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Future Tense: The Trauma of Violent News on the Internet

Even 24-hour cable news networks are no match for the near-infinite sprawl of the web, where countless sources, either with or without credentials, give obsessives a never-ending supply of material to sift through and modern technology supplies terabytes of raw firsthand data. If J.F.K. were assassinated today, we wouldn’t be poring over a single, grainy Zapruder film; we’d have scores of high-definition smartphone videos taken from all angles and thousands of eyewitness tweets.

As for those rabbit holes, we have all been there after a traumatic public event: compulsively clicking through the internet for an additional journalistic report, one more personal account, yet another status update.

“There’s no shut-off valve on social media — it’s endless,” Mr. Torres said. “It can be incredibly overwhelming, and almost feel like a responsibility, like if you don’t read every think piece, you’re somehow a bad person and then you end up inflicting more hurt on yourself. You think, ‘I should honor the victim.’”

You have the possibility to relive a traumatic video or news story on the internet “over and over again, and you can fall deeper into that trauma,” Mr. Smith said. “The people you follow on social media share similar interests, and are all sharing the same videos, and some are auto-play, you can’t escape them. You have a higher level of exposure, and that can cause more despair and weariness.”

Yet Mr. Smith also noted a heartening side to the social media outpouring that typically attends a tragic event.

“There’s community being built, sharing in that pain, sharing in that trauma,” he said. “Particularly for folks who don’t live in large cities or in places that don’t match their politics, who feel alienated, that’s vital. They know there are other people out there that care as much as they do. It strengthens the resolve to keep talking about these issues.”

Nevertheless, in Dr. Ramsden’s study, extroverts and the “hypervigilant,” those predisposed to compulsively following a news story, experienced higher levels of stress.

“In a few weeks, the rest of us will go back to normal” after a traumatic event, Dr. Ramsden said in an interview. “The hypervigilant people don’t. They will continue to be very anxious and will consistently view” distressing footage on the internet, especially YouTube.

But the internet’s unpredictability can cause problems even for those who maintain regular levels of vigilance. If you tune into a news program or read the hard news sections of a newspaper, you are presumably steeling yourself for potentially negative information.

On social media, however, streams are relatively random in what they offer, as are links on sites that feed to media partners. (I have on more than one shameful occasion clicked on listicles that detail a varying number of celebrities who have killed people.) It’s easy to shut off news from the traditional media: Simply don’t turn on the TV to certain channels or open the newspaper. But there is no such filter on social media.

Moreover, the juxtaposition between standard social media fare and violent imagery is profoundly jarring. If you log on to Facebook looking for cat videos and baby pictures but encounter a disturbing image, not only are you emotionally unprepared for it, but its placement within fluffy, upbeat content can be unsettling, as if bleakly reminding us that the same species that routinely produces adorable toddlers is also responsible for ISIS.

Note that I previously mentioned that I clicked on those listicles about celebrities who have killed people. This may be the most subtle yet pernicious aspect of violent imagery or content on the internet: the viewer’s complicity.

While it’s true that some agency is required to turn on and watch a TV, and more so to open up and read a print news publication, to a certain extent your free will as a consumer was limited with the traditional media of previous eras. News was presented to you at specific times — morning and evening, or weekly or monthly — and at restricted length, enough to fill a newspaper, magazine or 30-minute broadcast and no more. Most likely you stuck with whatever publications you subscribed to and news programs you normally watched and received their images in a relatively passive manner.

On the internet, though, we actively follow intricate webs of links and often end up in lurid virtual precincts we have never previously visited. A front-page print newspaper photo of a dead civilian is unavoidable if you subscribe to that publication, and viewing it does not implicate you as somehow wanting to seek out an image of death.

But deliberately searching for or clicking on a link that you know will send you to the same picture does (particularly if there is a warning issued beforehand). On some level, we may be sickened as much by our own unsavory desires as by the inhumanity on display. As aphorism 146 from Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” says, “And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

There is, too, the question of whether one wants to reward a news outlet that posts a disturbing video for cynical, revenue-generating reasons.

“That’s the paradox we’re in now,” Mr. Smith said. “The documentation I find to be necessary. But the motive of news sites is not completely altruistic. They’re not posting it simply to help produce policy shifts. Everyone is competing for more and more clicks. But what other way are we going to spark this conversation?”

Graphic video, and all the additional trauma that comes with watching it, is the only tool, he said, that has produced any kind of results.

“Other things we’ve tried haven’t worked,” Mr. Smith said. “Just telling people about these experiences hasn’t worked. People don’t believe it.”

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