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by Sofia Villegas
17 October 2023
When horror comes knocking: Brutal content is being shared on social media with far too little hesitation

The EU has warned TikTok and X over spread of violent content on the Israel-Hamas conflict | Alamy

When horror comes knocking: Brutal content is being shared on social media with far too little hesitation

I grew up in a world where digital technology was yet to become a permanent fixture of daily life. I had a childhood mostly free of the many dark alleyways social media can lead you down. And today particularly, I’m aware of how lucky I am to say so. 

Just last week, as the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted, numerous videos of people screaming as they were abducted, tortured, or murdered flooded my feed uninvited, circling me back to the ongoing debate of the 21st century – what censorship should there be on social media content? 

One specific video from the Hamas attack on the Supernova music festival in Israel keeps haunting me. The clip showed 30-year-old Shani Louk face down in her underwear in a flatbed truck. For days, it has been stuck in my mind. For days, I have thought of her lying there barely alive. And for days, I have asked myself, what if you were her mother? Imagine recognising your daughter’s semi-naked body from a video being shared by thousands of users every second – as a matter of fact, I do not want to imagine it. It is a torment apparently shared by many as last week MP Michelle Donan called an “urgent meeting” with Google, Meta, X and TikTok to remove extremely violent content fuelled by Hamas, echoing a similar initiative made earlier by the EU – which called for Elon Musk to stop the brutal content on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Questions on the morality of publishing distressing pictures date back to the Vietnam war, Hillsborough disaster or the more recent Bataclan terrorist attacks. Yet it is this gatekeeping that is a stranger to social media. And although disbelief keeps reaching unprecedented levels, people still disagree on when we will cross the line or if there should be one to cross at all. The latest example of this being the Online Safety Bill, which finally passed through parliament last month, holding platforms responsible for illegal content such as child abuse. Many tagged the law as an attack on their freedom of speech, while others argued it did not go far enough.

Seemingly, the only viable option to block dreadful content is looking away yet I feel guilty doing so – we should see this to ensure it does not go unnoticed, right? 

Well, judging from a recent conversation I’ve had, the answer is no. The growing amount of violent content which is readily available seems to be plunging us into an epidemic of desensitised young people who don’t even flinch when they see a beheading.

And then there’s content that seems to serve no purpose at all. Just under two months ago, a recording of a tourist being eaten by a shark in Egypt had more than 69,000 retweets. 

That’s 69,000 users who thought it was okay to showcase how a man was literally being devoured alive. The unnecessary collective spread of death is the last straw for me.

Barack Obama once said: “Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” So, I worry for the minds we are nourishing – a concern that world leaders should share. How will they ensure people continue to care about climate change if we become numb to its devastating effects worldwide?

Social media is a double-edged sword, but I fear one end might be sharper than the other. I’m not unrealistic, dreaming of a world without it is exactly that – a dream. But perhaps there is a future where we can somehow meet halfway. 

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