As governments consider tightening the reins on social media companies and the platforms’ use in terrorism, new research highlights the impact of being exposed to such violence.
Following last month’s mosque shootings in Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced plans to co-host a meeting in Paris called the “Christchurch Call”. The aim will be to have world leaders and tech company CEOs pledge to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. There’s plenty of scepticism of what it will achieve, but it’s clear something needs to happen.
The Christchurch shootings stand out in the collective repulsion over the means by which the alleged gunman live-streamed his attack: first on Facebook, then republished on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet.
As of last week, companies were reportedly still playing whack-a-mole with the video as the stream kept showing back up again. Eric Feinberg, founder of the Global Intellectual Property Enforcement Center, told Motherboard last week that posts of the video, some over a month old, were still appearing on Facebook and Instagram.
Feinberg told RNZ that hundreds of thousands of people had accessed the videos. “The YouTube video we took down … had over 720,000 views. Some of the other YouTube videos we saw had between 5000 and 15,000 views. Mostly the Facebook and Instagram ones ranged from a few hundred to maybe 15,000 views.”
Both the video, and a so-called manifesto, have been classified as objectionable material by the Chief Censor, and several people have been charged in New Zealand for allegedly sharing the video. One man has pleaded guilty to two charges of distributing the video – he will be charged in June.
Why does it matter that the video – and anything like it in the future – stays off social media?
Cycles of trauma
Research published last week in Science Advances suggests that exposure to mass violence through the media can fuel a cycle of trauma, where people consume more media coverage of violent events and add fuel to their distress response.
Their three-year study surveyed people in the US a few weeks after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, six months and two years later, then finally five days after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Survey participants were asked to tally up how many hours they were exposed to of each of seven sources of media – TV; radio; pictures, videos or text updates on social media; online news; and print media. Some people reported cumulative media use in excess of 24 hours per day across the various sources.
At the six month mark, participants were assessed using a screening method for post-traumatic stress based on four aspects: re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing and hyperarousal. Those who had reported high levels of media consumption after the Boston bombing were more likely to exhibit post-traumatic stress syndromes, and were in turn more likely to be worried about the future two years later (a hallmark sign of post-traumatic stress), and finally they consumed more media coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
It seemed that distress from past trauma sensitised people to then seek out coverage of these later events, driving a cycle of trauma and impacts on mental health.
The researchers recommended that media outlets should seek to balance their coverage, for instance by providing informational accounts instead of “lengthy descriptions of carnage”. (Some of the reporting from Christchurch talking about “rivers of blood” probably wouldn’t pass that bar.) They say this might reduce the exposure to one event and reduce the likelihood of the spiralling behaviour of worry, trauma and heightened consumption.
What should we take from this?
In the heady aftermath of the mosque attack, driven by the 24-hour news cycle when media outlets were rushing to keep their stories up to date, some New Zealand and many international media outlets showed stills or clips from the alleged shooter’s video. In light of this new research, it’s worth questioning what impact that might have on people.
Anecdotally, following the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake I was left without power for some time. Even when it came back on, I don’t tend to watch TV news so I inadvertently missed a lot of the initial, rolling coverage, which I’m told was fairly horrific. It was days before I began to understand the scale of what had happened: on that first evening, I’m not sure I even knew that buildings had come down.
I’ve heard people talk vividly about what they saw on TV that day, and it sounds to me like those memories are traumatic. In contrast, following the mosque shootings I sat at home that Friday night glued to the TV screen and scrolling through social media. There was another video being shown on Al Jazeera that night, taken shortly after the shooting in one of the mosques: I’ve never seen it elsewhere, presumably other outlets decided not to screen it.
It’s hard to say whether I was more traumatised by watching the rolling coverage, but had I skipped it I at least wouldn’t have seen that video on Al Jazeera. The big thing that’s changed for me between 2011 and now is that, having worked in media for some years now, I’m a much heavier consumer of media than I was back in 2011 when I was working on my PhD and relatively sheltered from the news cycle. I’m guessing even people outside of the media world are exposed to far more news via social media than they might have in the past.
As the media feels its way through the murky ethics of reporting on terrorism and especially this infiltration on social media, it’s unlikely there will be clear answers or guidelines. I’d hope that cooler heads prevail when there is the option to publish or screen violent footage or accounts. I asked my family over Easter if they remembered the name of the man who has been charged in relation to the 50 deaths in Christchurch. They didn’t. Wouldn’t it be better if social and mainstream media also ensured people didn’t see, or remember, the video from the shooting either?