Witnessing Death On Social Media

Watching Death On Social Media

There’s a very good chance you’ve already seen the video shot by Diamond Reynolds – the video of the aftermath of her boyfriend Philando Castile being shot by a Minnesota cop. Although the shooting has already occurred at the beginning of the footage, what is perhaps as (or more) unsettling than Castile’s bloodied body sprawled across the seat is the almost surreally calm behavior of Reynolds, juxtaposed with the hoarse, panicked screaming of the cop, who is still pointing his sidearm at Castile, ready to shoot again:

As we all know, the video got wide exposure rapidly, and triggered protests and vigils nationwide, thanks to the senseless shooting happening – as it did – so soon after the ruthless killing of Alton Sterling by police. As the events connected to the protests in Dallas unfolded yesterday evening, this video and others made the rounds on social media:

My personal reaction to it was one that I later realized was similar to how I reacted to the Beltway Sniper events of over a decade ago, except I was watching events in almost-real time. It was eerie, imagining myself in any major American city I’ve been in, with military-style gunfire ringing out above me, and echoing through the streets. It was obvious the shooter was experienced and had a serious weapon, based on the sound of the gun’s report and the rapid firing.

All of which got me wondering (again) – what will be the social and psychological impact of so many people witnessing death thanks to social media? This question has crossed my mind many times over the last decade and a half, beginning in 2002, when a video of the beheading of Daniel Pearl was making its rounds on the internet. At first, I thought: “there is no reason at all for me to watch this thing”, and just kind of avoided it. As it continued popping up in discussion all over the place though, I eventually succumbed to the perverse curiosity required to intentionally watch such a thing. In the end, I was grateful that the resolution was so poor that it almost appeared to be fake; my mind really doesn’t need more images like that in it. I had already seen – in real life – one person get shot to death, and another decapitated in an accident involving a sports car. A few years later, I chose not to watch the readily available cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution.

But being able to witness violent deaths on social media is only going to become more common. Without searching too hard, you can find about a half-dozen videos like this from the last couple of years alone, and four of them – Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Antonio Perkins , and Walter L. Scott  – all occurred in the last year or so. Three of them in the last few weeks.

So what will be the social & psychological impact of so many average citizens witnessing violent deaths on a regular basis?

We don’t have a useful answer, nor does anyone else; there simply are no studies available yet on the topic.

But we suspect it won’t be positive.

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