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The Moral Problem Of Death On The Internet


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Two young men wrestle in a gloomy and drab courtyard in Brazil with their fight ­captured by an onlooker with a smartphone. It is a tough fight, difficult viewing, yet familiar to anyone who has seen a room where alcoholic drinks are served over a counter scuffle or one of the thousands of fight videos on sites like YouTube.

Except for this particular video, residing on the British-oriented website LiveLeak is variant.

As one of the people gains the upper hand, he grabs a technique of choke fight. His opponent is helplessly defeated and at his mercy. But, shockingly, there is none. Instead, the loser is ­casually murder.

When AFR Weekend is going to print, his death has to watch by more than 321,000 LiveLeak viewers.

Such videos are available at many locations on the internet. The popularity suggests it is not just the mentally ill person group of society logging on.

It is an appetite that terrorists are happy to whet for their causing fear of dead ends. When Islamic State militants remove the head of United States journalist James Foley in August, they first set up two cameras to ensure the video was of high quality. It was then ­disseminated that is social media sites like YouTube and Twitter.

When those companies took the video down, then LiveLeak chooses to keep it up. It has form; the site was first in the world to show the footage of Saddam Hussein’s ­hangs in December 2006.

LiveLeak’s not modified view of the world is confronting. But, even more, engaging is why so many people are watching it. According to Amazon’s Alexa website, it measures online ­traffic. LiveLeak is ranked the 636th most-visited website globally on the internet.

Why do so many people watch it? What will they possibly gain from looking at the final raw moments of strangers? Have human beings evolving particularly in the past few hundred years. The internet is just a new forum for loudly shouting crowds in town squares of the past is waiting for the thrill of an execution.

Concern for victims’ families

In an interview, LiveLeak’s co-founder Hayden Hewitt admits to AFR Weekend that it is highly unlikely he will want to see a video of one of his relatives killed in general circulation on the internet. He says the site will likely remove videos if contacted by relatives of a victim.

But he says she is comfortable with the morals set of ideas; the site positions itself as the modern media companies.

With a slogan of “redefining the media,” it puts a person’s web browsers in the position previously occupied by news editors at Television stations. Choose for themselves just how much reality they will handle watching. ­isitors give a clear description of a video before they manage.

“The ideas media likes to wash its hands of the moral discussion by saying that they don’t show beheadings. However, it still shows hundreds of people going to screams death on 9/11 over and over and over again. It is equally harmful to families.” Hewitt says. “One cannot unsee it, that is for sure, but one should making an adult decision.”

Once having made that decision, such adults or children, for that matter, will leave comments. Under the video of the two Brazilian fighters, more than a ­thousand commentators moralize, joke, and use to fight. These are discussing a weekend sports match before moves to the next video.

“Wow, that was harsh have not that confidence since the two guys beheaded with the chainsaw.” So he writes a Canadian viewer.

Questions of availability

The pressing question for the viewers and website operators to answer is if this material should available in the first place, regardless of the desire to know what the service may provide.

After all, the car crash victim, execute hostage, or murder fighter is in no position to grant their permission. But, more urgently, those who share such material encourage the criminals and terrorists to kill others.

When the IS beheadings start, ­newsrooms at broadcasters and newspapers had to discuss the balance between informing the public and helping terrorists to achieve their aims.

 Video ending introduction to next victim. How did the decision to broadcast or publish photos feeding into the terrorists’ decision to kill another hostage? Who make the decisions in the world of social media.

With many users setting a campaign to ­discourage others from watching the James Foley execution, Twitter soon moves to delete videos and close down accounts of those sharing it. YouTube also announce banning content showing like ­violence, hate speech, and behave unlawfully to commit other harsh acts.

At the same time, Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo says the company had a policy of allowing immediate family members and other authorized individuals to request the removal of images or videos of deceased people from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death. He says these requests are considering alongside public interest factors like the drafting press release of the content.

Twitter, however, refusing a request to be interviewed for this article.

University of Wollongong associate ­professor in the school of information ­systems and technology Katina Michael, who researches the socio-ethical implications of emerging technologies, doesn’t buy the idea that those watching violent conduct or terrorist activity are innocent observers becoming better informed.

Many say creators of content know all too well; the more shocking the scene, the more likely it is to go viral. It means they try to outdo their crimes so that they can escalate in appeal and shock value.

Censorship is futile

Michael is not an advocate of censoring content, as she is realistic enough to know that trying to keep content off the internet is fruitless and time-consuming. However, she is concerned by the desensitizing of young people to increasingly violent material and says the potential for copycats is undeniable.

“We are not doing society a service by drawing attention to these gross violations of human rights. Instead, we glorify the ­individual mass murderer, and we are meeting the needs of the terrorist organization if we are viewing things that we do not need to see,” Michael says.

“We also need to think about victims’ ­families and how they feel when heinous crimes are committed against their partner, son, parent, child, and easily accessible over the internet. If that is not enough, some are blatantly insensitive, commenting in response to death like ‘he deserved it, or ‘I hope they also took his ­wallet and phone.’ How are these comments acceptable? They are disturbing.”

She says that by resisting the urge to look at such things, we nullify the effect of the ­perpetrator in the first place.

For Hewitt at LiveLeak, the slick production values of James Foley’s execution proved too much to handle, although the spike in web traffic is delivered.

Hewitt and other site moderators made an important decision. LiveLeak told its visitors that it would not host any future IS-produced hostage executions. It was not a result of the outrage, Hewitt says, rather a judgment that it didn’t want to be used as a propaganda tool by a professional operation. He says he received significant numbers of angry messages from site users, who felt cheated by the decision, but he was comfortable doing the right thing.

“These videos are much more cynical and organized and targeted and slickly produced than the ones from a few years back showing beheadings. They are essentially just promo videos for IS, but we caught hell for not showing them,” Hewitt says.

“We decided we will show the stuff that comes from the battlefield because we think that tells a story about what is going on, but as we said in our statement, the beheadings are professionally produced pseudo-snuff movies, and we want no part in them.”

Are you informing the public?

He believes displaying other gruesome footage as a window to the world can play an important role in conflicts. For example, Hewitt says. Western understanding of the civil war in Syria was seriously uninformed before online viewers started to see atrocities committed by all sides.

He says the mainstream media was happy to sell the idea of good guys rising against the evil Assad regime until video ­evidence proved this to be a fallacy.

“We started getting all this footage through which showed both sides were committing the hideous atrocities,” Hewitt says. “We are talking about laughing as they slowly killed people. The very depths of humanity, and yet we were being told these were the good guys.”

Hewitt says he understands people being offended by violent ­content but does not give them the right to expect it to be removed. Instead, he subscribes to the argument that the off switch exists as an instant ­solution to the existence of personally ­offensive material.

“It is abhorrent, it is horrible, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen if people wish to see it, or if it gives a clearer picture of what is happening out there,” he says.

He says it is easy to point to off-color comments at the bottom of videos as an example of a broader lack of morals across the site. Still, He says that, in reality, viewers of extreme content come from a broad cross-section of society.

For Bond University associate professor in the business faculty, Stephen Holden, the morbid lure is not to be condemned and can be understood as part of basic human curiosity.

“Humans are drawn to death just as they are drawn to birth. Sure it is more macabre, but it is an important life-passage and one that each of us gets to experience ­personally but once. So it’s not surprising we want to know something more about them, particularly the only one that is left to go through,” he says.

“Our Western culture does its absolute damnedest to protect us from death. Death, as we experience it today, is sterile and unreal. Banishing death is like banishing sex – ­people will rise against the ban and try to get a window on these fascinating but ­mysterious elements of life.”

Whether could ever describe such curiosity as healthy is another matter altogether.

Does violence beget violence?

Holden points to a 2008 meta-analytic review from Texas A&M International ­University, which found no ­evidence to suggest that exposure to media violence leads to violence in the viewer. However, the jury is still out among psychologists on the link between watching violence and violent behavior. Holden says confronting the reality of mortality could just as easily lead people to act against atrocities, to ­protect their families, or even encourage contemplation of their death.

“Are these not good and healthy results?” he asks.

“Many philosophies, like Stoicism, encourage reflection on death as a way of preparing for it, and in our sterile ­death-denying world, such sites may ­provide the impetus for such reflection.”

Could something good come from watching that video of two teenagers in a dingy Brazilian courtyard fighting to the death? Is there a positive to find among the macabre? Hewitt is keen not to be seen as glibly defending the indefensible, so instead says he can only judge it from his perspective.

“To be honest, that was a horrific video, and it wasn’t that strangled somebody was to death; it was the attitude of the person doing it that horrified me,” he says.

He agrees that the popularity of his site suggests human beings have not moved on significantly from the ancient crowds, ­watching executions. Rather we have just shifted our curiosities into more socially acceptable channels.

“We have not changed, but our moral stance and societies have evolved into a more enlightened state,” he says.

“There was an attitude of ‘well, it doesn’t matter. Life is so cheap. You can see it in city centers here, people getting kicked to death over an argument in a pub. It’s almost like people don’t realize it’s irreversible.

“Perhaps more people should see how horrible it is and think of the effects.”

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