Age of live-streamed massacre: How Digital Media Tools Shaped the Spectatorship on Pain of Others

“Herkes birikmiş bizi seyrediyor.

Dağılın! Kukla oynatmıyoruz burada.

Acı çekiyoruz!" (1)

"No se puede mirar!" (2)

The internet has an endless appetite for death videos, but what were viewers getting outof videos of death, of murder, massacre or car crashes? As Susan Sontag mentions in Regardingthe Pain of Others, "wars are now also living room sights and sounds. The information aboutwhat is happening elsewhere, called ‘news,’ features conflict and violence. The media’s notionof "If it bleeds, it leads" runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headlinenews shows—to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval,as each misery heaves into view" (Sontag, 2004: 17). In addition to the information regardingwar, in contemporary world, news on crime, theft, harassment, rape, torture, and 'information'of such kind have become easily accessible, watchable, viewable, recordable, and listenablewith new media tools. Recent innovations in communication mediums have enabled users topost, share, disseminate and comment on the images of suffering, while creating a cult out ofit. This study aims to problematize the reproduction of the pain of others for every user as wellas the invasion of information in our daily lives through user-generated media platforms suchas Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Liveleak platforms also known as the newmedia tools.

Philosophers have always been intrigued by the relationship between pain and pleasure.Aristotle treats pain and pleasure as a push-pull concept. In his conception, people movetowards things that cause pleasure and avoid those that cause pain. Unlike Aristotle,Enlightenment philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and Baruch Spinoza assume that pain andpleasure lie on a spectrum. For instance, in line with his theory of utilitarianism, Bentham tiesbenefit maximization to the happiness-unhappiness spectrum/relationship. This relationshipcan be traced to the continuity of a spectrum in which happiness emerges as the root cause ofpleasure, whereas sadness appears as the root cause of pain. (Burns, 2005: 48) In addition tothe epistemological foundations of this spectrum of the pleasure-pain continuum, Bentham alsoclaims that “pleasure and pain govern not only how human beings act, but also how humanbeings ought to act” (Bentham, 2000: 14). Therefore, Bentham argues that human action istriggered by these two governing forces of human nature. In a similar vein, Spinoza mentionsthat “the more significant the sadness, the higher the power of acting with which the man willstrive to remove the sadness,” that is, “the higher the desire or appetite with which he will striveto remove the sadness” (Spinoza, 2019: 248). While philosophers have dealt with therelationship between pain and pleasure from different perspectives as such, today the functionalrelationship between pain and pleasure has been scientifically proven. Various scientific studiesshow that pain and pleasure trigger similar neurochemical activity in similar areas of the brain.For example, Leknes and Tracey's study finds that individuals' reactions to pain and pleasureare biochemically similar (Leknes and Tracey, 2008: 317). This connection manifests itself inthe contemporary cultural consumption of pain imagery in manifold ways. 

Echoing recent scientific studies that highlight the entanglements of pain and pleasurefrom centuries ago, Edmund Burke makes the observation that people like to look at images ofsuffering. "I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the realmisfortunes and pains of others," he wrote in 1757, based on his observations ... . " It comes asno surprise that a philosopher who lived through the French Revolution, where forms of publicpunishment were conventional looked at the pain of others as Sontag mentioned there is nospectacle we so eagerly pursue, like that of some uncommon and grievous calamity" (Sontag,2004: 76). 

Similarly, Petrus Cornelis Spierenburg investigates the public executions in pre-industrial Europe, arguing that punishment has two elements. According to him, the publiccharacter of punishment and the infliction of physical suffering was at the heart of the penalsystem (Spierenburg, 1984: 81). 

Image 1: The public execution of Robert-François Damiens in 1757 

Resonating with Spierenburg’s analysis regarding spectacles of suffering in pre-modern Europe, Foucault details the public execution of Robert-François Damiens as follows: (1995: 3) 

“On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned 'to make the amendehonorable before the main door of the Church of Paris, where he was to be 'takenand conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burningwax weighing two pounds'; then, 'in the said cart, to the Place de Greve, where,on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be tom from his breasts,arms, thighs, and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knifewith which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on thoseplaces where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quarteredby four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes andhis ashes thrown to the winds'. 

As Foucault’s vivid description of this spectacular ritual of suffering attests, thesespecific events took place in front of the ‘masses,’.. Besides, this "torment" and publicpunishment, pre-modern media representations of spectacular violence, can be visible asGazette d'Amsterdam, one of the leading newspapers of continental Europe, on 1 April 1757published: "Finally, he was quartered". (Foucault, 1992: 3). 

Image 2: Audiences camped at the Rainey Bethea's execution field, and sales of beverages before the act, 1936. 

Just like continental Europe, public executions constituted a significant source of massentertainment in the United Kingdom and English-speaking communities before the pre-industrial era. Newspapers dedicated a whole section to public hangings, with detailed accountsof the crimes of suffering culprits, their last words, and their audiences at public rituals of capitalexecution. Even 70 years after the last public execution in the United Kingdom, the last personto be publicly executed in the United States, Rainey Bethea, attracted more than 20.000 peoplewitnessing his execution. Image 2 depicts how people enjoyed this act of suffering by reservingseats and drinking cold beverages to consume this act of performance. (Kaplan, 2015). These examples support Burke's claim on people's enjoyment of looking at pain images. Sontagbelieved that all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree,pornographic ( 2004: 76). The pornography mentioned by Sontag can be conceived as impulsesinduced by images of brutality, rather than a sense of lust stimulated/evoked by sexualactivities. 

Individuals can access representations of pain and suffering faster and easier incontemporary societies, due in large part to the emergence of new media tools. Concepts suchas ‘torture porn,’ ‘gore graphics,’ and ‘graphic violence’ have become daily lenses throughwhich people understand their increasing exposure to mediated forms of pain and suffering.This instant gratification derived from others’ pain reminds Sontag of a passage from theTempest, stating that it is no longer necessary to spend ten cents to see the dead body of anIndian Native. With new media tools, representations of other people’s pain and suffering havebecome cultural products to be circulated and consumed with ease by increasingly larger masses(Sontag, 2004: 73). 

The concept of ‘rubbernecking’ finds its way in culture for more than 100 years—rubbernecking which can be explained as a humane feature of curiosity to the morbid. Forexample, a person's desire to see a traffic accident on the highway can classify as a commonpractice of ‘rubbernecking.’ 

Following this typical example of rubbernecking, the image of a traffic accident, as suchused to be an image that can only be "peeped" by the person there witnessing the event.However, with the emergence of new media tools, the images of any accident can be digitallyrecorded, edited, serviced, and therefore be made accessible to anyone using these tools. Dueto this heightened accessibility, there is no difference between the fact that a fresh content imageis viewable after confirmation and the slowing down of the car in order to see the situation ofthe accident site. With new media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium,LiveLeak, we can claim that one no longer needs to be physically present at a site of sufferingfrom qualifying as a rubbernecker. Thanks to new media tools, rubbernecking has lost itsrequirements of physical presence and immediacy and gone online/digital. 

Image 3: Plane of Malaysia Airlines falling in Ukraine one of the most famous images of 2015 of Associated Press,by Evgeniy Maloletka, Associated Press 

Online rubbernecking is omnipresent in people's lives more than ever. For example, oneof the most shared images of 2015 was a photograph of a passenger blown out of his/her seatfrom a MH17 plane of Malaysia Airlines, which crashed in Ukraine on July 17, 2014. Anothermemorable example is Emine Bulut, who was killed by her ex-husband Fedai Varan inKırıkkale on August 18, 2019. Bulut's last words, "I do not want to die " and his daughter'swords, "mom do not die, please " made into the top 10 tweets of Twitter in 2019. The imagesof her pain, or pain of another as Sontag would refer, was viewed, shared and commented bymillions of users on YouTube. In perhaps a grimmer example, Brenton Tarrant has live-streamed his attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand where he massacred 40 people.Facebook officially announced that they removed a whopping 1.5 million videos of the globalmassacre in the first 24 hours of the attack on March 15, 2019 (Facebook Press Release, 2019). 

Founded in 2006 as a ‘gore’ content publisher site, LiveLeak takes the phenomenon ofcirculating and consuming pain imagery a notch further. The site has a slogan of "Redefiningthe Media", with an active userbase of 13 million visitors per month. Another value propositionof the site is to provide easy-to-access content for people who want to watch brutal images suchas "gore," i.e. beheadings, traffic accidents, killings, massacres, which are not readily availableor accessible in mainstream media outlets, be they in televised forms, or user-based websites such as YouTube and Facebook. The fact that such digital content of brutality is watched orshared to an alarming degree may be related to something that Baudrillard has lost behind everyimage looked at, as mentioned. Baudrillard argues that “all forms of virtual reality (telematics,informatics, digital), have caused reality to disappear, which is what fascinates everyone”(Baudrillard, 2019: 25). In a more recent example vindicating the Baudrillard’s contentiousargument that hyperreality rather than reality is the order of the day, the COVID-19 pandemiccrisis is changing the ways that people use, circulate, and consume media. Primetime newsroutinely display the figures for the deceased and infected as conveniently as they represent thefluctuations of stocks in the stock market. However, it is essential to remember that the victimsof the pandemic that are conveniently reduced to numeric representations in the context of aglobal health crisis are in fact people who (in most cases) have jobs, families, and passions. 

The concept and instances of online rubbernecking provokes another issue to beaddressed is as Sontag stated what is "proper" to publish (Sontag, 2004: 54). It is up to theconscience of spectators who consume the pain images of others to accept the fact that thetraveler who lost his life in Ukraine has a family, or that while Emine Bulut is no longer alive,her daughter continues to live. Yet the images of suffering will never disappear, as long as thereare people who continue to access, use, circulate, and consume them. To investigate further theconscience of individuals, That painful images can be liberally accessed and reshared beyondconventional means of control is a fact that raises ethical considerations for public and privateinstitutions, complicating notions of accountability and responsibility. However, the newdigital media tools where individuals are free to share what they feel like sharing confound ourconventional understandings of responsibility, as it is difficult to demarcate where theresponsibility of user begins, and where that of new media tools ends. This is because the notionof free sharing phenomenon has become unpredictable and untamable in the user regeneratedcontent age of social media. For the images of the massacre carried out by Brenton Tarrant inChristchurch, Facebook explains the reason why artificial intelligence could not prevent thesharing of the event footage as follows: 

"AI systems are based on "training data", which means thousands of examplesof content is needed in order to train a system that can detect certain types oftext, imagery or video. An approach that has worked very well for nudity,terrorist propaganda and also graphic violence where there is a large numberof examples exists to provide data. However, such an instance of live massacre did not trigger Facebook's automatic detection systems." (Hermann,2019). 

On March 20, the company elaborated on its efforts, explaining that existing "contentmatching" systems and artificial intelligence had not been able to stop the video's spreadbecause the content itself had morphed so many times by the user/spectator/consumer itself.This instance of resharing, reshaping and resubmission of images raise a rhetorical question forfurther studies: "What kind of precautions will the media field with the promise of free sharingtake to combat restriction of sharing?".3 

To summarize; the pain of others has been treatise throughout history and found itselfas a medium of cultural expression, whether as an art form, or religious hymn for the suffering.The relationship between the two fundamental human feelings of pain and pleasure has beenquestioned by a wide variety of philosophers. The painful images are easily accessible, saved,and shared in the modern world with new media tools. As Baudelaire states, in ourcontemporary societies, it seems that civilized people start their meals each morning withappetizers of the images of brutality. Digital videos increasingly reproduce the images of painand suffering, rendering them ever-increasingly accessible and public, while the spectatoralternates between the position of a witness and a consumer in relation to representations ofother people’s pain. The very qualities that made the ancient Greek philosophers consider thatseeing is the most excellent, and the noblest of the senses are now associated with a disorder.(Sontag, 2004: 118). Further studies are needed to answer two questions: If avoidance frompain and attraction to pleasure not only characterize, but also guide human action as Freud andAristotle suggests, how can we account for the predicament that people today seem to be drawnmore to representations of pain than those of pleasure, and how can we explain the skyrocketingmass appeal of human suffering and cruelty on digital platforms in our contemporary modernsocieties? 

(1) Atay, O. Tutunamayanlar (p. 542)

(2) “Not to be watched.” Sontag, S. Başkalarının Acısına Bakmak (p. 44) 

(3) Forweknowthatatotalitariansystemcannolongereffectivelyfightagainstaninternaltelephonenetworkonceits density has exceeded a certain threshold, thereby becoming uncontrollable. Indeed, no "modern" society (andmodernity is an imperative for totalitarianism) can refuse for very long to develop the technico-economico-scientific services of the telephone-which is to say, the "democratic " places of connection appropriate to operatingits own destruction. Telephone thus becomes, for totalitarianism, the invisible prefiguration and the imperiousprescription of its own ruin. (Derrida, 1992: 42-43) 


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