The Internet has made it easier than ever to watch someone die.
Sometimes, we can’t even avoid it. It is literally forced upon us when it comes up in our news feed and the video begins playing by itself.
In the case of Wednesday’s fatal shooting of two Virginia journalists on live television, multiple videos of the act quickly made the rounds on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. One video was the actual news broadcast, and another was apparently from the shooter’s perspective, the latter posted to social media by online accounts said to be linked to the suspect.
Some services were quick to block access to the disturbing content, but in the brief time that they were up, we got a raw glimpse of the ways humanity can be horrible and wonderful, all at the same time.
The horrible: People are watching the videos. And they are sharing them. And they are reposting them. It’s a modern-era train wreck — one that’s hard to turn away from on its own and made even harder to avoid by a now nearly ubiquitous online video feature: auto-play. On Facebook and Twitter, a user doesn’t need to click play for a video to start. Instead, as soon as content flits onto their screen, a video will start playing — albeit without sound.
What’s happening right now, en masse on Twitter, was foreseeable. Anti-racist activists have warned about it since video autoplay debuted.
— Robinson Meyer (@yayitsrob) August 26, 2015
This makes a lot of sense for the platforms' online advertising driven economies: Videos increase engagement, and video ads can bring in more money than traditional banners. The dark side of this system is the exposure of users to particularly gruesome videos before they are flagged or caught up in content filters. And, like anything else posted to the Internet, once it's there, it's very hard to scrub it off for good.
The wonderful: A torrent of Internet users began engaging in a kind of counterspeech to discourage the sharing or viewing of the videos. “Don’t do it,” people said. “It just gives the shooter more exposure and forces it on other people.”
“Having users saying, ‘Don't share it’ is really powerful,” said Jennifer Hanley, policy director for the Family Online Safety Institute, in an interview last year. “It raises awareness of issues and makes people think about what other people are encountering.”
But if the videos are autoplaying, it’s out of my control! you say. The companies decided for me what should happen.
But that’s wrong.
If we've learned anything from this incident, it’s that we do have a choice. We can click pause. We can turn off auto-play. We can, as many others have done, encourage people not to look.
Counterspeech is what should be restoring our faith in humanity today. It’s what forms the basis for a more empathetic Internet, one that tells us not to give in to the darkest parts of ourselves, to resist the commercial impulses that drive media companies to make the decisions they sometimes do.
Together, we are more than what the economics of tragedy might tell us we are.