Social media and the visibility of horrific violence

Duncombe, C. (2020). Social media and the visibility of horrific violence. International Affairs, 96(3), 609–629.


Open access: No

Notes: Horrific violence—such as murders, terrorism and sexual abuse—is often part of our engagements with social media, whether we want to or not. In this article, Constance Duncombe examines the dynamics of violence in social media by emphasizing the role of imagery and how they influence our politics. In this sense, Duncombe argues that these violent images—often read as spectacles—are directly attached to what she calls digital structures of feeling that mediate our collective feelings. Here, horrific graphic violence produces and plays on a wide range of emotional responses. This is especially evidenced in, on the one hand, raw footage of atrocious violence and, on the other hand, the memeification of ‘clean’ images that seek to elicit solidarity. Moreover, Duncombe argues that the increasing visibility of horrific violence has implications in policy-making—as politicians are simultaneously trying to negotiate how they respond to calls to enact change to the represented violence and how to reinforce their own agendas through the same content.

Quote: “Violent images of acts of terror circulating over social media can produce complex emotional responses. Feelings of shock, anger and fear may trigger a violent state reaction; they may create a sense of powerlessness, which can result in the reapplication of policy responses that do little to mitigate domestic anxiety. These images, and the waves of solidarity memes that follow violent events, can also foster an empathetic government reaction, generating potentially different policies in response. (…) Policymakers can exploit the circulation of violent social media images to legitimize narratives framing policy responses to acts of terror.” (p. 627)

Abstract: Images are central to social media communication. Billions of images are shared across different social media platforms every day: photos, cartoons, GIFs and short video clips are exchanged by users, facilitating or framing discourse on participatory sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Many of these images depict events of extreme violence, which circulate uninhibited by the conventional constraints associated with traditional news media censorship. A question arises here as to how such images mobilize public and policy-making responses to atrocities. This article examines the political dynamics of violent social media images. I argue that the particular qualities of social media can play an important role in how the digital visibility of horrific violence influences policy-making as a response to such atrocities. There is an important connection between the properties of social media platforms that allow user images to reach a global audience in real time and the emotional responses that this level of circulation generates. In turn, the pressure created by events made globally visible through the circulation of violent images and the audience responses to those images puts governments in a position where they are forced to act, which has significant implications for policy-making.

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