The week of May 8, 2016

Should it be against the law to share tragic images on social media?

By Chris Stokel-Walker

It was a normal Friday afternoon. At Mojave High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, a group of seniors were running through cheerleading practice on the football field around 4pm on Nov. 20, 2015. Opposite the campus, another group of students had gathered, within sight of the dirt-colored stucco walls and green varsity letters that spell out the school’s initials.

Then the gunfire began.

Police later said that a two-on-two fight turned into a brawl involving 40 to 50 people. Eight shots were fired, according to witnesses. When the shooting stopped, 16-year-old Taylor Brantley lay bleeding, shot in the stomach. He’d later die in the hospital.

His girlfriend, 16-year-old Faith Camir, learned about his death via social media. She told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that on Facebook she saw a video of Brantley after he’d been shot, “lying there, fighting for his life.” In the clip, she told the newspaper, “Nobody was helping him. He was fighting for his life and you were just standing there while he was dying.”

It’s unclear how long the video was available, whether it was posted publicly or privately, and whether any copies of it remain. Soon after the shooting, an administrator for a Facebook page memorializing Brantley posted a screenshot of someone asking for a copy of the video. “It’s explicit and shouldn’t ever have been recorded,” the administrator wrote.

But it was recorded, and it was distributed, however briefly. Unintentionally, an explicit video of a dying teenager became the means by which his girlfriend learned of his death; it’s unlikely that whoever shot the video could have imagined the effect it would have on Camir, or those who didn’t know Brantley, or that it would become something that strangers would ask about on a memorial page.

The consequences were unintended, likely the result of a simple lack of thought; someone captured a video and shared it, and it happened to reach someone with a direct, emotional connection to the event. But zoom out from the specifics of Taylor Brantley and Faith Camir to the wider roil of “breaking news,” where eyewitness videos captured on cellphones often supplements more traditional media coverage—or when such images are the only ones available.

On Nov. 13, 2015, for example, after three gunmen attacked the Bataclan theater in Paris, France, Stephane Hannache opened up Periscope and began livestreaming the aftermath. His video—a cacophony of blaring sirens and shouts, punctuated with the occasional comment by Hannache and his friends—went around the world and was watched by 10,000 simultaneous viewers on Periscope; the YouTube-archived video has been viewed a quarter of a million times.

Some of those views likely came from people directly affected by the attacks: friends, family, neighbors. That doesn’t mean the images shouldn’t have been recorded—the absolutist line taken by Taylor Brantley’s friends seems both incorrect and unenforceable. But scrolling through our timelines, seeing birthday wishes and new job announcements occasionally juxtaposed with vivid tragedy, it’s hard not to wonder if we ought to be thinking about the people for whom those tragedies are more than a blip in the news stream. Should there be a way to protect them from such images? Is that even possible?

Those are the kinds of questions on the mind of John “Bam” Carney. He’s a Republican state representative in Kentucky. He didn’t have Taylor Brantley in mind, per se, but he’d heard of several incidents in his home district where families had seen images of a loved one’s wrecked car on social media well before being alerted by the authorities. In one case, first responders chose to call the family of a high school senior involved in a car crash, rather than break the news in a more traditional, face-to-face way. “There was concern among first responders that [the news] could get out on social media quickly because a lot of kids knew about it,” Carney says.

“I’m a schoolteacher by profession,” he says. “I see how social media has changed things.” He started thinking that maybe there needed to be a way to slow the spread of eyewitness images, just long enough so authorities could alert families in a humane way. They shouldn’t have to scramble to stay ahead of social media, he thought. “Getting that phone call…” he says. “I can’t imagine.”

So in January, he proposed a bill. The wording was simple: “Any individual who witnesses an event that could reasonably result in a serious physical injury […] shall not post any information identifying the potential victims on the Internet or other electronic media until at least one (1) hour has passed from the moment the event was first witnessed.” Exceptions were built in for journalists, emergency responders, and victims, but bystanders who ran afoul of the law would be fined anywhere between $20 and $100.

A backlash quickly followed. The idea was impractical and unwieldy, opponents argued, not to mention pretty obviously an unconstitutional restraint on First Amendment free speech rights. But Carney expected that. “I knew going in it was probably going to have a lot of dispute about First Amendment issues,” he says. He eventually withdrew the proposal, after it had started a useful debate, which he says was his primary goal. “Hopefully in Kentucky, people will think twice about what they post in these situations, because you never know who has been notified and who hasn’t,” he says. “The attempt was to try and bring discussion to the fact that people need to be careful with social media and how you use it.”

Carney received public support from families who’d been blindsided by news of tragedies involving their loved ones. But in the ensuing debate about his legislation, there remains the basic question of whether it’s tenable to govern social media in the way he envisions. Even he admits the proposed law would be difficult to enforce. A one-hour prohibition on images of “an event that could reasonably result in a serious physical injury”—how would that actually work?

And how would one separate potentially damaging eyewitness images from those that are, to use a very nebulous term, “newsworthy?” Aren’t there times when it’s important to have up-to-date information, no matter how it’s distributed? “I think it would be very difficult to draw a line there between something where using social media to report something is damaging versus when it’s not damaging,” says Grant Blank, an Oxford Internet Institute survey research fellow at the University of Oxford, England. “If a car wreck is something you don’t want to transmit, what about a tornado, or a thunderstorm that knocks down trees or rips shingles off roofs?”

But even with Carney’s proposed 60-minute transmission delay, those images could still be captured and distributed later. Digital video rarely dies; it can be copied and shared, recut and reformed. There’s no reason to think tragic, explicit images would be less painful for families seeing them 61 minutes after the fact rather than at 59 minutes. 

With the speed at which social media can distribute video, it’s hard to imagine Carney’s proposed law having much effect. Consider another example from last year: On Aug. 26, 2015, two journalists with a television station in Virginia were fatally shot during a news broadcast. The shooter recorded the killings on his iPhone and later posted the video to Twitter.

Retweets put the videos in front of people who likely didn’t expect to see a murder caught on video; within minutes, the footage was thrown, unsolicited and unwanted, into the timelines of thousands of Twitter users. The videos also appeared on Facebook, which, like Twitter, autoplays video by default, meaning that some viewers likely didn’t even have time to realize what they were seeing and opt out of it.

It’s unclear whether anyone close to the two journalists first saw the video via social media. But Carney’s proposed bill also opens up the bigger question of the effects of public consumption of such images. According to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, seeing graphic footage has a significant impact on viewers. And seeing such images, with or without intent, becomes easier as the the way we consume media changes. There are more outlets than ever for sharing footage that might once have been taboo, blocked by media gatekeepers, or relegated to Faces of Death-style underground compilations.

Cohen Silver conducted two major longitudinal surveys, focusing on two terrorist attacks in the United States: 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. She wanted to understand the effect that viewing graphic images had on people. In both surveys, the results were clear: “[A] very strong predictor of mental and physical health complaints could be accounted for by the number of hours of exposure to images in the aftermath of the attacks.”

“We’re in a new media landscape, and a new time,” she says. “We have easy, constant access to the news, and as a result, to graphic images. The challenge is that social media is not censored. People can post whatever images they want to their Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles.” That’s not entirely true, of course; both social media companies have terms of service regulating what they’ll allow on their networks. Both Twitter and Facebook quickly disabled accounts belonging to the Virginia shooter, though users quickly mirrored his videos. YouTube’s policy against explicit content means the footage was swiftly deleted there but can be repeatedly re-uploaded, even as it continues to be taken down. It’s hard to contain the spread of digital images.

Ultimately, Carney’s bill would have been a failure, and it’s hard to see how one like it could succeed. As Cohen says, we’re in a new media landscape, one where infinite distribution is a reality. That’s already posing difficult problems, as our laws and norms try to catch up with the technology we’ve created. There’s no guarantee that that’ll happen soon, or that it’ll be an easy process. Because, again, as Cohen says, we’re in a new time.

Illustration by J. Longo