What are all these violent images doing to us?

Early this morning, I got up, made some coffee, sat down at my desk, and opened Twitter to read the news and pass some time before I had to leave for a conference. One of the first things I saw in my timeline was a still from a video of what was described in the tweet as an ISIS fighter executing a group of Syrian soldiers. The soldiers lay on their stomachs in the dirt, mostly undressed, hands on their heads. They were arranged in a tightly packed row, arms and legs sometimes overlapping. The apparent killer stood midway down the row, his gun pointed down, smoke coming from its barrel.

That experience led me to this pair of tweets:

tweet 1

tweet 2

If you don’t use Twitter, you probably don’t know that, starting in 2013, Twitter tweaked its software so that photos and other images embedded in tweets would automatically appear in users’ timelines. Before that change, you had to click on a link to open an embedded image. Now, if you follow someone who appends an image to his or her tweet, you instantly see the image when the tweet appears in your timeline. The system also includes a filter of sorts that’s supposed to inform you before showing media that may be sensitive, but it doesn’t seem to be very reliable at screening for violence, and it can be turned off.

As I said this morning, I think the automatic display of embedded images is great for sharing certain kinds of information, like data visualizations. Now, tweets can become charticles.

I am increasingly convinced, though, that this feature becomes deeply problematic when people choose to share disturbing images. After I tweeted my complaint, Werner de Pooter pointed out a recent study on the effects of frequent exposure to graphic depictions of violence on the psychological health of journalists. The study’s authors found that daily exposure to violent images was associated with higher scores on several indices of psychological distress and depression. The authors conclude:

Given that good journalism depends on healthy journalists, news organisations will need to look anew at what can be done to offset the risks inherent in viewing User Generated Content material [which includes graphic violence]. Our findings, in need of replication, suggest that reducing the frequency of exposure may be one way to go.

I mostly use Twitter to discover stories and ideas I don’t see in regular news outlets, to connect with colleagues, and to promote my own work. Because I study political violence and atrocities, a fair share of my feed deals with potentially disturbing material. Where that material used to arrive only as text, it increasingly includes photos and video clips of violent or brutal acts as well. I am starting to wonder how routine exposure to those images may be affecting my mental health. The study de Pooter pointed out has only strengthened that concern.

I also wonder if the emotional power of those images is distorting our collective sense of the state of the world. Psychologists talk about the availability heuristic, a cognitive shortcut in which the ease of recalling examples of certain things drives our expectations about the likelihood or risk of those things. As Daniel Kahneman describes on p. 138 of Thinking, Fast and Slow,

Unusual events (such as botulism) attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are. The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.

When those images of brutal violence pop into our view, they grab our attention, pack a lot of emotional intensity, and are often to hard to shake. The availability heuristic implies that frequent exposure to those images leads us to overestimate the threat or risk of things associated with them.

This process could even be playing some marginal role in a recent uptick in stories about how the world is coming undone. According to Twitter, its platform now has more than 270 million monthly active users. Many journalists and researchers covering world affairs probably fall in that 270 million. I suspect that those journalists and researchers spend more time watching their timelines than the average user, and they are probably more likely to turn off that “sensitive content” warning, too.

Meanwhile, smartphones and easier Internet access make it increasingly likely that acts of violence will be recorded and then shared through those media, and Twitter’s default settings now make it more likely that we see them when they are. Presumably, some of the organizations perpetrating this violence—and, sometimes, ones trying to mobilize action to stop it—are aware of the effects these images can have and deliberately push them to us to try to elicit that response.

As a result, many writers and analysts are now seeing much more of this material than they used to, even just a year or two ago. Whatever the actual state of the world, this sudden increase in exposure to disturbing material could be convincing many of us that the world is scarier and therefore more dangerous than ever before.

This process could have larger consequences. For example, lately I’ve had trouble getting thoughts of James Foley’s killing out of my mind, even though I never watched the video of it. What about the journalists and policymakers and others who did see those images? How did that exposure affect them, and how much is that emotional response shaping the public conversation about the threat the Islamic State poses and how our governments should respond to it?

I’m not sure what to do about this problem. As an individual, I can choose to unfollow people who share these images or spend less time on Twitter, but both of those actions carry some professional costs as well. The thought of avoiding these images also makes me feel guilty, as if I am failing the people whose suffering they depict and the ones who could be next. By hiding from those images, do I become complicit in the wider violence and injustice they represent?

As an organization, Twitter could decide to revert to the old no-show default, but that almost certainly won’t happen. I suspect this isn’t an issue for the vast majority of users, and it’s hard to imagine any social-media platform retreating from visual content as sites like Instagram and Snapchat grow quickly. Twitter could also try to remove embedded images that contain potentially disturbing material. As a fan of unfettered speech, though, I don’t find that approach appealing, either, and the unreliability of the current warning system suggests it probably wouldn’t work so well anyway.

In light of all that uncertainty, I’ll conclude with an observation instead of a solution: this is one hell of a huge psychological experiment we’re running right now, and its consequences for our own mental health and how we perceive the world around us may be more substantial than we realize.

Leave a comment

40 Comments

  1. It seems like a lot of people are coming to similar thoughts right now. For instance, Erin Gloria Ryan wrote for Jezebel yesterday, in a post entitled “Worst Fucking Summer Ever” (http://jezebel.com/worst-fucking-summer-ever-1627642532):

    Calling the summer of 2014 the “WORST EVER” is hyperbolic if we’re trying to quantify “good” and “bad” and compare one year to another using some heretofore unused measurement of NET EVIL, but it stands if we’re talking about how much bad news there was, how many people knew about it, and how many people reflected on the badness of the news. If a tree falls in the woods and a billion people hear it, a lot more people care. The world has never existed in a non-fucked up state in all of human history, and a person would have to be either very young or very naive to think there was ever an era where everything was okay. But there were eras where most things, to some people, probably seemed okay. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media are great ways to spread joy and pictures of your cool fourth of July nail art, but they’re also incredibly efficient in letting people know what is bad where you are. The more people have access to information, the more people know what’s going on, both good and bad.

    And apparently Obama just emoted the same (https://twitter.com/markknoller/status/505468379705376769).

    So maybe another question to asked — what are those factors in your local context + your media diet need to be present for it just to seem overwhelming?

    Reply
    • Thanks, Alex. I hadn’t seen Ryan’s piece. Different, uh, tone, but a very similar idea for sure. I guess what I’m finally starting to wonder is if we should do more than just accept this condition and think more about how to shape it, either individually or collectively. It certainly is shaping us.

      Reply
  2. I’ve had translators at war crimes tribunals and civilian criminal intelligence analysts who worked on child sex cases tell me the same thing regarding images and even just repeatedly reading the victim statements over a period of years. Especially the tip sheet ‘Working with Traumatic Imagery.

    You might find this sight useful: http://dartcenter.org/gateway/journalists

    Reply
  3. Howard Campbell

     /  August 30, 2014

    I know what you mean. I avoided the the video of James Foley’s execution but tried as I might was unable to avoid seeing ISIS killing all those people as my colleague showed it to me on his cell phone. I understand your dilemma. I’m just not sure. Are there more atrocities today than in the past? or is it just the current technology and our access to it?

    Reply
    • Grant

       /  August 31, 2014

      We do have greater means to commit violent acts on a much larger scale now because of improved technology, but when you consider how dangerous life could be and how many violent periods we’ve had, it might very well be not that much greater relative to population than before.

      It is definite however that visually recognizing violent acts spreads far faster to what’s probably a proportionately larger audience because of newspapers with photography and later television.

      Reply
  4. Amy

     /  August 30, 2014

    And now facebook automatically plays videos as you scroll past them on your news feed.

    Reply
  5. Keeping us informed of the REAL world in which we live in our day! Its negative due to the fact that globally, more’s going wrong than right!

    Reply
  6. Reblogged this on A Sawyer's Daughter and commented:
    Great post. Makes for some compelling reading given the world we live in today.

    Reply
  7. Visual stimuli can have a great impact. I was a ride operator on a roller coaster and a fourteen year old kid fell out of the train. I never can block it. I see it even when I dream. Seeing people gunned down in a row would be hard to shake.

    Reply
  8. The graphic image problem was one of my many issues on Facebook. I just became a new twitter user. On Facebook people would share violent videos that now play automatically. Pictures and other links of grotesque flooded my timeline, although I had control over my content. When dealing with a large audience on social media you can cannot filter negative content before it reaches you. You can’t period. Its upsetting that I had to be subjected to negative images that spreads like wild fire through algorithms and by force. On top of images you have negative tweest and post on Facebook that adds to the recent graphic picture you seen. Its not cool. However I tried removing frequent negative users on my social media.

    Great read!

    Reply
  9. The violence in my early in childhood has marred my own personal esteem, but additionally make me jumpy as well as that graphic violence and the crushing of a person’s spirit.
    So, I do totally agree the violence makes us numb. I could never understand feminists because why don’t they strongly come out against violence against women. Nubile young women, provocative clothing being hacked to death like in Quentin Torentino movie,

    Reply
  10. This has been bothering me recently too. The thing that gets me is that no matter how much negative stuff people view and share and gasp at, very few of them feel an urge to act (by helping, donating, learning more, etc).

    By sharing negative content, I think some people think that they are being activists of some sort.. but they’re really just ruining people’s days without asking. If people spent half the time they spend on social media actually trying to help people, some of these problems might actually be reduced.

    Reply
  11. Hmm I had to look up Botulism, terrifying, who knew. Facebook does same as twitter, videos stream on the timeline. Although I see your point, I can’t say that movies like the SAW franchise haven’t long ago crossed all lines of violent, graphic overexposure. I think the experiment you speak of began ages ago with Grand Theft Auto, Eminen, and Quentin T. Although hyper awareness of worldwide violence might be disturbing and have some psychological implications, it is reality, (as apposed to grotesque fictional violence) it has also allowed the world to become aware, and awareness is the harbinger of action and hopefully change. I’ll also wager a theory that the brain maintains its balance by desensitizing, rather than anything else. Humans i think are nowhere near their adaptive limit.

    Reply
  12. Reblogged this on billscott17blog's Blog and commented:
    Essential ‘Food for thought.’ An important post for us all to consider. Congrats on being FP.

    Reply
  13. It is a huge experiment, as you say, and the effect on mental health is indeed something that we need to consider. What really worries me, however, is the way bringing the Heart of Darkness into social media allows terrorists to use horror even more effectively as a strategy, and magnifies the reward for doing so.

    Reply
  14. Reblogged this on relationspdbeverly and commented:
    I believe that it does take a toll on us in the long run.

    Good post.

    Reply
  15. [Thought spew inc:]
    Something that’s been rattling around in my own skull is the possibility of our species to adapt to things we’ve previously been bad at…
    Could we find ways of coping with*this*? A la “efficient market hypothesis” thinking, etc., whatever… maybe our collective consciousness will figure out coping strategies, whether at the individual level of brain matter plus gene transmission, or higher order psychology plus social transmission–moral narrative?
    Basically, what’s our potential? Can we efficiently pass on those coping strategies? I’ve been particularly interested in how we’ll be able to cope, cognitively (let alone at the level of human institutions–legal, political), with accelerating technological change; that’s quite unlike violent imagery, however, but within the same vein of “stuff we have problems keeping a mental handle on”. I dunno. I can’t help but be hopeful; we’ve gotten this far (and the alternative is too distressing). [End thought dump.]

    Reply
  16. Reblogged this on The Quirky Diva and commented:
    And oddly, just a couple hours after my last post, I came across this incredibly thoughtful, detailed post about how even the people reporting the news are affected by the imagery they see. This is one social experiment that I’m opting out of for a while…

    Reply
  17. I reblogged this at http://thequirkydiva.wordpress.com (sorry if that comes out clunky. Figuring out this WordPress app. Anyway, my therapist and I were just talking about this today. For “normal” people, exposure to these images is horrifying and disturbing. For those of us with anxiety disorders it can be literally life-threatening. I’ve spent more time this year than I’d care to admit contemplating ending it all because the world is so awful. Of course it isn’t, and I’m not going to do that, but the point stands. This is a social experiment I have to opt out of for my own mental well being.

    Reply
  18. Galaxian

     /  September 7, 2014

    Is it the availability heuristic, where I suspect psychologists overextrapolate results in their study populations to people in the real world, or that people like drama? I don’t know whether graphic screen violence has the impact it once did, because people get inured to visual environments fairly quickly. Which doesn’t make the constant streams of it nowadays too admirable.

    Reply
  19. I just recently returned to Twitter after a long hiatus (I lurk more than post) and the first image I was faced with was the headless body of James Foley. I can’t imagine that the constant barrage of these kinds of images is not causing some damage under the surface of my psyche every single time I come across it, which these days appears to be every day. I also can’t imagine how that is magnified for journalists. I can’t imagine there isn’t some real sorrow and fear that starts to fester inside when you are assaulted with these images.

    I also agree with the commenters on here who have noted that unfortunately, the majority of those who post these images don’t seem to follow up with any kind of real, informative commentary or suggestions on ways to help.

    I don’t know if being more informed outweighs being more afraid.

    Reply
  20. The interesting part of all this is not just that the overexposure of violence to an individual can have psychological affects that alter their perception of their reality as a violent one, but that technology will be the seed and the fruit of this tree. As technology is used to spread the availability and exposure of violence, so will it bring about the manifestation of violence as more and more begin to perceive their reality as violent. If all individuals in an environment perceive it to be violent, then it is such and they respond accordingly, becoming more distrusting, defensive, and more likely to act aggressively to survive a perceived to be typical and expected instance of violence. People will act more violently to protect themselves from the fear of violence. But then you must ask yourself, are we witnessing the world become more and more violent or was the world always this violent and we are just know witnessing how truly violent it is.

    Reply
  21. John Coleman

     /  September 9, 2014

    I’ve been fussing with the same issues you’re talking about here, Jay. Thanks for the lucid thinking. Peace and best, John

    Reply
  22. They definitely take a toll. Great post.

    Reply
  23. “I also wonder if the emotional power of those images is distorting our collective sense of the state of the world.” Absolutely it is! And more so because because much of the imagery seems to focus on the atrocities of one side while largely ignoring those carried out by the other side.

    Reply
    • I appreciate the larger point you make, but I can’t say that I appreciated the patronizing-cum-scornful tone (“sofa traumas,” “coffee…ruined,” candles and chakras, etc.). I’m also puzzled by the distinction you call out in reactions to “ours” and “theirs.” The impetus to my post was the execution of Syrian soldiers, not the beheadings of Western journalists. I’m sure you could find examples of Americans recoiling in response to the killing of “kin” while ignoring the killings of “wogs” elsewhere, but my post is not one of them.

      Reply
  24. Reblogged this on aspirelife88 and commented:
    I agree with u 100%. As someone who enjoys being informed today’s social update media only hits u with bad. When will they realize we need things that r good and news of a positive market or something. This is why people seem to be in bad moods more than good ones. If we wake up positive by the time of morning news updates or social media network catch-ups , were already in a I don’t like my life attitude. And if somehow u rn’t after work or a busy day of children or bills u will be.

    Reply
  25. socialdee

     /  September 27, 2014

    Excellent Point- as a social studies teacher for middle school kids who shows CNN student news and encourages them to think about the world around them, I sometimes worry about the negativity in the media. I am not blind to the fact that bad things happen, but millions of people right now are living happy, safe lives. “Millions of planes fly and land safely” does not grab attention. It’s the ambulance crash mentality of humans that responds and remembers negative events more strongly. The students look depressed after I show the news and I also want them to hope for a better world. We try to not just talk about Michael Ferguson and the “worst summer”, but what can be done to be more tolerant, peaceful and just. Young and old think we are already doomed to Hunger Games, Maze Runner trilogy, Divergent, Ender’s Game, The Giver, Among the Hidden (and the Shadow Children series), City of Ember etc. Look at this wikipedia list and in the last 2 decades there is so much more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_literature#1990s
    The current dystopian lit explosion captures some kind of zeitgeist in the world. It’s a reflection of the psychological worry of the world. Again, interesting read. Thank you!

    Reply
  26. Great post ! Perhaps we all ought to take a break every now and then from television and social media. Good news is always good to hear though……When all we see in the world is bad… we do get numb to the world….

    Reply
  27. We’ve been highly desensitized by the “normal” imagery we see daily on TV — even in commercials. Just consider how we showed someone getting shot in the 1960s; they’d clutch their stomach, groan and fall down. Now we get blood spatter and brains on the wall behind them.

    Does this all merely reflect our troubled times, or is there a feedback effect that ramps us towards greater and greater excess? I’ve become increasingly convinced it’s the latter.

    Reply
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