The Ethics of Sharing in the Social Media Era

By Arianna Cicconne

The risk of trivializing horror, through the publication of ‘strong’ content, exists. We should, at least, be aware of it. In the case of the tragedy which happened off the Turkish coast, there are differences between the sharing on social media and the decision of the media to publish or not publish the images.

Alan Kurdi was three years old. His lifeless body was recovered on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, two days ago. Along with Alan, 12 more people are thought to have died. They were fleeing from Syria to reach the island of Kos, in Greece, where for weeks thousands of desperate people have been arriving to escape the war. Alan had a brother, Galip, who was five years old. He is also dead. His body was found elsewhere on the same beach.

The picture of Alan quickly spread on social media, shortly after the publication on Twitter by Peter Bouckaert, Emergency Director of Human Rights Watch.

To publish or not to publish the pictures of lifeless Alan on the beach? To share or not to share them on our Facebook walls? Days ago, the discussion was unleashed globally, on Twitter and on Facebook. Here, I try to address the issue from two different points of view: our individual social spaces and the (ethical journalistic) choice of the media. In the social era everyone is media, and each of us takes responsibility for the published content. From my point of view, most of those who shared the photos chose to do so because “the world needs to know,” without accompanying the images with any in-depth information. Who is that child, from what is he fleeing, what is going on in Syria? Why do I decide “to impose” that image on my contacts? I do not know, honestly, how many of those who have published or shared the images know the answers, or raised doubts before clicking the “publish” or “share” button.

I decided not to share on my spaces. And I would have liked to be able to choose whether to see the photos or not. That was not possible. Some of my contacts decided it was their mission to “wake up” my conscience.

I believe that the lives of adults and children have the same value. But as human beings, as my friend Carlo Gubitosa said, we have the animal instinct that drives us to protect our little ones. Consequently, this instinct makes us more sensitive to the death of children than to that of adults. We also have advanced instruments such as reason and culture. I do not believe that the best way for our humanity to prevail is to appeal to our animal instincts.

For those who are already sensitive to the subject, they are disturbing images. At the same time, the images are next to useless in making those who are indifferent to the massacres of the Mediterranean reflect on their rejection and criminalization of the natural human tendency to change country to improve one’s living conditions.

Each of us can find equally valid reasons for circulating the photos. For me, the important point is that in the Mediterranean more than thirty thousand people have died while trying to reach Europe. We can say many things about these migrants, but the only certain thing is that they were seeking a better life.

In a thoughtful post, Marina Petrillo of Reportedly explains that she prefers not to publish images of children in order to avoid the risk of manipulation and of empathy shortcuts.

Only a few hours earlier, the clicks on the photos of the coffins on the ships in Sicily, coffins not much bigger than shoe-boxes, weren’t put up. Weren’t they shocking enough? I wonder why the first Alans killed – covered in white sheets and laid out in rows, by the dozens – in Dara’a and Homs four years ago, well before the cause could be attributed to ISIS and their parents fled here, didn’t convince you enough. Why I haven’t seen you so upset about the 71 dead by suffocation in the lorry in Austria. Why the photos of the children killed in the raids in Gaza don’t become viral, nor those of the children being bombed in Yemen. Because they have the weight of conflict on them, that’s why – the weight of conflict, of complexity, of issues which aren’t easy to untangle.

I believe that even in the age of the click we will have to accept that our political participation will mature slowly, learning, asking tough questions, even suffering, and that it won’t be resolved in an evening in front of the TV.

Further consideration and concerns have emerged in a discussion with friends and colleagues. The “viral” sharing risks a sense of emptiness, creating a “numbing” effect, to shock without informing, to feed a form of slacktivism (a kind of “armchair” activism, which does not require great effort or commitment and involvement) in a perverse and alienating mechanism. I published the photo, I am at peace with my conscience, I received my amount of likes, and now we can go on with the photos of the vacation or the comments on the football match. It is good to know that in a context such as this someone has decided to become the custodian of the awakening of consciences (again, this is the most popular explanation among those who choose to share). I quote here a summary of the comments of the private discussion.

Do we really believe that showing that photo has a positive effect in terms of people’s awareness? Or is it just another way to vent our anger with politicians and governments? The fact is that when you talk to others you realize that maybe a photo like this is the only way to ensure that the war in Syria becomes “a topic.” Is it right to make “humanitarian” propaganda at this price? And, above all, will there be any concrete positive effects? Will the donations to UNHCR increase? I don’t know. One thing is certain: if one really needs a gallery of dead bodies to become aware of the human suffering that exists around us, then we have a big problem. However, I think it can be risky in the long run to convince ourselves of the need to use death for a purpose (no matter if it sensitizes, informs, sells, etc.). There is a risk of addiction. Think of the hundreds of newspapers with photos of decapitated people that are sold in Mexico. It is normal there, you can even find them in the doctor’s waiting room. It’s entertainment. We cannot ignore the banality of the horror included in the “save image” and “share” command. They are inevitable dynamics which at least one must be aware of. First the photo of the dead child is shared, five minutes later something about the favorite soccer team, 10 minutes later a joke…

This year, at the International Journalism Festival, I attended a panel on Mexico, where journalists and activists risk their lives every day (since the beginning of this year eight journalists have been murdered). After the panel, I asked a question to the speakers. TV and newspapers in Mexico are addicted to violence from the point of view of photos, but it seems that this hides an appalling deficit of information. They told me that I was right, In Mexico the drug trade fills the news. Information is missing. Is it a form of control? In my opinion, yes. A dystopian declination of bread and circuses.

It is also possible that with horror in a continuous cycle, it has become “fashionable” to post these photos on social media. In 48 hours it will all be forgotten and archived. And many of those who shared the photo shouting “shame” will not even have time to find out what is happening in Syria.

An interesting analysis on the virality of social media comes from Max Fisher of Vox in an article in which he warns of the dangers in this dynamic (in addition to pointing out the hypocrisy of many newspapers)

But I am also uncomfortable with the way those images have been converted into just another piece of viral currency. There is a line between compassion and voyeurism. And as that photo was shared and retweeted over and over again, converted into listicles and social-friendly packages, it felt more and more like the latter…

Cole wrote about the cycle of internet outrage and compassion that, often, ends up doing little more than providing entertainment and validation for Western audiences. Those audiences, rather than being compelled to ask themselves whether they had a hand in the faraway tragedy they are sharing to Facebook, get to pat themselves on the back for being part of the solution.

But social media voyeurism is no solution. It doesn’t help that child, or others like him. It just exploits his tragic death as a source of maudlin but oh-so-shareable emotional thrills.

When we share, when we choose to share content that puts ourselves or should put ourselves before an “ethical” choice, let it be at least a deliberate, conscious choice. As I said at the beginning of the post, we are in an era where everyone is media and we should at least ask ourselves the question. We should have full knowledge of the architecture of social media where we “publish” our content. My invitation is therefore to adopt fully aware sharing.

I would add two further points regrading the photo:
1) the video shows the context of the finding of the body of Alan, and hence the context in which the photo was taken. The body remained there on the sand for quite a few minutes while police officers, photographers and others took videos and photos. Quite a few minutes during which the scene seemed a photographic set. Nobody moved towards the body, nobody touched it, nobody had the basic human decency to cover the body
2) the request by the relatives not to share the photo of Alan’s dead body

Finally, in the words of Mathew Ingram, it’s fundamental to be fully aware that every one of us is media:

Every user of social media is a publisher and a distributor of news. In the end, we all decide what standards of conduct or morality we are going to uphold, and it’s not getting any easier.

In a previous post, I dealt with the issue of the video of the journalists killed by a former colleague in Virginia. I mentioned the ethical issue on social autoplay that forces you to see it even if you don’t want to. We can protect ourselves by turning off the autoplay. With photos, the only option is to ask not to see the images (but only after seeing them). There is no possibility to choose. There is no warning alert on the brutality of the images. It is not the same as newspapers and TV which can warn people, giving them the chance (which should be their right) whether to choose to see or not.

In that post I argued that not to post the video is a journalistic act. This time, the reflection regarding the choice to publish the photos of Alan by the media is quite different. It raises doubts and different questions. It is not a video of a killer who commits murder “live”.

The choice of media as indictment

‘If these images don’t change Europe, what will?’ This is the headline of various newspapers. It is a question that a newspaper must ask, because that photo is the “result” of political choices. It poses questions to those who govern us. This should be the mission of a newspaper, of the media.

That picture – as rightly observed by Raffaella Menichini of<>, who asked whether it was right or not to publish it, informing her contacts that there was a discussion in the newsroom of Repubblica about publishing or not – has an iconic value.

In my opinion, the decision to publish is entirely legitimate, especially given the context, namely a worrying climate of racism and hatred of “the other” and virtually non-existent European policies of migration crisis management.

Some media have chosen not to publish the photos, others have published the images contextualizing them in an in-depth analysis, warning the readers at the beginning of the article with notes such as CBC (and giving the opportunity to the reader to choose whether or not to see the photos).

EDITOR’S NOTE (GRAPHIC WARNING): This story contains two graphic photographs of a young boy who died, images some viewers may find disturbing. They are embedded at the bottom of this story, after the last paragraph of text. CBC News has decided to include the photos to allow for the fullest understanding of the event, but we do want to give readers the option to not scroll down and click away if they don’t want to see them.

Some have published as an indictment of the ineffective or in some cases “hostile” policy towards the phenomenon of migration. A call to the responsibility of politics to the tragedy of thousands and thousands of people from Afghanistan, Syria, Africa who are fleeing war and misery, in the hope of a new life in Europe.

The picture is a tangible symbol of the consequences of political decisions.

Some have chosen to use the photo with a play on words, others to “mark” the photo with their brand or to make a photo-gallery by putting together images of two days ago and other images of dead people in a kind of collage of death, devoid of any information context … Choices that I disagree with, I found improper, cynical and journalistically worthless.

In the debate and the discussion within the various newsrooms about whether to publish or not, there is a very comprehensive article of The New York Times where the different choices of print and online newspapers, including traditional media (in addition to the debate on social), are explained. Online news outlets weighed the same considerations as traditional newspapers. The image appeared on BuzzFeed News but was absent from Vox Media, which declined to publish it in part because of “a certain viral aspect the photo has taken on,” said Max Fisher, its editorial director.

Further questions emerge from an article of Poynter on the limits of photojournalism and what the photo of Alan hasn’t told us. Mary Panzer, a photographic expert, makes an additional point:

“Pictures do not work on our brains according to logic. They hit lower and deeper. Emotion is not reasonable, and in fact, there is undeniable pleasure in being able to submit to un-reason, to feel something strong and true after all the titillation and trash that crosses our visual field every hour of the day.”… She notes the key elements of the beach photos: The little boy alone, the little sneakers and shorts, the primary red and blue colors associated with kids, and the little body cradled in the arms of a tall strong man. We might think at first the boy is sleeping—then we think something else. The images exploit our collective memory and associations. Where were the parents? Who and what might possibly hurt such a powerless thing? What evil forces lurk? We don’t really think about Syria or Turkey and the obvious policy issues they inspire related to migrants and refugees, but just generally about parents, children, safety and danger. “As long as our minds are filled with such strong emotion, we lose the ability to think critically about the situation that this tragic picture represents,” Panzer told me. “When we turn from the picture at last, in part we are already exhausted, our attention depleted.”

What I really hope for now is a policy of migratory crisis management and reception worthy of its name. Days ago the mayor of Barcelona posted on Facebook an appeal to empathy:

Europe, Europeans, let’s open our eyes. There will not be enough walls or barbed wire that will block all this, nor will tear gas or rubber bullets. Either we tackle this human drama starting with the ability to love that makes us human, or we will all end dehumanized. There will be more deaths, many more. This is not a battle to protect ourselves from ‘the others.’ At this moment, this is a war for life […] What Europe needs, urgently, is a ‘call’ to affection, a call to empathy. They could be our children, our sisters and our mothers. We could be them, similar to many of our grandparents who were exiled.

And I strongly hope that this will apply to all migrants seeking a life worthy of the name, whether refugees fleeing from war or the so-called economic migrants fleeing from poverty and dictatorship. Because all migrants matter.