One study found that people who repeatedly viewed footage of deadly events were more traumatized than those who had witnessed the events in real life.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
The first murder I saw online was the decapitation of Nick Berg, an American businessman captured and killed by an Iraqi jihadist group in 2004. The video depicted a handful of men working together to cut his head off. I was in high school at the time. I watched him die.
Since then, there have been a number of deaths broadcast online: Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. David Cawthorne Haines. It's become copacetic to watch someone's murder, and not just in dark corners of the internet. These videos exist undisguised, presented under the guise of relevant "news content." You can find them on Facebook and Twitter, sandwiched between family photos and videos of dogs.
The video of Castile dying on Facebook Live generated approximately 3 million views within a few hours, instantly provoking public outrage. I watched, too, and afterward, I was certain the video would be removed for violating Facebook's rules on graphic content. After all, Facebook reserves the right to remove explicitly violent content posted to the site. But it turns out there's a loophole—images and videos "of public interest or concern." Only violent images "shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence" are removed.
But some experts believe the context doesn't really matter, because whether or not the intentions are good, watching someone die can have real and lasting psychological effects.
"I do not believe the intent of the distributor makes a difference in how traumatic the viewer's response is," Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist with an expertise in PTSD and trauma from mass media told VICE. "The level of trauma is based on the content of the video and also heightened if the viewer identifies with the victim."
Of course, many will argue that's exactly the point: We're supposed to be traumatized by these kinds of videos because the point is to provoke change. If we're not exposed to injustices in the world—in all their gory detail—how can we begin to change them?
Of all the categories of filmed homicide, civilian-police conflict shootings are at the forefront of this discussion. Between March 2014 and September 2016, there were at least 15 viral videos of police encounters that resulted in death. Presumably, users sharing these videos believe that they're contributing to a cause and helping to rectify social injustice.
"It's one thing to talk about the injustices, but when people actually see it with their own eyes, that's a whole different ball game," said Metzger. "They are able to empathize with the victim and can advocate stopping the injustice that they witnessed. For this very reason, the exposure of the filmed violence can bring on positive results."
Even still, that doesn't mean they're not traumatic to the people watching them. One study found that some people who repeatedly viewed footage of deadly events—in this case, the Boston Marathon bombings—sustained more trauma and stress than people who had witnessed the events in real life. In another study, which asked participants to view footage from school shootings, suicide bombings, and the attacks on 9/11, 22 percent of participants showed symptoms of PTSD after watching the videos.
"After watching such content, [people] may have problems sleeping and even a level of anxiety—almost mimicking paranoia—that they can also be the victim of such a violent act," said Metzger.
And yet, as Metzger pointed out, people can't seem to look away. "I believe there's a certain shock value to these videos that make them appealing to the masses," she said.
After 9/11, Americans watched an average of eight hours of news coverage of the attacks, much of which was explicit. Those who watched more television coverage also had heightened stress responses and symptoms of trauma.
Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and former head of the National Coalition on TV Violence, told VICE there's almost an addictive quality to this kind of graphic violence. "Many people tell themselves that they are watching violent news stories to stay informed, but unconsciously they are becoming addicted to the titillation that this violence creates," she said.
To be sure, as horrified as I was after watching the decapitation of Berg in 2004, it didn't stop me from watching similar videos.
Lieberman sees this as a problem. Beyond the psychological consequences to the viewer, our willingness to consume this kind of content has given groups like ISIS a platform to make their point with footage of beheadings and other violent acts. "Our collective unconscious is being flooded with images of violence, and this is influencing us to become a more violent society," Lieberman said.
Just as with Facebook's censorship guidelines, there's a fine line between what is in the public's interest and what is gratuitous violence—a distinction that the media has grappled with in deciding how best to cover these kinds of videos.
While some videos, like those depicting police violence, are shared to bring justice to the victims, others, like footage of terrorist attacks, can simply create a climate of fear. Either way, the psychological fallout is very real. So if you must share videos of murder online, do so with caution.
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