given in the platform' s policies to "excessively graphic or gruesome" images that refer to death, violence or represent serious physical harm, as well as violent images "shared for sadistic purposes".

Twitter offered Torres two options: remove the content or file an appeal to keep it online. Since the latter alternative involves having the account blocked while a moderator reviews the request, Torres preferred to delete the tweet, although he immediately expressed his annoyance with the platform.

Twitter's sensitive content policy prohibits different kinds of posts that deal with sensitive issues and that the platform prefers not to show to its users. In addition to "gratuitous gory scenes," the policy sanctions hate speech, graphic violence or violent sexual conduct.

Under the category of "gratuitous gory scenes", Twitter provides for an exception when there is a public interest on account of who disseminates such material. The requirements are quite strict: the exception only applies to verified accounts, which belong to public officials or state or international bodies and have at least 100,000 followers. The rule includes these elements because it is relevant that it is known, for example, that a politician or an entity is disseminating racist or violent content. In other words: the public interest lies in the fact that someone with these qualities is expressing himself or herself in this way on Twitter. 

The category called "graphic violence", on the other hand, is defined as "any type of multimedia content where deaths, violence, surgical procedures or serious physical injuries are depicted in graphic detail". In this case, Twitter allows posting graphic violence when it has a documentary or educational nature, even more so if the user voluntarily marks his or her post to alert others that it is sensitive material (he or she can do so for the entire account or on a particular post).

The difference between what Twitter means by "gratuitous gory scenes" and "graphic violence" is in a gray area. The definition of the two is similar, but it can be inferred that the sensitive content is more explicit in the former than in the latter. The bottom line is that the consequences of content being categorized as one or the other are very different. While there is greater tolerance for content considered "graphic violence" -especially, we reiterate, if the user makes the warning-, "gratuitous gory scenes" are punished outright unless they are covered by the strict sanction already described.

This distinction is important for journalists who, like Melquisedec Torres, want to criticize a topic of public interest using violent images. On the one hand, such users should be aware that if the material is too explicit, the evaluation may conclude that it is "gratuitous gory scenes". On the other hand, if there is such a risk, it is not superfluous to include a warning about the sensitive nature of the material.

The public interest or news exception has been adopted by different platforms in order to preserve freedom of expression and public debate. These exceptions are fundamental in Twitter, a platform that is essentially a news and current affairs platform. However, content moderation processes in cases like this can be subjective and ambiguous and, for that reason, this time the news was not the journalist's denunciation but the sanction he received.

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