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The impulse to share the gory

The debate on the use of graphic images has been ongoing. Are they of news value or sensationalism?

By Lara Pickford- Gordon,

A man attempted to commit suicide after killing his  wife and photos of his badly damaged face were later disseminated on social media by persons unknown.  Social media was also where relatives of a murder victim saw an image of his body on the roadside. The relatives of a man killed in a motor vehicle accident had to appeal for the public to stop sharing photos. How would you feel if it were your relative or friend?

The debate on the use of graphic images has been ongoing. Are they of news value or sensationalism? Do media outlets treat subjects differently in deciding to show disturbing images? Social media has become the popular platform for the public to distribute “news” whether truthful or fake and users are not held to the same standards as news media. There are no “graphic warning” alerts.

What is it about spreading “news”? Being in the know, perhaps?  Psychologist Nidhi Kirpalani said, “We have access to more and people want to share information and news”.  Accessibility is facilitated via mobile phones which allow us to text, capture photographs and videos.

“Now we have instant messaging! Today everything is accessible on touch screen. I can live stream a wedding to those who could not attend! I can send pictures instantly from T&T to China! The ease of information being transmitted, and not to mention the amount of information and the vast types of information, let us say from G-rated to X-rated, is easy on your fingertips”, Kirpalani said. Apart from the ease of transmission individuals feel “good” being “knowledgeable”, having access before others and being the one to share.  Kirpalani added, “It also becomes a shared experience.”  She gave the example of a 911 call, which can also be “shared trauma” for those who weren’t there. Understanding, shock, joy and anger can be evoked, she explained.

Another question is why people stop to record then post troubling events such as children being physically abused instead of calling the police. She said there can be “bystander effect” where someone walks away while others will film the incident “hoping someone else will help while they document and experience the event.” Bystander effect, also called bystander apathy, is a term in psychology that refers to the tendency of people to take no action in an emergency situation when there are others present.

She added, “Also some people feel like in Trinidad, unless it’s a media case, the protection agencies do not address the situation as immediate. We have seen it at times to be true when police rush in once a video is circulated. Perhaps as it is documented proof by the photographer.”

We might ask ourselves if there is a fascination with disseminating the gory and if the ease of transmission is responsible, however, Kirpalani  said people like to be “in the know”; sharing images may also be proof of an incident/event happening. She illustrated that sharing on murders in a country can alert others about safety issues or “make people aware of how fortunate they are”.

She said perpetrators  who confess to crimes online could be seeking fame, displaying bravado. In 2013, a Florida man Derek Medina confessed on Facebook to killing his wife and shared a photo of her body. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 2016. Medina is just one example which gained notoriety in the news.

Commenting on this, Kirpalani said, “The brain relates differently to posting online as it physically disconnects you from others. The consequences are not direct, as you cannot see the other person’s true facial reaction or [hear the] tone of voice. It is different from telling someone that you committed a crime in person as opposed to typing it.” She said the absence of facial cues and context in texting affects all relationships. “[Have you] ever read a message and heard it in your friend’s tone of voice?” she asked.

Kirpalani said negative events capture attention because human brains are wired to notice threats as a biological drive for survival. Humans also seek acknowledgement, social support, praise, the desire to feel needed/wanted and “in the know”.

“There’s a lot of positive reinforcement in social media. Pressing ‘like’ is a sort of reward to the person’s brain. It’s also quite instant,” she commented. The psychologist was asked the obvious question: Are we as a society becoming more desensitised because of the exposure to so much via the internet?  “Definitely!” Kirpalani said. Regular exposure to graphic, disturbing images can cause the brain to develop blockers which lower empathy. Kirpalani elaborated, “You’ve reacted to this situation so many times your brain is accustomed to it.”