Watching War Online

The Violence in the Media debate has focused primarily on mass media, conceived and created by institutions and targeted at a mass audience. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, and the ease with which a video shot on one can be uploaded to the internet, has changed all that. The technology means that we can now see raw, unregulated violence online, whether it’s the exploits of a happy slapping gang in South London, or troops opening fire on protestors in Libya.

What effect does this have on our collective and individual psyche? Xeni Jardin writes in her thoughtful post in today’s Guardian:

…human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the [un]mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?

There’s also a concern that, even with a cell phone, footage can be faked, re-cut or re-mediated in order to manipulate both events and the viewer. What purports to be the raw, bloody truth, an eye-witness account from a non-partisan bystander, may actually be deliberate, heavily political propaganda. For decades we have viewed news-gatherers as relatively “trusted sources”, believed that they report what is happening from a third person perspective – although those reports might be subject to political bias. However, citizen journalism shifts our news into a first person framework, showing the Who, Where and some of the What, but never addressing the How and the Why. Without that vital explanation and mediation, news footage can indeed leave the viewer feeling traumatized, numb and confused.

As mainstream news outlets cut overseas budgets and turn ever-inwards towards freely and cheaply available celebrity gossip and entertainment stories, concerned citizens need to seek their news independently, often turning to ‘primary’ sources such as cellphone videos and Twitter commentary. However, we need to educate ourselves to regulate and analyse this information, putting ourselves in the position of editor, double checking facts, assessing the choices made in framing and representation. We need to become our own gatekeepers, ensuring that we’re not numb, or traumatized, and that we can give the death of a stranger the importance and respect it deserves no matter how many times it plays out in a tiny online window.

Atrocity Exhibition – The Guardian