The ethics of Online Sharing

Judging by the thumbnail it looked like the mindless mms fodder that circulates on pointless WhatsApp groups that courtesy dictates you stay a part of. Accompanying text read : “Guy Lights up after using Air freshener in Car”.

I usually press the delete button on these things, but as fate would have it, I decided to watch this one. The video opens with three guys in a car listening to music. Dude in the backseat lights up, instantly triggering a flash that momentarily engulfs the screen; luminous envelopes of fire quickly blossom around them, wrapping their heads completely.

A shriek, and the camera drops, now panning to a view of the sky through the windscreen. For the next 30 seconds, you hear painful shrieks, desperate door banging and some unbearably high-pitched squealing as the music plays on. Then suddenly, the music is the only thing piercing the eerie silence in the closing seconds. Video ends.

I wish I hadn’t seen it.

Whosoever first arrived at the scene (in time, lets pray) had the gall to share these 60 seconds of horror with the rest of the world. Now lost to the colossal internet of things, this disturbing clip proliferates online and caters to a perverted parallel of voyeurism that has, sadly, become the other face of the viral video phenomenon. Nobody calls them ‘viral’, but they’re shared and consumed equally rabidly, ostensibly to raise awareness about an issue. If you find it hard to believe, wait for a few weeks and chances are, a picture of a charred torso/torn limbs/spilled entrails, usually clicked and brazenly shared by first responders (rescue personnel/police/medics) but sometimes even by gawking bystanders, will show up in your feed. Even a popular chief minister of a now bifurcated Deccan Indian state, who lost his life in a chopper crash a few years ago, wasn’t spared this indignity. One usually expects a member of the political class to be more privileged than most. Or perhaps this is what they mean by Death being the great equaliser…

Even print media, inveterate practitioners of content moderation and refinement, increasingly seem to have a no-holds-barred approach towards publishing potentially graphic content. A respected National daily blithely published images of civilian and terrorist corpses (one on the front page) following the deadly terror attack at a police station in Punjab recently, leaving one to wonder what purpose such a venture served.

Stuff like this upsets me. Call me weak hearted, but seeing images of corpses, especially in the press, wasn’t the norm when I was growing up. News used to be diligently sanitised, and even pixellated images were a rarity.

I know what some of you might be thinking – If it bothers me so much, why watch it?, Just move on.

After all, it deters others from risky behaviour, it might save some lives.

And of course –  We’ll watch what we wanna watch! Don’t control the internet!

As far as I’m concerned, I would back off immediately if graphic content carried an EXPLICIT warning with it. As it happens, mostly, such warnings are either cryptic, or non-existent altogether, leading unsuspecting fellows to accidental exposure.

As for free internet. The internet is yours and you may view/watch whatever you want to, but before you do, try this exercise: Put yourself in the shoes of a loved one of a victim in the spotlight, and imagine their plight at the travesty of their privacy as the world laps up gory details of their beloved’s unfortunate end.

Or imagine accidentally viewing unsightly pictures of their disfigured remains even as you come to terms with bereavement, as happened in the horrifying case of the US teenager ‘CN’ who was deceased in a violent car crash in 2006. Mishandling of photos of her bloodied remains, taken by first responders, resulted in them spawning across thousands of websites, many of them dedicated to hardcore macabre, leading to unending torment for her family. Subsequently, the father was tricked into viewing those pictures (captioned with taunts), when he clicked open what appeared to be regular business mail. CN’s sisters had to be pulled out of school, and were forbidden from using the internet, lest they chance upon the pictures that’ll forever be on display online. The family also engaged in an expensive litigation to have the photos removed, and pressed for laws against emergency response personnel distributing death pictures outside their professional circle.

It’s hard to tell what’s more appalling : the vicious bile from the scum of the online community aimed at vilifying CN with nasty comments and false propaganda, or the justification given by some website owners for refusing to comply with the family’s request to take the photos offline. One of them, in a statement to a news outlet, goes as far as to dub the family’s struggle to have the pictures removed as ‘infringement’ of the rest of world’s ‘right’ to host and view them.

In such cases of conflict between the Right to Free Speech/Expression and Right to Privacy, beyond a certain point, the latter should trump the former. But the Law in the US doesn’t agree.

Take a moment to contemplate the family’s torment.

One of the things that makes us human is the dignity we accord to the dead. When we share photos of their mortal remains – however beneficial the cause – without their prior consent, we’re mocking that dignity, and in-turn, devaluing our own humanity.

Have people become so oblivious of the damage, psychological and otherwise, such images cause? Why have we stooped so low? The culture of indiscriminate sharing seems to be breaking new depths, and after rigorous mental dissection, I think here’s why:

1.The ubiquity of the camera and the pervasive connectivity offered by the World Wide Web means everyone is now a potential journalist. Unfortunately, not everyone has had training in ethical journalism. The result? Anything with shock value, no matter how gruesome, is instantly disseminated in its raw, uncensored form. Content check on social networks – the next line of defence – has been hosed down to a cursory warning on FB, and virtually nothing on twitter. WhatsApp doesn’t have one. FB promises to take down content that ‘glorifies violence‘* and promotes ‘sadistic pleasure‘*, but will allow unbridled sharing of the same if they’re convinced that the intent is to ‘condemn‘ and ‘raise awareness‘.

2. Death intrigues. As a kid, I had a deep, visceral urge to witness a butcher at work. (I wasn’t the only one). Not just that, whenever there was a “dog-shoot” – colloquial for ‘cleansing’ operations requiring all dogs on campus** to be shot in the event of a rabies outbreak – I remember us kids eagerly scouting for dog carcasses afterwards, and probing them with sticks. News of a dead crow rotting under a tree half a kilometre away would call for an expedition to the site, and friends, like tour guides, would dutifully lead the contingent to the spot. Morbid curiosity used to get the better of our horror and revulsion back then. This curiosity recedes as maturity blossoms, but I suspect it never dies. And with gory content just a click away, it’s gotten easier to breathe life back into it. Perhaps a significant number today eagerly seek out such content just to satisfy that curiosity.

3. Gore being the new normal on Television. Specifically, shows like Spartacus and Game of Thrones. GoT and ISIS seem to be falling over each other in their bid to be the first to device and shoot 101 ingeniously gruesome ways to kill someone. Typical day at GoT studios:

” Okay we need to kill this guy off! Beheading? You kidding me? Beheading is passe! They do it every day! Why not have the monster crush his cranium…Wait! Have his eyes gouged out first… make sure the CGI bloody looks real… This is what the people want! “

” Stabbing? Could you be more unoriginal?! Listen, she ain’t getting stabbed, she’s getting skinned, alive! Follow it up with a close-up of the ribcage. Throw some more blood in there. We can do it people, this is what we do best! This is what the people want!”

Sadly, this is what the majority of the fans seem to want. Each time there’s bloodshed on the show, a part of our souls is chipped away. Yet, we keep going back for more. I’m as guilty as anyone else, lacking the strength to give it up. Resolutions to never watch it again fall through, and I go back to trading my soul, one piece at a time, for being fed pieces of a plot that’s lately become a string of murders juxtaposed with copious amounts of nudity and sexual violence. I admit I’ve gone overboard in comparing them to the barbarians that are IS, and I’ve digressed. But I’d venture to conclude that GoT’s inflated following thrives, in part, thanks to their obscene level of comfort with depicting extreme violence.

An overdose of graphic content has numbed emotions and inured sensitivities to real life violence, severely undermining our ability to empathise, to be human.

Sensitivity and Empathy. The two are intertwined, and they deplete fast.

Next time you’re a recipient of such content, and if you think I’m making sense here, try to break the chain. People can be warned without the aid of gory visuals. That’s how it used to be till 2 decades ago. No reason it can’t work today. Let us share stuff responsibly.

CN’s tragic demise 9 years ago zaps my spirits today. I wish I could disclose her name, for her story needs to be told. But looking her up could lead others to the same online irreverence that has brought her family so much pain. And so, this is how you and I shall respect her, by leaving her alone…

Rest in Peace.


*- phrases borrowed from Facebook’s policy page.

**-different defence campuses I lived in

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