Earlier today, Barron Trump, Donald Trump’s 11-year-old son, was watching TV when the disturbing image of Kathy Griffin holding his father’s severed, bloody head flashed on the screen. From reports, it appears he thought it was real and began to scream for his mother in terror. It’s hard to not feel for the kid. This story is powerful because it connects us back to the shared humanity we all experience. But it’s also a reminder that behind each grotesque and violent image we see on our social media platforms there are real people and families that are being impacted.
Facebook has become the destination for all kinds of gore and violence. Today, it’s a picture of Kathy Griffin holding Donald Trump’s severed, bloody head. Yesterday, it was the bloody oozing wound sustained by a friend. The day before that it was a video of a kid accidentally killing himself on Facebook live while showing off a pistol.
When I was in high school I was invited to join Facebook by a friend who was in college. At the time you needed to have a “.edu” email address to sign up, and I was thus unable to join my friends on the social network for another year or so. When I finally did join, I was quite bored. People kept poking and, eventually, throwing sheep at me. It wasn’t until apps came out and I realized I could flirt with women by sending them pieces of flare that I really got interested in the social network. The once-boring social media platform became very interesting indeed.
I miss the days when Facebook was boring.
We’ve come a long way since then. I’ve only ever seen two dead bodies in my life that weren’t on Facebook. In real life, I’ve never seen a beheading, a murder, a suicide, or someone being tortured. But on Facebook, I’ve seen all of these and then some (either as pictures, videos, GIFs, or news headlines). From the comfort of my screen, I’ve been to a horrific wasteland of human carnage where real, actual people’s lives are being devastated right in front of me.
Once upon a time, you had to be a soldier or some type of war correspondent to see this type of human carnage. When you came back from these war zones, you often had some form of PTSD or needed desperately to talk to a therapist about these experiences. But in our modern life, we take trips to war zones all the time via our social media platforms and somehow have to grapple and deal with the consequences.
When the Syrian regime attacked its own people with chemical weapons, we all watched babies writhe, scream, and die in pain from the comfort of our Facebook pages.
This proliferation of violence does have good elements that must be acknowledged. Much of the violence already existed but did not have the platform to get noticed. Social media has made us more aware of atrocities and crimes committed against people groups from Aleppo to Ferguson. While this education is a good thing and is helping to create conversations that are long overdue, there are serious issues and drawbacks.
Many people who share this sort of disturbing Facebook content likely do it for another reason entirely: It’s become a form of entertainment. Shock entertainment, sure. But entertainment nonetheless. It arouses our desire for morbidity and exposes us to all the harsh grim realities our modern life so often shields us from.
This sharing of disturbingly violent material as entertainment is often shielded under guises of activism and awareness. But it most often masquerades itself as a form of outrage. We live in a world where everyone loves to be outraged. Being outraged gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of belonging to a larger tribe. It creates an “us versus them” ideology that powerfully shapes our narratives about who the good guys and bad guys are in the world.
Outrage without action is simply a stroking of ego, as we convince ourselves we are good people because of our outrage. You are not a good person for being outraged that other innocent people are killed. At best, this makes you just like everyone else. Feeling outraged in response to the outrageous is not a virtue in and of itself. In fact, it may be the opposite. If you watch something so offensive but yet do nothing other than feel outraged and share a link on Facebook, you’re part of the problem. The virtue comes when we translate our outrage into action (beyond the mere action of sharing a link and then quickly hopping back to binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix–you know, our other form of entertainment).
Often when videos of murders go viral reporters will ask the family of the victim if they have seen the video. Most often, those closest to the victim state they have not and do not intend to. Maybe it’s time we took a cue from the loved ones of such victims and became more mindful before indulging in our outrage campaigns on social media.
The vast majority of people who share such gruesome and terrifying things on my Facebook do so because they are trying to raise awareness to key issues. This is just and noble. Yet I can’t help but wonder as to its efficacy. Because when I see these types of horrifying images, I often steel myself against them, as I quickly scroll past.
What choice do I have?
If I allow myself to feel all the empathy towards my fellow man, as a human watching another human in immense pain and suffering, I would be reduced to a blubbering mess. I thus must turn off my empathy, because I only have so many tears to give. If I were to allow myself to be swept up in all the misery of the world, be it on my Facebook feed or otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get anything done. I would be utterly ineffective as a human. So, I scroll past, literally and emotionally.
The alternative is to feel the outrage and indignation, while still containing the scope of empathy. But most outrage and indignation in our world doesn’t manifest itself beyond our social media profile and translate it into real action. We like and share and change our profile pics. But that doesn’t really do much for the children of Syria. And the problem, of course, is we often mistakenly think we’ve actually done something and check it off on our “be a good person” list.
If you’re sharing something simply to raise awareness, you should do something instead. Go donate to a nonprofit or volunteer. Heck, even protest. But don’t trick yourself into thinking you’ve done something by simply sharing disturbing news stories on Facebook.
When you do share disturbing material, make sure people have to “Opt In” to be exposed to such horrific images and videos. This means pictures, GIFS, and most videos shared directly to your feed should be off-limits when their material is deeply disturbing. Sharing links to pictures, videos, and news stories on other pages, where the rest of the Facebook tribe can choose whether or not they want to see it is thus the responsible option. Important note: If you’re sharing a link and the preview picture is violent and/or disturbing, you should either remove the image or toggle to an appropriate image.
Finally, no one wants to see that oozing wound you got at hockey practice magnified 10X for everyone to behold in all its glory. Like, no one.