Graphic images and clicktivism

[Content note: discussion of dead children, refugees – no images]

There’s a regular discussion which crops up around trigger warnings, graphic images, and social media. It appeared yesterday when an horrific picture of a drowned child became the image which defines the Syrian refugee crisis; and a few people pointed out that it’s a bit gross to just drop an image of a dead child into their Twitter feed for the sake of raising awareness about a terrible humanitarian disaster.

What got me was the utter, unashamed indignation of many of the people who had posted the image and were asked not to. No, they thundered, how dare you refuse to look at this picture of a dead child? You clearly don’t care about dead children! You don’t care about Syrian refugees! The world must be forced to look at this picture of a dead child so they’ll know how terrible this story is!

And then there were sneering comments about clicktivism and “why are you policing my posting-pictures-of-dead-children when you could be lobbying the government to #doublethequota”, and essentially a point-blank refusal, from too many people I otherwise respect, to consider what other people were actually saying.

No one said “don’t talk about Syria”. No one said “don’t lobby the government.” No one said “I refuse to donate money to humanitarian organisations because you posted that photo.”

They just wanted a little warning before a haunting, tragic image was thrown up in front of their eyeballs.

The thing about social media is that it – Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram – is designed to share small flashes of information widely. Images especially. When you’re scrolling down your timeline, you’ll often see the image first – then the caption, or the explanation, or the link. It works that way because images are so powerful.

Well, with great power comes great responsibility. The responsibility not to wilfully traumatize people just because we think our message is the most important thing in the universe.

A side note: this is usually where people complain that trigger warnings “mean you never want to see anything which hurts your feelings” or some other strawperson. Take it from me, the woman incapable of seeing “content note: giant bugs” and NOT clicking on it even though I hate giant bugs with the power of a thousand suns, trigger warnings don’t erase your audience. They just give your audience a choice.

And if you’re really trying to reach the people who don’t care about Syrian refugees dying, they’re probably the kind of callous person who’ll ignore your trigger warning anyway.

But here’s the thing. You know what real “clicktivism” is? It’s thoughtlessly retweeting an image of a dead child without even taking two seconds to type TW: image of dead child at the top. It’s slapping an image of a dead child at the top of your post – a post with a title which contains no information indicating such an image will appear in it – without the decency of putting it behind a “Read More” link.

If you can’t even be bothered taking less than a minute to consider the people immediately around you, who will be confronted without warning of a dead child – a child who may be the age of their own kids, or who looks like their kids because not everyone on NZ Twitter is white, actually – then you’ve got some cheek lecturing other people about how ~little~ they’re doing for the cause.

And if shocking people who are already on your side with a graphic image is the only way you can think to create political action, maybe you should stop, because you’re not very good at it.

If you want to take some real action, you can sign Action Station’s petition to Michael Woodhouse to increase our refugee quota, donate to the UNHCR or any one of these agencies, or volunteer for the Red Cross’ Refugee Service.

If you’re in Wellington, an impromptu demonstration is being held at Parliament at noon.

And take two seconds next time to check you’re not doing more harm than good.

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