It’s hard to quantify what happens to a human being when they watch another human being die. Context matters, relationship to the person matters, as does having the emotional preparation to witness it. But regardless, there’s a negative impact; at best, a chilling effect that’s hard to shake, at worst, a lifetime of trauma from which someone may never be able to recover.
On Saturday afternoon, millions of viewers across Europe experienced this trauma collectively, as they watched what looked like someone’s very sudden death. Christian Eriksen, the Danish star footballer, collapsed on the pitch during Denmark’s opening match against Finland in the European Championship – face first, out of nowhere, with no signs of fatigue. Viewers watched his unmoving body, his teammates crying, his partner running onto the field, and the medical team perform CPR. They were able to see it all thanks to the BBC, and other European broadcasters, who refused to cut away from the footage, and even zoomed in on Eriksen’s lifeless face. (The BBC later apologised “to anyone who was upset by the images broadcast.”)
But you didn’t have to be watching the match live on TV to see what the BBC broadcast. Clips of the coverage began to circulate online within seconds of Eriksen’s collapse. (When I heard the news from a pub garden, I opened Twitter and clicked Eriksen’s name on trends, where the first tweet included a clip of the most shocking scene.) While the BBC was condemned for not cutting away from Eriksen sooner, major social media platforms have since faced similar criticism. Though most of the platforms said on Saturday that they were moving to take down these clips, European news media subsequently reported that videos of the collapse remained easy to view, noting particular concern for their accessibility on TikTok, where such a high portion of the users are a younger audience. (TikTok has also come under fire in the last week after a beheading video was uploaded to the platform.)
We now know that Eriksen had suffered a serious cardiac arrest. Denmark’s team doctor Morten Boesen has said that the player “was gone” after he collapsed, and that he was resuscitated and “brought back” by a defibrillator. By the time he was taken off the pitch on a stretcher, Eriksen was conscious again and visibly moving. But this knowledge only softens what was ultimately an unavoidable, mass broadcast of someone’s heart stopping. Seeing the initial collapse was inevitable. Who is to blame for the images we witnessed after?
Liam McLoughlin is a research fellow at Birkbeck College whose work looks at social media’s place within society. McLoughlin’s current research is focused on Facebook’s content moderation. He argues that though social media companies could have been faster at wiping videos of Eriksen’s collapse from their platforms, the initial delay was in large part down to the decisions made by the BBC.
“What platforms would have seen on 12 June was a national broadcaster televising the footage of Eriksen’s collapse, and then that broadcaster making the active decision to continue the broadcast even though it displayed extremely distressing footage of what appeared to be a lifeless body,” McLoughlin tells me. “Even though the BBC later apologised, at the time they were setting a standard of acceptability. Indeed, with an expectation of the BBC being a high-authority media gatekeeper, it is easy to see why social media would follow their lead. It wasn’t until significant backlash to the BBC that platforms then took action.”
“I can see the arguments for complaints about the slow speed of content moderation… But in a world of regulatory uncertainty for these platforms, mixed-messages by broadcasters and the slow process of moderation, I can also see why it took as long as it did,” he says.
“It took me less than 60 seconds today to search and find the video of Christian Eriksen’s collapse and treatment on the pitch on YouTube,” he adds. “That video currently has over 600,000 views. What is needed is a much deeper level of scrutiny across the board.”
McLoughlin sees clear distinctions that can be made between different types of traumatising content. Watching the video of George Floyd’s killing was traumatic for many, but also made police brutality in the US unambiguously visible to people around the world and fuelled much of the Black Lives Matter activism of last summer. Darnella Frazier was awarded a Pulitzer citation last week for taking the footage. While the video of Floyd’s murder “raised important issues of police brutality and institutional racism” and “offered an important commentary and a much needed emotional response to take action”, the video of Eriksen nothing more than “an active choice by a professional media corporation to televise someone’s potential death,” he says. “In these instances, we have you weigh up the societal need to witness these events versus the trauma they might cause and the feelings of those involved.”
“There is not always an easy way to write some generalised rules about what is and what isn’t acceptable,” McLoughlin adds, “but it’s clear platforms need to speed up their decision making process and take a more active and ethical approach towards the content posted on their platforms. To make this happen, I expect a certain level of external pressure is needed.”
There’s nothing that can be done to reverse millions of people watching Eriksen collapse. And while social media companies are to blame for that footage spreading beyond its television viewership, the question remains: how could the BBC mishandle a situation for which the solution is, and was, so obvious? We’ll never know the true impact of the BBC’s decision to continue broadcasting Eriksen’s body, but we do know that the broadcaster could have stemmed the footage’s viral spread had they simply cut away.