As Twitter resists the sharing of graphic images of the Brussels Attack, is the Twittersphere finally developing a real social conscience?
An interesting moral and ethical debate is emerging on Twitter over the broadcast of graphic images of the Brussels terror attacks. Within minutes of logging on this morning, as you might expect by now, I was able to see multiple images of severely wounded people and watch videos of the panic and fear of the aftermath of the blast.
Two women sit stunned on a bench, the shoe of one missing, her foot dripping. A man lies on the ground, his legs outstretched before his incredulous regard. They are framed in red and the angle appears odd, wrong somehow. A woman flees the airport wearing white jeans with scarlet, bloodied knees. A man's head pours with blood as someone tries to staunch it with an item of clothing, a scarf I think.
Yet under the heading “graphic images” there are probably twice as many tweets condemning the sharing of those images, and a widespread call across the twitter-sphere not to retweet them. Which is fitting. Aside from it being clear that the victims did not give permission for their images to be used in this way, seeing them there they look vulnerable, terrified and alone. Capturing images of fellow humans in their moment of crisis in this way reminds me of the old, probably apocryphal, story about photographing indigenous communities. It seems to me that in a godless world, when you steal the privacy of the wounded, it is as if you are stealing their soul.
Could it be that Twitter is growing up, that we are witnessing something rather unique, the spontaneous emergence of a moral sense, of a communicable intelligibility of right and wrong, that people are more interested in sharing than simply images of gore and violence? I feel almost like I am witnessing the transformation of a pupae into a butterfly, or the birth of a new star. In the past social media was all about sharing intimate images of violence for the ‘good’ of the wider community, a kind of pity porn that reached both its nadir and its apex with the images of the drowned body of Aylan Kurdi.
Although people expressed a moral sense of outrage as they passed the pity porn on, we all knew that titillation and novelty was as much a part of the process as social conscience. That this appears to have changed is perhaps simply that we have suffered too many attacks of late, shared a little bit too much, and have started to overcome that initial thrill of being broadcasters of snuff, because that is after all the technical term for such images of violence and death.
At the same time as we can witness the birth of an ethical social contract across the twittersphere, we can also record a small victory of text over image. To resist the sharing of images you can't use images, you have to use words, rhetoric, the power of persuasion. Granted the whole premise of Twitter militates to hamper proper democratic discourse, what Jurgen Habermas calls communicative action, because the tweets are just too short for that and the propensity for violence to prevalent in an anonymised and consequenceless universe. But in this case simple states of refusal, renunciation and moral outrage combine to form a kind of hive-heart or hive-soul, a communal, spontaneous, philosophically emergent demos of opinion that only words can convey.
It seems that a shift has occurred, a clicking point if you will. People have begun to realise that just because it exists, you don't need to look at it. There is a choice on social media, not often felt due to peer pressure and the anthropologically novel millennial phenomenon of the Need To Share. You don’t have to pass it on, the buck can really stop with you and if enough people take this stance, the virallity of the image which is at epidemic proportion, can be vaccinated against and its spread halted.
This impulse of renunciation and arrest of pity-porn, of snuff, of graphic imagery is surely to be applauded. It is an impulse however has not yet extended to those who captured those images and tweeted them in the first place. In one example a man, I think it is, takes a two-minute video of panic in a departure lounge full of smoke and fumes. Overhead warning sirens screech to a degree that it becomes unbearable. The man is crouched over another figure covering their head with their arms like a child, as if hiding means they can’t be seen or touched. It is apparent that absolutely no one knows what is happening. Occasionally stunned figures, still pushing their luggage on trolleys, slowly cross the floor. Once or twice a person runs past at full pelt towards the exit sign. Other than that the scene is drear and empty.
Another bomb could go off any second, the fumes from the smoke could be toxic, a fire may be spreading their way, yet still the man films. Finally, a security guard arrives to tell him to leave. Still recording, he stops to put on his jacket, of all things, then the image goes black.
Why did he put his life at risk to shoot that? Why did he film instead of consoling the distraught figure at his feet? Was he gripped by simple voyeurism, or something more noble, a journalistic impulse to record the truth as and when it is happening, no matter how awful and irrespective of the consequences?
Most likely he was in a state of shock and just did the first thing that came to him, an automatic instinct like pushing your luggage through Armageddon, which makes the decision to record even more confounding. In days gone by, at moments of crisis, people would reach for their bible and pray. In our new millennium, face to face with death, we grab our phone and film.