When sensational images are a click away

Recent videos of Americans being beheaded and stolen images of nude celebrities call for Internet user to have better discernment on the easy choices in viewing such visuals.

AP Photo
Actress Jennifer Lawrence arrives at the Oscars ceremony last March in Los Angeles. As the latest celebrity photo-hacking scandal has made clear, privacy isn't what it used to be. And Internet users must decide whether to encourage the postings of such images.

In the past few weeks, many Internet users may have momentarily faced two questions:

Should I click on a video of an American being beheaded?

And should I click on stolen images of a naked Jennifer Lawrence?

To look or not to look? We are all becoming Prince Hamlets on the Web.

A technology that offers the ultimate in choices is posing too many choices of conscience on whether to fall for temptation.

If we click, will we be complicitous in someone else’s crime and mere dupes of manipulation? Are we being voyeurs? Will we be able to forget what we saw?

By not clicking, have we made a moral choice against such behavior? Or by self-censoring, will we avoid becoming morally outraged and stirred to act?

Difficult questions about whether to view an image are not new. Recorded pictures have been around since the first photography in the 19th century. Sharing of images exploded with the first mass-produced camera in the 1930s. But the combination of mass use of recording devices and the mass sharing on the Internet is new. We all must be better prepared to know whether to click-and-look in the privacy of using our electronic gadgets.

One of the best thinkers about the effect of visual representations, the late Susan Sontag, offered this advice in a 2007 book “At the Same Time”:

“A photograph may be telling us: this too exists. And that. And that. (And it is all ‘human’.) But what are we to do with this knowledge – if indeed it is knowledge, about, say, the self, about abnormality, about ostracized or clandestine worlds?”

Another writer on the power of images, Susie Linfield of New York University and author of the 2010 book “The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence” writes that moving images are particularly alluring.

They “sweep us into them sometimes against our will.... They are unique in their ability to make us surrender – which is why they are so effective. And this is so even when a viewer is consciously antagonistic to the message a film conveys.

“This does not mean that one can’t be revolted while watching an Islamist death video.... But it does mean that the viewer often abandons herself to the action in front of her and must struggle, after the fact, to reassert her autonomy and reconnect to what she knows. She must undo the process of dissolving; she must reassert her separateness and her ‘heightened presence of mind’.”

Yet another commentator, Sally Kohn, offered this advice in a recent TED talk about the need to be more conscious of what comes over the Internet:

“We gotta stop clicking on the lowest-common-denominator, bottom-feeding link bait,” Ms. Kohn said. “Clicking on a train wreck just pours gasoline on it and makes it worse. Our whole culture gets burned. The incentive is to make more noise, to be heard, and that tyranny of the loud encourages the tyranny of the nasty. It does not have to be that way.... 

“If what gets the most clicks wins, we have to start shaping the world we want with our clicks. Because clicking is a public act.”

So private clicks may not be so private. Opening a decapitation video or the latest image of a nude celebrity should not be done on a whim. But what about those images of starving children, victims of sexual abuse, or scenes of war? Might they lead to understanding? Or will they simply haunt us?

Whether to avert one’s eyes can depend on an ability to discern the intent of the imagemaker and the image distributer. What is the context? Who wants me to see this? Answers may not come easily without some probing – or some reflection on one’s own motives.

Sontag refers to the “ethics of seeing” in this new world of visuals on the Internet. To click or not to click – we can no longer say we did not have a choice.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial had the incorrect name and date for the Susan Sontag book.]

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