How Should Social Media Platforms Approach Traumatic Events?

Shocking traumatic events have sadly occurred in recent times, most notably mass shootings and terrorist attacks. These events are typically picked up by news outlets and are then posted and spread throughout social media for the world to see. They have the ability to inflict trauma onto the reader, which is a deeply disturbing experience. Therefore, it is imperative that these social media platforms consider the effects it has on the readers when covering a serious topic. While it’s important to inform the public of such events, it’s still crucial that the material being spread does not bring sorrow upon the reader.

This is what has lead me to the overarching question when it comes to this exceptionally complex matter – how do social media platforms inform the public about current traumatic events without triggering the general users of these apps?

The Problem

Unfortunately, events of trauma have been happening for a while, but as we have recently emerged into the digital era, our mobile gadgets have given users access to events occurring all of the world. Social media has really let us see how corrupt our world truly is. While speaking at a fundraiser in 2014, President Barack Obama illustrates this notion by stating: “In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”

Social media users have experienced vicarious trauma, the negative symptoms experienced by viewing graphic material, through graphic imagery of specific horrific events that have been spread online and projected onto phone screens. The general public who consume social media on a daily basis inevitably see the horror play out, and people are worried about their wellbeing at stake by viewing these events. Every user of social media is vulnerable to experiencing indirect trauma. The mental health disorders following a horrific event are not limited to secondary traumatic stress (STS), indirect trauma undergone by a bystander of an event, but include increased rates of anxiety and depression as well, psychiatrist Ben Beaglehole said. 

In a study relating to the exposure to traumatic images via the media, almost 12% of the participants reported experiencing stress when viewing footage from 9/11. These results suggest that exposure to graphic media images can be detrimental to the viewer’s mental health.

However, many individuals support media freedom and believe they have the right to know about current events. Many people think they are entitled to view information and pictures regarding events taking place in this world, though this may also be seen as crossing the line. This is why it is so hard to differentiate people’s right to know and disrespecting the privacy of those involved.

Why Is This Important?

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (commonly known as MEAA) journalists code of ethics number eleven states: respect private grief and personal privacy. This ultimately means the publisher of any information should not only respect the victims and families involved, but also the general public viewing material. Every individual is susceptible to trauma, and therefore should be shown consideration, while also being delivered the news on current events in an informative non-detrimental manner.

Christchurch Mosque Shootings: March 2019

A case study that relates to this matter is the Christchurch mass shooting. This took place on the 15th of March 2019, when a terrorist targeted two mosques in Christchurch and killed fifty people, while injuring another fifty. The shooter posted a manifesto on several social media platforms shortly before committing the hate crime. Police say he tried to promote, encourage and justify acts of murder against minorities. The terrorist began live streaming the horrific and extremely graphic series of events on Facebook and Instagram, which was later referred to as a “performance crime”. The entire video went for nearly 17 minutes. Facebook say only 4,000 people had viewed it before it was officially taken down. Though, within 24 hours after the attack, the footage was re-uploaded 1.5 million times — while 1.2 million of the videos were blocked, 300,000 still managed to get past Facebook’s filters.

The effect this event had on the users of social media were detrimental to their health. Survivors and families of the victims were experiencing “expected” anxiety symptoms, and feelings of fear, sadness, and grief. Onlookers of the livestream via news channels and social media had experienced secondary traumatic stress, as outlined previously.

The events in Christchurch can be related back to the siege that took place in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe back in December of 2014. The 17 hour siege was captured by news channels and broadcasted across the world. Survivors of the event are still exposed to footage of that day and some have been diagnosed with mental health issues including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.

Social Media’s Response

Upon the recent horrific events taking place around the world, many social media platforms have introduced a new tool that censors graphic images and videos. The sensitive posts are initially blurred as a warning, and then require the user to accept the implications the image or video may have on them.

In conjunction with the censored images and videos, Facebook has introduced a new one-strike policy for live streams. This means users are temporarily restricted access when the rules of the social media app are broken, and aims to prevent graphic streams like the Christchurch massacre from occurring again.

These two new strategies aim to limit the graphic content viewed by users, and reduce the negative effects individuals may have as a result of consuming the imagery associated with traumatic events.

So, How Should Social Media Platforms Approach Traumatic Events?

With the added exposure to traumatic events, social media networks must put the victims’ and readers’ wellbeing first. There are many actions to take by both the publisher and the viewer of graphic content.

Social media networks and publishers of graphic posts can limit the negative effects on the readers by:
• add a trigger warning at the beginning of each article
• eliminate unnecessary disturbing imagery
• provide helplines

Here is was you can do to minimise negative emotions when viewing distressing content:
report inappropriate material
• develop a good support system
• talk freely about emotions
• limit your time spent on social media
• distract yourself with lighthearted topics
• seek help from a professional psychiatrist

Reference List

Broughton, C. (2019), ‘Increased rates of PTSD, anxiety, depression ‘inevitable’ after Christchurch terror attack’. [online] Stuff, viewed 23 May 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111872175/increased-rates-of-ptsd-anxiety-depression-inevitable-after-christchurch-terror-attack

Feinstein, A. (2017). ‘Violent news: Psychological trauma a new risk in digital age’. [online] The Conversation, viewed 21 May 2019, https://theconversation.com/violent-news-psychological-trauma-a-new-risk-in-digital-age-79161

Gunia, A. (2019). ‘Facebook Tightens Live-Stream Rules in Response to the Christchurch Massacre’. [online] Time Magazine, viewed 23 May 2019, http://time.com/5589478/facebook-tightens-live-stream-rules-in-response-to-the-christchurch-massacre/

Palin, M. (2016). ‘Sydney siege hostages left with deep scars’. [online] News, viewed 24 May 2019, https://www.news.com.au/national/crime/sydney-siege-hostages-left-with-deep-scars/news-story/48939ffc968fef1492ae66770cbf2f8a

Sarkis, S. (2017). ‘Watching Violent News Video Can Be Hazardous to Your Health’. [online] Psychology Today, viewed 21 May 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201710/watching-violent-news-video-can-be-hazardous-your-health

Silver, R. (2012). ‘Repeated Exposure to Media Images of Traumatic Events May Be Harmful to Mental and Physical Health’. [online] Association for Psychological Science, viewed 23 May 2019, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/repeated-exposure-to-media-images-of-traumatic-events-may-be-harmful-to-mental-and-physical-health.html

Wayne, T. (2016). ‘The Trauma of Violent News on the Internet’. [online] The New York Times, viewed 22 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/fashion/the-trauma-of-violent-news-on-the-internet.html

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