If we time travel for the next 20 decades, we would expect to find media experts discussing theories about the golden word “viral,” where they might start analyzing why media content started losing its ethics for the sake of interaction. We could imagine them gathered in a Zoom meeting or other new app, to mark the 2010 as the beginning of a new media changing the existing standards. If we went further by our imagination and analysis, we could find them saying: In the era of social media, some of the basic ethical elements of publishing, were replaced by one rule: Going Viral.
Now back to 2021, where media experts believe that this virtual world has lost all restrictions or conditions for posting. Once again, the goal and mission are for the sake of one result: Interaction, and nothing else.
The good news is that media experts are aware of the importance of social media, and the major role it plays in entertaining and providing us with urgent news and updates, with a capability of gathering the world into a “Universal Village” in a fast and easy way, away from the editorial rooms and their precise requirements of high quality standards in content. Rather, these tools have contributed to promoting the dissemination of toxic ideas in either a direct or indirect way.
Among the major issues of toxic-spreading messages is suicide. Here, social media platforms contributed to strengthening and popularizing the “message” of suicide. They have also stimulated an increase in its risk factors and associated behaviors. This is revealed by the digital research papers prepared in this context.
The Most Critical Media Study: "Werther"
The role of the media has occupied the largest part in discussions and research in terms of its contribution to the increase in suicide rates, studies reveal. Some portrayal of suicide while posting videos or pictures of people killing themselves can lead to an imitating attitude or as it is so called “suicide infection.”
Perhaps the most notable of these frequently referenced papers that discussed the major role media plays in stimulating suicide is the Werther Effect theory. The term was named after a book published in 1774 called The Sorrows of Young Werther in which the protagonist committed suicide. It is believed that after the book's release, the number of copycat suicides escalated across Europe.
The Werther Effect was tested by a wide range of media theorists, where the research has focused on the reporting of celebrity suicides in the media - in television, print, radio, and Internet-based news. Descriptive analyzes concluded that media reports of celebrities or high profile suicides are associated with increased suicide rates as well as the choice of suicide methods. Several reviews have also concluded that media reports of suicide and its portrayal in both fiction and non-fiction media can exacerbate suicidal behavior.
Audience as News Creators
Despite the censorship imposed by the custodians of virtual world applications under the name of "community standards," there is a continued spread of videos that include sensitive scenes of individuals throwing themselves off tall buildings, shooting themselves in the head, or sending messages acknowledging the intent to take action. What is frightening, both from a human and moral point of view, is the intense desire of the public to interact with these posts.
Despite serious attempts to ban such videos, they did not reach the level of a complete and comprehensive ban. The videos are still out there and are being widely shared.
Regarding the current state of publishing in the virtual world, the media and social media specialist Ameen Abu Yehya compared the usage of social media to fire when it was discovered for the first time. At that time, ancient man initially burned his hands before later turning this vital element to serve his purposes.
During an interview conducted by Majalla, Abu Yehya pointed out the radical shift in media principles, "The media, with its traditional function as a source of visual, audio and print news (newspapers, magazines, and publications) changed dramatically ten years ago with the advent of "social media." Here, he referred to the information revolution that brought about changes in the concept of sending and receiving news. "The viewer no longer receives news, but also contributes to its creation through the major known platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.”
He said that in the past years, the role of traditional media has declined significantly in favor of public media and the materials it provides, which are not subject to the recognized standards of professional ethics, including ensuring the credibility of the news before it is published. This has plunged everyone into an attitude of doubt and caution about what is published.
He continued – this matter applied to purely humanitarian issues that were “taboo” for audiences around the world, including documenting and publishing scenes of the execution of people, as ISIS did. “Then the situation developed to the publication of videos and photos of suicide cases without any respect for the families of the victims, who will always be haunted by these clips and pictures.”
Regarding what is classified in the prohibited category, he answered: "Photos of suicide victims in a way that shows the victim's face, and pictures of massacres, killings and torture, whether of humans or animals, all of which is also immoral and unprofessional."
The social media specialist also called for a collective resistance against the publication of videos depicting suicides, describing this as a being a human duty even "before it is a professional duty." This is done, he explained, through community awareness via traditional media which is relatively credible when compared to social media that do not include rules regulating their usage.
He also called for the creation of effective platforms to expose those who publish videos of this kind as well as the passing of laws that criminalize the people who publish them and to systematically draw attention to the emotional aftershocks to the families of the suicides.
Abu Yehya considered that promoting suicide leads to mitigating the effects of this act and turning it into a normal thing, especially for the new generation. “This is definitely dangerous, because the idea of killing oneself is rejected by all religions and societies, and it should not go without censorship."
Regarding the impact of publishing such videos on the surroundings of the deceased, Abu Yehya explained that the families of the victims and those close to them, are the first ones affected in this case "because these pictures and scenes will permanently remain with them, especially if these clips are widely circulated through the communication networks of the internet.” He continued to say that, intentionally or unintentionally, some consider that publishing the video will contribute to promoting their accounts and increasing the number of followers without figuring out the psychological impact on the families of the victims.
Abu Yehya believes that it is possible to spread awareness messages without publishing pictures and videos about acts of suicide, and this could be done through preparing awareness messages extensively through the framework of communication that has become the primary source of the new generation. He also called for issuing laws to criminalize the publisher of sensitive content, which may seem difficult now in light of the current chaos.
Abu Yehya focused on the importance of the pivotal role of traditional media by preparing programs and episodes dedicated to this topic which are created by specialists in the field of media, “without neglecting the role of civic societies, some of which contribute to illuminating this sensitive subject."
As far as the ethics of publishing are concerned, and its role in censoring the content and assuring compliance with the appropriate standards that are often ignored in the digital world, Abu Yehya considered that the user should have the responsibility for publishing. He explained that applications like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have interposed special algorithms to delete any video that encourages acts of violence or glorifies suicide, and considered this as a good step, even if it came late. He also referred here to strengthening the role of the family, "which bears the responsibility to pay attention to indications of suicidal intentions among children and teens."
Publication Ethics from a Legal Perspective
With an aim of media censorship, social media apps have issued rules in the form of community standards that generally follow the ethics of traditional publishing. Media students should study these guidelines rather than those of online publishing that is unregulated.
And while journalists and professional content creators are well informed of media ethics and the rules of publishing, the average user may miss quality standards related to content, most notably the dangers or penalties for publishing a video or photo to promote the act of suicide.
Basically, in this vast virtual space, many do not realize the dangers of publishing items which support the idea of killing oneself. Hence, it is of great importance to discuss the legal penalties for posting material that violates an individual's privacy, and to understand the legal point of view in this matter.
Appellate attorney and university professor lecturer Dr. Bassam el-Muhtar considered, during an interview with Majalla, that addressing the issue of imposing punishment on those who publish videos of dead people in general, or videos of those who committed suicide in particular, together with the issue of compensation may seem contradictory. However, he continued, the correct analysis leads us to one conclusion — The rapid development of the new means of communication, with the failure of global legislation to keep pace with, codify and regulate this development, and the need to apply old legislation to modern phenomena, created this contradiction, and necessitated the need to urgently create guidelines and policy statements to relegate these phenomena to a reasonable minimum.
El-Muhtar, who believes in the vital role of freedom of the press and expression and public freedoms, and the right to access information and freedom of opinion, stressed the need not to violate morals and to respect the emotional repercussions for the groups and families of the victims of suicide. He said, "Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, as well as article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteed freedom of opinion and expression.”
Additionally, the Declaration issued by UNESCO in 1948, guaranteed public access to information through the media, and required the freedom of journalists to support media and provide it with the broadest liberty, while allowing the public to create media content themselves. At the same time, these laws warned of interference in private lives or relationships, or exposing them to attacks affecting their honor and reputation.
In addition to the above, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right of privacy for the deceased and members of his family, urging effective and accessible remedies against those responsible for a breach of privacy.
He also pointed out that "this new situation at the level of the media, and the inadequacy of legislation to keep pace, encouraged the International Federation of Journalists, as well as professional and trade unions to set up committees to create special guidelines that take into account these principles and draw the boundaries between them, in light of respect for human rights and public freedoms. This confirms the utmost and urgent need to create clear and specific international legislation in this regard.”
Regarding the moral rights of the owners of the videos or their families in the case of suicide, Muhtar clarified that there are prepublication measures for the prospective damage caused by the publication of images, and subsequent measures that may be uses after publication.
Regarding prepublication measures, “whoever fears that a publication will be offensive or harmful to his reputation or the reputation of a member of his family, or in the event of publishing something that offends feelings or violates privacy or any moral consideration, can go to court with an emergency application to prevent publication, as such publication would constitute an infringement of legitimate rights.” However, he says, ‘this raises a challenge towards controlling the publishing phenomenon at the present time in light of the speed and complexity of the means of communication, and the possibility of knowing all publishers in advance.”
Regarding the procedures subsequent to the act of publishing, “it is also possible to go to court for an emergency session to remove the publication and delete harmful scenes, and this also raises the possibility of controlling applications within countries that do not consider that there is any abuse, but rather legitimate freedom, or the possibility of cooperation.”
Muhtar revealed that it is possible to claim financial compensation for publishing scenes that caused moral or material harm, and this is the civil aspect. “As for the penal part, each case can be studied separately, especially if the publication involves incitement to suicide or clearly facilitating it or otherwise.”
Muhtar stressed the need for international organizations, the bodies of the international community and the role of states themselves in this field for a clear, lofty and accurate legislative treatment of a situation that has imposed itself forcefully on all societies of the globe, and on each of its members, where “everyone has an easy and available way to access any information found on any website or otherwise.”
General criteria for publication
With the wide spread of information and videos in distractingly huge amounts, many of the users may lose sight of the extent of the harm of publishing and some may unintentionally publish toxic posts.
It is of great importance to know that what matters in publishing is not only the news value of the image, but also the emotional impact of the image on the audience. It is also necessary to promote the public's right to know as well as the privacy of the persons present and their loved ones.
Publishing videos or photos of people at the moment of their death or while they are committing suicide, provides disturbing and sensitive images as well as powerful visions of the tragedy, and it also comes within the framework of exploitation. So, how can we balance between the public's right to know and avoiding misuse?
The following criteria are the most important basic standards for publishing that are being launched by experts in digital media. The questions below will contribute in providing quality content without causing any harm:
- Are you attacking the subject’s privacy by publishing any picture or video?
- What is the emotional damage caused to the victim's family (in the event of suicide)?
- Is the photo you are publishing important and relevant to the story? Is the image merely expressive and dramatic, or does it have news value? What makes it meaningful?
- Will the audience understand the information conveyed without reading any accompanying text?
- What story are you telling?
- What story can others get from that photo?
- What is the effect of posting this photo on the people in the photo or their loved ones?
- What effect does this have on the news consumer? Does the public's right to know outweigh any emotional harm to the subject or his loved ones?
- What caveats, if any, should accompany online content?
- Is there a better alternative way to present the story?
In the middle of this digital world and the difficulty we face in controlling publications, the only control one must be armed with is knowledge of the harm a publication may cause to another individual. In case we are not aware of this, there is no harm in consulting specialists to ensure that we deliver appropriate content in this complicated universe.