The immediacy of the Ukraine war – with communication brokered by smartphones and social media updates – has managed to keep the horrors being perpetrated by Russian invaders at the forefront of people’s minds, even at a time of shortened attention spans.
More than a month on from the first Russian foot on Ukrainian ground, we are learning of new atrocities and recoiling in horror at the war crimes that the Russian army under Vladimir Putin has been accused of. We are able to do so because of the alarming, hyperreal images of the aftermath pumped through social media feeds. It’s a real reminder of what’s going on – the 21st-century ghost of Banquo, constantly at the end of our thumb swipes.
Yet while a gory procession of pictures of dead bodies remind us of what is happening on Europe’s doorstep, how ethical is it share the grim gallery of images?
Yes, these photo keep what’s happening at the forefront of our minds. And yes, we cannot truly comprehend the horrors of war unless we’re confronted with them head-on, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel. However, behind every image of a dead body is a family that may not yet know the fate of their relative. The speed of social media means that such pictures can spread around the world far faster than morgues can contact individuals, or peacekeeping representatives can identify the dead. And the ubiquity of social media and mobile phones means that someone, somewhere will likely recognise each body that we see in a photograph or video, and know then that a friend or relative has lost their life.
This is an issue that social media platforms have tussled with for years. The murders of American journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward was live streamed on Facebook in August 2015. In 2019, the Christchurch mosque massacre was also broadcast live on social media. Countless other terrorist incidents that have ended in death or serious injury have been shared and amplified using social media.
Nor is it just terrorist attacks that have had a grim half-life through social media. When a photo of the body of the young Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach was plastered across UK newspaper front pages in 2015, a debate was sparked about the ethics of sharing images of death. And yet those newspapers have a reach that is relatively small in the eyes of many social media users – a reach they would barely blink an eye at. Such papers are also not read as widely by as broad and young a user base as most social networks.
Increasingly, social media platforms are the places we interact with each other and exchange ideas. They’re our public forums, where we thrash out the issues of the day. That means they should be as free from interference or editorialising as possible. However, the current simplistic approach that Big Tech takes – that they are platforms, not publishers, and as such should not be responsible for policing the type of content posted there – is simply no longer feasible given their size and scale, and the role they play in our society.
There are strong arguments to be made that the view of war we have is too detached from reality and too sanitised to represent the truth of life on a battlefield. But showing dead bodies to billions of users isn’t the answer.
[See also: The Big Tech reckoning]