UPDATE: iStock/Getty has agreed to remove the offensive images from its catalogue. Full story to come.
“Homosexual” and “homosexual couple” are terms one has to be careful about entering into a Google search bar—unless content protections are live, they will likely generate a great deal of NSFW content. But, get past that and, with each passing day, more and more positive images of LGBT people, couples, families and lives can be found.
This is equally true at major providers of stock imagery and video, such as iStock, where a search of the phrase “homosexual couple” returns scores of wholesome, and wholesomely sexy, resources.
So when Nashville filmmaker Jennifer Sheridan was browsing to find the right stock video for one of her film projects last year, she was shocked to find a particularly disturbing clip of two dangling feet in frame, swaying in the breeze, indicative of lynching. This can’t be misinterpreted—the caption reads, “Feet of person convulsing, dying of strangulation, committing suicide by - Stock video” (See screenshot below).
Nothing about the image could be immediately construed as LGBT related, except the video’s provider included among the tags: “Homosexual Couple,” “Male Animal,” and “Homosexual.” This markets this video for those seeking stock material for uses in projects related to homosexuality and enables those who see fit to send a chilling message with projects related to these tags.
On July 6, 2016, Sheridan immediately reported the issue to iStock representatives. The representative she spoke with explained that she could not remove the tags, despite the horrifying message they sent, and would have to refer that to another department for review. Sheridan assumed that this violent imagery arrayed with reference to homosexuality would violate iStock’s terms of service, but she never heard back from the department responsible for reviewing the complaint. She also assumed the issue would be taken care of, and not wanting ever to see the video or images again, put it out of her mind.
Flash forward to this week—Sheridan found the old email from iStock as she was cleaning out her emails and decided to swallow her distaste and check to see if the video, or at least the tags, had been removed. The video and tags remained unchanged. She renewed her calls for iStock to remove the tags, but again the company representative again told her that they sent information about her complaint to the content team requesting that they remove these keywords.
When action wasn't forthcoming, Sheridan turned to social media, asking others to join her in calling for the video’s tags to be removed. Sheridan found the same video from the same vendor on other stock sites, none of which bore reference to LGBT issues—meaning other online sites have likely prohibited this kind of behavior in their terms of service and/or maintain controls over tagging.
While iStock continues to "review" the issue specifically related to this image, one wonders how many other images are coded with tags to allow hate groups of various kinds to find useful imagery. A larger question also looms, and it’s a question Sheridan wants answered: by hosting such a service and refusing responsibility for monitoring the use of tags that could enable intimidation and inciting terror in endangered community, do companies like iStock enable and facilitate the deployment of hate speech? And, if so, how can we hold them accountable until they adopt socially responsible policies?
As of this writing, representatives have not responded to a request for comment and the lynching video and other images related remain on the site and tagged “homosexual” & “homosexual couple”. While little explicitly shows, the video is nonetheless disturbing, but it is currently found at CLICK HERE.