How Irresponsibly Sharing Videos, Images of Sexual Violence Dehumanizes Survivors
Tweets and videos of the Delhi gang-rape incident make violence “easily consumable,” lending a voyeuristic element to the crime.
On the bleak winter morning of January 27th, a disturbing video went viral on social media. A woman in a pink salwar was paraded on the road in Delhi’s Kasturba Nagar; she wore a garland of chappals around her neck, her face blackened, her clothes torn. The woman was reportedly abducted and gang-raped on Republic Day; nine out of the 11 people accused in the crime have been arrested. The parade of shame took place the next day; people cheered as others in the crowd slapped and humiliated her.
Documentation of this forever lies on social media right now.
Whenever similar instances of gory violence happen, we’re consumed with rightful shock and rage. Social media provides ample information to piece together a brutal picture. But these elements are chequered into our daily consumption of cultural content; one “shocking” video spaced out between five different memes. It raises the question of what role audio-visual media — images or videos on loop — play in shaping the discourse around rape.
Arguably, this dissonance in the severity of the issue is a familiar ethical concern. “Are images of violence and death too distressing to publish—or too important to ignore?” asked a Nieman article, pointedly. Some iconic images — the Syrian child lying dead on the beach, the “falling man” who jumped from a World Trace Center tower; a 9-year-old girl fleeing an attack in Vietnam — have nitpicked the ethics of publishing any imagery of violence. “Part of their power stems precisely from the fact that they show moments of pain and death usually hidden from view. It’s difficult to look at these images, and difficult to look away.”
The argument in favor of using any audio-visual media was to relay the brutality of the incident in graphic detail; the whole chestnut about pictures speaking (or screaming, sometimes) louder than words may not be trite wisdom. “We must force ourselves to look,” wrote Julian Reichelt, editor in chief of bild.de. “Without pictures, the world would be more ignorant, the needy even more invisible, more lost… Photographs are the screams of the world.” In the present rape case, the revolting treatment of the woman afterward — a symbol of unflinching rape culture — was only brought to light through the video.
There’s also an element of citizen action embedded here, which could be used to benefit the cause of documenting marginalized narratives. In recent years, crimes of police brutality, caste violence, or violence sanctioned by the state were recorded by locals and shared online to carve attention. They paint a chilling record of the crime while also identifying perpetrators and demanding action. During the riots in Tripura in November, for instance, several social media reports and videos depicted widespread violence, deaths, and rape incidents — all of which were refuted by the government. In some ways, these videos and images record a crime for posterity to forever haunt a national consciousness.
At the same time, there’s always an unsavory voyeuristic element in this messaging when it comes to sexual violence. Gauging the ethics of images of violence and death depends on how they are framed; whether they dehumanize their subjects. The concern of that is amplified when acts of violence are consumed on social media like “content.” It is one thing to debate the extent of graphic visuals on news channels and media reporting; another to think about the effect a stream of videos and images have. Arguably, rape is certainly not like any other crime — “because it involves sex or rather a perverted form of sex,” a paper argued. Visual descriptions of women — stripped, violated, paraded naked — are often voyeuristic in nature.
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Moreover, “not only do they serve no practical purpose from a journalistic or legal point of view (rape is rape even if we do not know exactly how it happened) but they are also a violation of the privacy.”
The element of “voyeuristic sadism” was noted by researcher Jesse Dickinson. She says: “We can get pleasure by ―seizing upon other people as passive objects and subjecting them to a controlling gaze… The source of the pleasure is not just in controlling but judging and indeed punishing or forgiving the guilty object of our gaze.” Graphic news reports of rape unknowingly serve the intent “to know invasively,” “to judge and forgive” the “guilty” person; or to see and “save the woman.” But in the social media landscape, they also risk being turned into cultural products of easy convenience, which become viral trends and are driven by algorithms and further fuel a spirit of triviality.
In March last year, a woman was raped in Madhya Pradesh and paraded on the streets along with the accused. The video, of people chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” in the background, quickly became viral. It was another instance where voyeurism prevailed.
“No one would want to believe that, as a society, we trivialize and normalize the occurrence of sexual crimes, but this is the case,” argued Samantha Kolb in Daily Orange. “We, unfortunately, are living in a time when students can record and publish a video of a fellow student lying naked and unconscious while repeatedly being violated.” The victim in the aforementioned incident was only 16.
In some cases, the concern is also of spreading misinformation. In 2019, the rape and murder of a two-year-old girl in Aligarh were widely reported; the framing was one of two Muslim men brutally mutilating the Hindu girl’s body. “Turns out, most of that never happened… Unverified sensationalization and unnecessary communalization aside, the minor victim’s name was aggressively published and shared in headlines across the board; her photos, and a video of her before the incident went viral and was used extensively — all this when the media thought it was a rape case,” The Swaddle reported then. Then, the lack of context on social media is an untamed issue when it comes to discussing sexual violence. In 2015, the Supreme Court took note of rape videos; noting the indiscriminate circulation of a video on WhatsApp which the perpetrators themselves had recorded and shared.
Moreover, some researchhas argued that the easy, ubiquitous presence of graphic content on social media tends to “numb” audiences to tragedy — normalizing it a certain way.
Of course, social media cannot be the scapegoat in the beastly lifecycle of the rape culture. But the nature of sensationalizing news and the reach of social media means any such graphic document of violence has a longer, seemingly interminable life. Some media ethicists recommend “organizations use language very intentionally, and that campaign and organizational messages be pre-tested and edited to minimize the possibility of unintentional misuses of sexual violence prevention language.”
In other cases, a journalist asks: “Should a graphic image be appended to a tweet, when there is so little opportunity to provide context? Should social media companies disable auto-play for videos to avoid inadvertently displaying snuff videos in people’s timelines?”
These are difficult questions to frame, even more strenuous to answer. But the wisdom lies in scraping the depths — not to reach a conclusion, but to learn and do better.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.