The horrors on social media

The proliferation of torture and beheading porn is one of the social media horrors of our day

I am sure we’re all in agreement that wat-ching videos of adults abusing children is wrong. At least outside the halls of BBC light entertain-ment (historically speaking) such a consensus must exist. So how has it become not just right, but seemingly virtuous, to watch and then promote pictures of big bearded men chopping off children’s heads?
The proliferation of torture and beheading porn is one of the social media horrors of our day. Every minute millions of people around the world send links to videos and photo-graphs. And as world news gets darker, even if you don’t seek them out, such images find their way to you.
Of course the boastful sadists of ISIS and similar groups “produce” most of this content. And of course they have some admirers who pass around their images and videos in support. But it is among the non-admirers, including some of the most outspoken opponents of these barbarians, that the confusion arises. Those who clearly do not approve of the acts shown have begun to use such images and videos to make political points. Others send them round in an extreme effort to demonstrate compassion or virtue. While still others seem intent on displaying just how much they are willing to put themselves through.
Over recent weeks, pictures of dead babies in Gaza have been pushed around social media by people objecting to Israel’s engagement with Hamas. And pictures of a beheaded baby have been pushed around social media by those calling for international involvement to stop ISIS slaughtering Yazidis and Christians in Iraq. The pictures are often of dubious provenance. Some of the Gaza dead babies turned out to be backdated photos of Syrian dead babies. Others were from a low-budget horror movie. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t dead babies in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and many other places in the world. But why the growing fad for sending them around?
This is an odd corner of modern etiquette. But in a world where people are checking emails, Facebook and Twitter feeds before their first coffee of the morning, you can find yourself forced to adopt some attitude towards this. In the non-virtual world, I increasingly find people sidling up to me asking if I’ve seen this or that atrocity video. And my response is always the same: no, I haven’t and I don’t want to. I don’t search it out. I don’t watch such things when they are sent to me. I know what they contain and neither need to be whipped up into a moral lather nor shown a snuff video to know that beheading is painful and wrong. Besides, this is a person in the last seconds of their life and afterwards. Is it beyond anyone’s grasp to realise that watching such footage is not just disrespectful but exploitative? What is the proper procedure? Can one eat or drink while watching such things on the laptop? What if the phone rings and it’s someone you need to speak to (“No, don’t worry, it’s fine, I can put it on pause”)?
My own attitude towards jihad porn is clearly at odds with an increasing number of Internet users. The briefest search shows the Internet and social media are awash with it. There’s even an element of machismo at times (“This is really sick” or “Dare you watch this”). And also an element of putting yourself through something awful as proof that you’re “keeping it real” (jihadi snuff videos as just the thing to assuage the guilt of pleasant bourgeois living).
Then there are the more righteous excuses. “The world must know the full horror of what is going on”, say the dead-baby-picture senders. But even without seeing war, most of us understand it is awful. And surely the “full horror” can only be felt if you are there, fearing and seeing things with your own eyes? Those of us who absorb news know that we are at a remove from it. That is the point. It is what makes it possible to observe the quantity of misery in the world and still bother to leave the house.
Stranger still is the proliferation of only slightly less explicit stuff on television and in print. On Monday this week the Metro (a free newspaper available at stations in London and a fair few other cities) carried a photo of an Iraqi man being crucified. The caption was “Trussed up”. Meaning that now you cannot only see ISIS execution porn on your morning commute but chuckle along to the captions till you get to your terminus. On the same day, the Mail website had its now classic combination of boob-slips and ultra-violence. It isn’t the world’s most successful news site for nothing, though it is interesting that it now issues the same “graphic content” warning on both sexually explicit stories and violently explicit ones — daring you to try it (an interesting continuation of the fact that the earliest beheading videos from Iraq were apparently first posted on porn sites).
In Mail Online this week you could see a tastefully pixellated image of a man being crucified by ISIS in northern Syria. And the sidebar showed that the stories you could click to next included pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio and his model girlfriend paddle-boarding in Malibu, Lady Gaga showing off her new “fuller figure” and the barely clad “burlesque” dancer Dita von Teese performing a “risky show in man-sized Martini glass at Italy’s The Billionaire Club”. Sex, death, jihad, boobs. Crucifixion, beheading, tits, death. The objectification of the human body and now the objectification of the dead. The tenor of our time, perhaps. But it can — and should — be resisted. An abstinence campaign is overdue.

By arrangement with the Spectator

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