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Our violent web: shock value, mob rule and the right to know

It’s a known fact that some people get off on violence. Maybe not in the entire sense of the term portrayed in South Park’s recent episode about “informative murder porn,” but there’s at least a sense of curiosity involved. Even Schadenfreude or the idea of getting joy out of other people’s misfortune has seen its fair share of people spending hours on YouTube watching compilation clips of drunk Russians doing senseless things.

On a more serious, extreme level there are people getting pleasure out of shock value which, with social media, can be easily disguised as being something else. Take Rotten for example, a site that rightfully describes itself as “pure evil” and brings out some of the worst the web has to offer. It is probably one of the first sites I was exposed to as a little kid and is still running strong, selling merchandise and the works since 1996.

In the last few months, South Africa has seen its share of violence with both the exposure and the actual incidents spurring controversy. One of the incidents involved a massive and bloody truck crash, while the other saw a bouncer beating up some kids who had snuck a joint into a nightclub bathroom. Both events are different in terms of extremity though both support similar arguments. But where is the line between users’ right to share content and unwelcome oversharing?

Last month a car accident in which 23 people were killed in Pinetown (in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa) was filmed and posted on YouTube. One of the shocking clips eventually gathered over 1-million views and created a massive dose of controversy in the country.

Though YouTube comments aren’t well-known for always being politically correct and having a healthy environment of tolerant debate, the controversy surrounding the legal action of some involved in the accident was easily exacerbated online.

YouTube user djgetcarter comments the following:

“I find it very frustrating that you can watch something as heartbreaking as this video and people still manage to find things to argue about. Put your petty differences aside and spare a thought for everyone involved. It’s a tragedy. Stop hating and start being a little more considerate. This is not a video people should be arguing over. Hopefully if it does one thing it will make you appreciate each day more and tell the ones you love that you love them much more often.”

The case for “the right to know”

The actual issue of videos such as these is that they create their own set of moral controversies. On the one hand, people argue that they simply want to know everything. When we live in an age where authorities censor or regulate information from society, where should the line of what’s considered “appropriate” be drawn?

This could lead to a slippery slope of governments impossibly trying to mould the internet into some kind of nanny state. Or, in David Cameron’s case, trying to ban porn from the internet.

As the tweet above suggests, some also argue that content such as this is extremely important in raising awareness of incredibly concerning issues our society faces today. In the case of the horrific viral clip of the so-called #pinetown accident, over 5 000 people signed a petition on the popular community petition site Avaaz requesting that trucks be banned from this road.

The idea of sharing a graphic picture of poached rhinos on Facebook comes to mind. To some it’s just not appetizing on a friendly platform such as Facebook. It can easily be overlooked or camouflaged and people can simply become numb to certain content thus defeating its original raising-awareness purpose: *scroll scroll scroll — delicious chocolate cupcakes (mmm) — scroll scroll scroll — bloodied rhino (ah!) — scroll scroll scroll — Tim and Maria just got married (oh) — scroll scroll scroll… and repeat.*

The case against mob mentality

Content — especially criminally associated information or that bearing sensitive legal value — should be meant for prosecutors’ eyes only. People should take into account that the need to respect the victims’ friends and the families involved is incredibly important. Then there’s also the fact that anyone with the ability to type “Google” can access this graphic content. After all, the internet gives voice to some really insensitive people better left in the dark. Kind of leaning towards the “ignorance is bliss” side of living, people don’t always want to be reminded of upsetting events such as this — that’s one thing really difficult to separate yourself from, when graphic pictures and videos are plastered all over your social media feeds.

Why wouldn’t you want to disassociate yourself from the trolls, shock-value tweeters and such? People are becoming increasingly active online with reporting, translating or exposing social issues — each with his own bias. Sometimes it’s a case of citizen journalism turned mob attack. With the absence of legitimate authority, community easily takes charge. Often considered a good thing like overthrowing dictators for example, it’s also very dangerous. British (you’d guess) judge Lord Justice Levonson spoke out on this issue while also reminding us that the web is not civilized:

“There is not only danger of trial by Twitter, but also of an unending punishment, and no prospect of rehabilitation, via Google. To name and shame people by broadcasting their behaviour (online), there is a danger of real harm being done, and in some cases harm which is both permanent and disproportionate.”

Earlier this year, the Boston Bombings in the US also managed to generate a massive amount of social media activity. Things eventually led to a mob-like mentality when some of the Reddit community decided to take the manhunt into their own hands. This then resulted in innocent people having their faces on the front page of newspapers (and the internet) labelled as “suspects”.

More recently, a new video surfaced online. The controversial clip is a cellphone video of surveillance footage which shows three men smoking in a bathroom when a bouncer punches one of them in the face. The bouncer in question has since removed his Facebook profile. The video feels dirty, for the lack of a better word. Is this publicly applicable or better left for the lawyers? As the bouncer in question apparently originally posted the video on Facebook, the clip soon went viral and people started lashing out on YouTube and Twitter as well.




See the whole Facebook discussion on this subject with (and against) Shane Myburgh.

The official account that uploaded this video, named Infidel South Africa, recently made this announcement:

“Hi all, I would just like to make you aware of something.
I have received numerous private e-mails and messages here from people showing support, and people offering money toward the victims’ legal fees. And lawyers offering to represent them free of charge. Please do come forward, I will not make your information public and I will make certain that whoever I put you in contact with is the real deal.
Let’s make this happen!”

A double-edged sword perhaps? Full transparency or freedom of speech (content) should be considered extremely dear to a society’s fundamental democracy but it shouldn’t supersede social decency.

Image: Opensource via Flickr.

Author | Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter
Jacques grew up in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Keen to take over the world, one word at a time, he has always been interested in both politics and development and studied International Relations (BA) at Stellenbosch University. With an interest in innovation and social change, he seeks to tell the... More
  • Charis Apelgren

    Really enjoyed this article. As a managing editor for three digital platforms I constantly question whether pageviews matter more than social decency. It is quite alarming how people will gladly watch and share videos with violence, the same way they would share videos of babies singing and motivational messages.

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