Today the world is divided into two types of people: 1) those who saw the video of the Christchurch terrorists’ killing spree and deleted it; 2) those who saw the video and shared it.
To click or not to click, that is indeed the question of our times.
A grotesque act of terror choreographed for live beaming on social media — this was bound to happen sooner or later. When so many people with so many options are connected in so many ways across so many continents and constitute a benignly willing global audience for anything and everything, acts of terror can be a click away. Terrorists want their act of terror to have impact far beyond the act of terror itself. Impact needs scale, scale needs audience, audience is drawn to immediacy, immediacy triggers a remote shock, the shock is magnified through sound and image, images beamed live draw the audience into the event, the event scales up to galactic proportions and tremors reverberate across the planet.
That’s when you click ‘Share’ and choose from a tempting menu of digital platforms on offer. The familiar icons beckon you their way: Tweet, Direct Message, Copy Link, WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Hangouts, Gmail, Skype, Messenger, Snapchat, Instagram, Signal … and so it goes on and on. You salivate at the multiplicity of options that you can choose from. But choosing is an act of exercising choice and you are already beyond the point where you had a choice. Here, now, looking at these icons, you have mentally foregone the option of not sharing the content. The awaiting click is not for ‘if to share’ but ‘where to share’.
But let’s back up.
Your phone notification beeped. The text on screen indicated the message contained the video of the Australian terrorist murdering Muslims in cold blood. Chances are you already knew of the terror act but could not have imagined having the actual video of the massacre in your phone. You know the video will show a gunman killing people — Muslim men, women, children and the elderly — in a mosque at close range. You are sickened to the core imaging the gruesome scenes in the video. Now comes the moment to make a choice: 1) click and delete the video without watching it; 2) click and play the video.
If you chose the first option, you probably went through the agony of suppressing your primal instinct — curiosity. In this decision, you also factored in the polite social scorn that you will have poured over you when your friends and family remark: “Oh my God you actually have not seen the video?” This would imply that you either did not receive the video on your phone, which would infer that you are not ‘connected’ enough, or that you had it but did not see it because you are too weak-hearted or not curious enough — both traits that will not endear you to the socially-mobile and digitally-aware peoples of today’s Planet Earth.
If you chose the second option and clicked to see the video, you were again faced with an option: keep it or share it. If you decided to keep it you may have based your decision on the following logic: 1) I don’t want people I know seeing people being killed on camera; 2) I don’t want to glorify the terrorist by helping him find an audience for his act of terror. Based on these two logic points, if you decided not to share the video, you again had to drag yourself against your natural grain, your human nature and your socially-induced habit of sharing without much thinking.
But if you decided to share it, you took the easiest of paths. You did what most people in your position would have done. The act of sharing is the foundation on which the edifice of social media is built. In our individual and collective race for Shares, Likes and Follows, deep ethical decision-making is never encouraged. More, more and more can hardly be friends with think, think and think. So you went with your primal, social, cultural and habitual instinct and clicked the Share button. You shared not because you wanted to desensitise your friends and family to ghastly acts of murder on camera or to help terrorists find an audience, but because you wanted others to see what you had seen. This act of sharing would mean you and your friends now had had a common experience — or shared trauma — and by sharing the trauma you got closer in some way to those with whom you shared the video. Or perhaps you just wanted them to be better informed. Or maybe — just maybe — you secretly desired to signal to them that you had received the video before they had and implying therefore that you had faster access to those who had faster access to such content.
But does any of this sharing/not sharing business really matter? Do you — a tiny cog in the gigantic digital wheel — matter? Does your decision-making to click or not to click make any difference when a video is in the process of going viral? Social media giants decided to take the video off their platforms, but did that make the video go away?
The answers may depress you and make you feel helpless and insignificant. The digital world, it seems, is larger than the sum of all aspects of the physical world. In here you die once. In there you die again and again and again every time the death is shared and clicked and shared and clicked. If there is an ethical dilemma buried somewhere under this mound of bytes, it desperately needs to be framed across the dystopian landscape that unfurled itself in Christchurch.
In an age shaped by information and data, it is truly frightening to be burdened with questions that have no answers. By beaming their murderous mayhem live on social media, the terrorists in New Zealand may have pushed us into a zone that lurked on the edges of our imagined fears. They are imagined no more. Terror has truly gone digital.
The world is indeed divided between those who shared this terror and those who did not. Which one are you?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2019.