The ethics of watching a massacre video

The livestreaming of the New Zealand killings only raises the bar for both social-media giants and internet users to increase their powers of discernment.

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Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook say they’re still working to remove video footage filmed by a gunman in the New Zealand mosque shooting.

In her famous writings on photography, the late pundit Susan Sontag worried about the “ethics of seeing,” or the choices we must all make about what images to allow into our sight. She may never have imagined the unprecedented case of a massacre being livestreamed on Facebook and then a video of it quickly shared across the internet, as happened during Friday’s mass killing in New Zealand.

For many, viewing the massacre was just one click away.

A debate over the ethics of watching or, more importantly, transmitting the video is more timely than ever. The killer’s intent to exploit the digital universe for his murderous cause has led many social media users to close their accounts. Some hope to join a 50-hour boycott of Facebook this Friday, or one hour for every shooting victim. Business associations in New Zealand plan to pull ads from the platform.

The country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has asked people not to use the killer’s name, as he has done enough to mythologize himself with a viral visual. “Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them,” she said.

Such responses hint at the desire to better choose what we watch and to insist that media facilitators like Facebook better filter content. For several years, tech giants have designed special algorithms to detect offensive material and, if that fails, they have armies of content checkers. Last Friday, both Facebook and Google’s YouTube moved quickly under public pressure to take down the massacre video.

Yet the need for internet users to develop instant discernment remains. The first step is to avoid the temptation of voyeurism. Then users must learn why they should deprive a mass audience for those who would livestream a depraved act. The reason: If a killer is unable to amplify his or her actions online, the killer might not inspire copycats.

The new norm is not to normalize images of violence or the hate behind it. “Deciding to turn away from hate and pursue its opposite is a daily decision and a daily act, one we must constantly recommit to as vigorously as possible, in spite of all the obstacles,” writes Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator, in a new book, “The Opposite of Hate.”

Another pundit who wrote about photography, Susie Linfield, says moving images are particularly alluring. They can cause viewers to abandon themselves. After watching a horrific video, however, they must reassert their autonomy and their “heightened presence of mind.”

People in New Zealand and around the world are now trying to recover that “heightened presence of mind” after the massacre. The tech giants can do only so much. The ethics of seeing still lies mainly with the seers.

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