Does the relentless cycle of tragic footage or photographs we witness every day dehumanise us? Does it turn us into passive observers, indifferent and desensitised to the horror of what we see?
The last few weeks have been spectacularly shocking for anyone on social media. Dhaka, Baghdad, Istanbul, Kashmir, and now, Nice. Everywhere we have turned, whichever part of the world we may be living in, we have had a surfeit of disturbing images relayed to us from near and afar. There's been no escape and there never will be any.
Yesterday Facebook's Newswire page enraged some users after it shared a graphic video of the truck that rammed into people gathered in Nice for Bastille Day celebrations, killing hundreds. An Instagram video of the horrific incident was picked up and shared by the service, which caters mostly to journalists across the world and is curated by Storyful.
The decision was severely criticised by many who felt it was insensitive and disrespectful towards the victims of the tragedy and their families. The French interior ministry, too, urged people not to post images of the wounded and the dead, respecting the feelings of their friends and families.
Unlike Twitter, which is tuned into breaking news, Facebook operates at a slower pace and hence its curation could be more cautious and thoughtful. But then, even if Facebook were to take down the offending video, as it did following the public outcry, it is not possible for anyone, human or bot, to filter the thousands of offending visual content that populate the Internet. Nor is there any way of regulating access to such material or ensure they are used effectively -- to inspire outrage and empathy, not hatred and divisive politics.
We can't escape the violence that surrounds us in real life or on cyber space. Every day most of us consume hundreds of images and videos of death and destruction in print or digital media. Yet, such is our resilience, some may call it appetite for tragedy, that we continue clicking on links warning us of graphic content and sharing them on social media.
We do this either because we need to remind ourselves, and everyone we know, of the injustices that trouble us. And there are severals ways in which we can do this.
A few days ago, graphic artist and designer Orijit Sen created an "Agony Map of Kashmir", based on a photograph by Yawar Nazir.
The image showed a doctor removing pellets from the back of a young man riddled with wounds, each scar named after a Kashmiri town. Compare it with the other instances on reporting on pellet wounds, which have blinded hundreds of boys and girls in Kashmir in the past few days, especially of the photo published with this report in Greater Kashmir, and you will see the difference between two ways of conveying the same message.
There is perhaps no point in comparing these images, since both depict instances of shocking brutality. But the horror of Sen's post sinks into our consciousness slowly, filling us with a rage that quietly balloons in us. Whereas we take one look at the picture of the 14-year-old girl accompanying the report in Greater Kashmir and we feel viscerally jolted. A wave of anger and sadness explodes in our minds, even as it recoils from the grisliness of what we see.
There are some who will share graphic content only to instigate hatred and loathing, with the intention of polarising humanity, to terrify and oppress--for example the ISIS, which propagates its reign of terror by posting videos of beheadings on the Internet. A subset of such people will be tempted to share images and videos in retaliation to a particular community's suffering. Actor Anupam Kher, for instance, posted a tweet on 12 July, ostensibly of a collage of photographs of mutilated bodies of Kashmiri Pandits, in response to the hundreds of visuals of brutalised Kashmiri Muslims circulating on the Internet.
Here is pic of butchered bodies of Kashmiri Pandits killed by terrorists. No outrage or concern by Pseudo liberals! pic.twitter.com/JIp97aNOOz— Anupam Kher (@AnupamPkher) July 12, 2016
Then there are others, who, faced with an attack or accident in real life, instinctively reach out for their phone cameras in a desperate attempt to seek help from the wider world. A photograph or a seconds-long video becomes their way of letting the rest of us know of their trial, a way of handling the mounting panic and terror that must have besieged them in that moment.
Surrounded as we are by cameras all the time--in phones held by the millions of people we come in contact with every day or CCTV devices used by the State and other institutions to keep a watch on us--we remain vulnerable to the public gaze nearly all the time.
Like it or not, anyone with a social media presence or following the news will be passively or proactively consuming visual content that may be disturbing and hurtful. And this they will always do with a degree of voyeurism, self-pity, revulsion and empathy. To what extent each of these feelings is allowed to surface in their minds as they process such material is a challenge and finally, a test of their humanity.