In the past week or so, major social media events have included a funeral, a police shooting, and a beheading. I don't mean to suggest that the ceremony for Mike Brown in Ferguson, the shooting of Kajieme Powell a few miles away, or the Islamic State's beheading of James Foley in Syria were primarily social media events. They are all tragedies, which have taken and shattered lives.
Yet, for many millions of us, they were consumed, discussed, and shared through Twitter feeds and YouTube links. There's nothing especially novel or particularly strange about this fact alone — it's the way news works these days. Something being painful or ghastly does not exempt it from taking narrative shape across social media. But we can still look critically at the way tragedy and horror gets funneled through these networks, and how this might affect us.
Recent events have highlighted some unsettled ethical quandaries around the online mediation of both tragedy and excessive violence. YouTube and Twitter both deemed that the video showing Foley's beheading contained a horror too terrible to permit, and so the content was banned (a move that I disagreed with, but understood). Then, on Monday, I heard more than one person express discomfort with the idea that Brown's funeral was livestreamed. (VICE News was among the outlets that livestreamed the ceremony, which was open to the public.)
We are faced with the complex challenge of both observing and mediating tragedy.
These two very different incidents, listed together only by virtue of being contemporary in the news cycle, prompted an unease that was hard to place. Some sense, perhaps, that these events carried too much terror or pain for the strictures of tweets or streams. Or maybe we simply desire that some facets of human experience be accorded a weight and magnitude beyond their broadcast — whether because of solemnity or, as in the case of Foley's death, horror.
Debates on the media's representation of human suffering far predate online network technologies. In the controversy that arose over Kevin Carter's 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese child watched over by a vulture, the ethical questions were — as they are now — about the roles of observers, voyeurs, actors, and interventionists. But now, as opposed to then, we interact in a media landscape where we all must deal with Carter's dilemma more directly. We are faced with the complex challenge of both observing and mediating tragedy.
It doesn't take a physicist to point out that there's no clear line between observation of and intervention in a situation — flies on walls alter rooms. And no doubt it is by virtue of social media resonance that we are talking about Brown's death, and the systems determining such a tragic fate, at all. The very notion of a livestreamed funeral presupposes that this is a death that would not be passed over in silence, like so many grossly disregarded young black lives before.
Social media platforms seem to offer a trade-off: Under advanced techno-capitalism, the voices of the traditionally unheard find audience and amplification, but only as enabled through the controlled and flattening formats demanded by those platforms (which are, lest we forget, also often giant corporations).
The Islamic State will not be stopped by social media boycotts. Rampant police violence and structural racism in this country will not be dismantled by retweets. Just because an issue is being looked at across social media does not mean it is being addressed.
I am reminded of the final scene in Shakespeare's King Lear, when the old king enters, clutching his daughter Cordelia's dead body. "Howl! Howl! Howl!" he cries, begging a response from those around him. "Oh, you are men of stones! Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so that heaven's vault should crack."
Lear's plea is not simply that the tragedy is spoken of, but that those who speak of it "crack" the fabric of the reality that produced such suffering.
I thought of Lear's cry this week when, on Twitter and Facebook, I saw devastating images of parents and loved ones in states of excruciating mourning from Gaza to Ferguson. I have thought about what we do with our tongues and eyes, faced with such tragedy and injustice. It seems to me that even the sum total of every enraged tweet would not amount to a "Howl!", let alone one capable of cracking the structures of power in need of breaking.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard