Content media

Does removing tragic content diminish the public’s desire to stop tragedies?

from difficult-political-decisions department

We have written several times about Andy Parker, whose story is truly tragic. His daughter, a local television journalist, was murdered on air by a former colleague, in the middle of a live newscast. Really horrible stuff. Parker has spent years trying to remove the video of her daughter’s murder from social media. We first wrote about him in response to a very strange 60 minute episode, in which they used Parker’s story as an example of how social media sites like YouTube wouldn’t remove harmful content… even though the same report admitted that YouTube not only removed this video multiple times, but is now prioritizing reports about this video and certain other content to be removed as soon as possible.

We also had another, more recent, story about how some very sketchy lawyers had actually misled Parker into believing that if he created NFTs from the shooting video, it would somehow induce the companies to be more willing to remove it from their platform faster (which is just nonsense). Indeed, since he does not own the copyright to this video, it is possible that the creation of the NFTs could potentially land him in copyright difficulties with the true copyright holder, who initially seemed willing to bend over backwards to help Parker, but was (quite reasonably) unwilling to assign the copyright to him.

I thought about this story recently, listening to a fascinating discussion on a recent episode of On The Media, chatting with journalism professor Susie Linfield, about whether or not we would be more likely to see actions on gun control if the media actually showed the victims of mass shootings. Linfield also wrote an op-ed for the NY Times to this effect. She notes that it’s definitely not an easy question — and it’s completely understandable that people like Parker want these images and videos gone. Indeed, my gut reaction is that I would almost certainly feel the same way if a loved one were such a victim. But, there are also arguments that go the other way, including that by hiding this type of content, it more or less sweeps some of the underlying issues and horrors under the rug, and allows society to pretending that nothing is wrong, or that nothing should be over.

Photographic images can bring us closer to the experience of suffering – and, in particular, the physical torment that violence creates – in ways that words cannot. What does it look like to destroy a human being, a human body — frail and vulnerable (all human bodies are frail and vulnerable)? What can we know of the suffering of others? Is such knowledge prohibited or, alternatively, necessary? And if we get it, what will happen then?

These are questions that arise in the wake of last week’s mass shooting of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, which plunged much of the country into an abyss of grief, rage and despair. . On social media and in the press, some, including former Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson, have suggested that photographs of the shot children, whose faces and bodies were apparently mutilated beyond recognition, be returned. public in hopes of gaining support for guns. controlling legislation.

Of course, as Linfield points out, there are no easy answers here on either side of the debate. There are some examples of photographic evidence giving “the story a boost”, but there are also examples of how being exposed to such images – especially around someone you used to know – is equally traumatic. . And, also, the impact of these images may not be what we expect…or what we want.

There are many examples of photographs that have given history a boost – sometimes even a vigorous boost. Think of the photographs of the My Lai massacre, the Abu Ghraib torture photos taken by US troops, and Darnella Frazier’s phone video of the murder of George Floyd. But just as Till’s photography didn’t end Jim Crow, My Lai’s images didn’t end the Vietnam War (nor did news reports about the atrocities), Abu Ghraib’s photographs did not end the war in Iraq (or even lead to high profile prosecutions), and the Floyd video did not end police brutality. These photographs supported, encouraged and reinforced public perceptions, political movements and public debates that were already underway. But none resulted in the kind of immediate change their supporters hoped for. When it comes to images, there are few Damascene moments, which is why most photojournalists are modest or even pessimistic about the influence of their work.

And viewers who turn to photographs to bring about political change need to be careful what they wish for: formulating political decisions based on images can be treacherous. Photographs of skeletal Somalis starving to death – James Nachtwey’s are particularly stark – were a major inspiration for the US and UN intervention in Somalia in late 1992; Less than a year later, Paul Watson’s gruesome photograph of a cheering mob dragging the naked corpse of an American soldier contributed to our hasty retreat. (The Somali debacle was a major reason for the Clinton administration’s refusal to respond to the Rwandan genocide the following year.)

Still, it’s a reason to think more deeply about this beyond assuming that the “obvious” right answer is to remove such horrible content. Linfield argues that, at the very least, perhaps common ground is that politicians debating gun control should see the footage, if not the public:

Despite the very real dangers of exploitation and abuse that would be posed by the disclosure of Uvalde’s photographs, I myself would like politicians to see them: to look – really look – at the broken face of what was once a child and then contemplate the bewildered terror of his last moments on earth. But that wouldn’t mean the template is in place. It is people, not photographs, that create political change, which is slow, difficult and unpredictable. Don’t ask images to think or act for you.

Of course, this is not necessarily a new debate. For years we’ve talked about the pressure on YouTube to remove “terrorist” content, and the result was that YouTube shut down the accounts of human rights groups documenting war crimes.

It is not easy to know where or how to draw these kinds of lines. If the content leads to real change, that might be helpful, but it can also cause real harm. At the same time, there are arguments for making it available to researchers and archivists, rather than also hiding it from history.

Again, I don’t have a good answer to this, except that it’s a lot more complicated than people often make it out to be. Many people insist that there is an obvious answer here – and often that “obvious” answer is that the content should be removed. But, as Linfield’s discussion clearly shows, it’s not that simple at all.

Filed under: change, content moderation, graphic imagery, murder, videos