One man’s death has become a horrible viral sensation – and it says a lot about us
They are horrific and scary, and they may have been sent to you.
Hours after a shark fatally attacked Simon Nellist in the ocean off Sydney on Wednesday, videos of his final moments were already circulating on social media.
You didn’t have to search carefully on platforms like Facebook or YouTube to find them and, while it’s impossible to quantify them, anecdotal evidence suggests they’ve spread widely to messaging apps as well.
A fictional poll of friends tells the story: everyone said they were aware of them, and most had seen them too. Some regretted watching.
Of those who had passed them on to others, one admitted, “I wouldn’t want a video like this of me or a family member doing the rounds.”
But, still, no one hesitated to press play.
Katherine Biber, a lawyer and criminologist at the University of Technology Sydney, has made a career out of researching what drives people to look at such graphic material.
“We live in a time when there is a lot of surveillance footage and citizen footage and the volume and ease with which it circulates has evolved much faster than legal and ethical concepts,” Prof Biber says.
“We’re just trying to figure it out on our own.
“What happened is not illegal, but there seems to be unease about it – that people crossed a border.”
Filming a “perfectly reasonable” tragedy
If we agree that the gruesome videos impinge on Mr. Nellist’s dignity, are the people who filmed them to blame?
We know little about them.
The clips appear to have been captured on smartphones by people on nearby rocks.
Shocked witnesses can be heard exclaiming in the background as the attack unfolds.
It’s unclear how the videos first spread, but we do know that they spread far and wide.
Online, some have criticized the people who filmed them, but according to Tama Leaver, professor of internet studies at Curtin University in Perth, it’s not that simple.
He says smartphones have changed the game.
“When everyone carries an entire film production kit in their pocket, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that if you see something terrible or controversial, you’ll record it,” he says.
“There is a legal tradition that anything people see can be recorded and possessed, but that becomes more problematic in a time when we are all potential surveyors of each other.
“I suspect the video was taken and shared within two minutes of being recorded, and everything was done before any moral judgment was made.”
While some countries have legal protections and “a right to dignity”, in Australia there is nothing stopping people from filming or sharing graphic content in public places.
Videos viewed millions of times
So, while those who filmed them are not to be blamed, what about those who watched them?
Professor Biber knows people to whom the videos were sent.
“One said they were watching them because they were taking their children swimming near the scene of the attack and thought they were educating themselves, so they provided justification for that” , she said.
“I think it’s natural for people to be curious about these sorts of random tragedies, but there’s a spectrum from curiosity to voyeurism.
“If you asked a random person, ‘Would you like to witness the horrific and violent death of a stranger?’ they would probably say “no”, but here they go on and do it without deliberation.
“I don’t know if the law offers solutions here.
“I think we need to improve public understanding of research ethics and the consequences of research, because it has an impact.”
There’s no official tally, but an ABC analysis of news sites and major social media platforms, such as Facebook and TikTok, suggests views are in the millions on publicly available posts alone. .
The videos made international headlines and at least one Russian news site ran them, unedited, but most brands showed some restraint in the form of disclaimers or blurring of the worst parts. more graphics.
In the US, the New York Post also shared the unedited images, with social media analytics tool CrowdTangle indicating a potential reach of over 4.3 million people.
The ABC has chosen not to publish the videos in any form.
The originals, however, have taken on a life of their own on social media and messaging platforms.
One of the videos was shared with more than 22,000 followers on an aspiring Tasmanian politician’s Facebook page but was later taken down.
The tech giant, renamed Meta last year, did not say whether it had intervened.
It primarily uses artificial intelligence to identify content that violates its “Community Standards”, as well as reports from affected users and human moderators.
When are you most likely to watch
Prof Leaver says things get complicated when videos leave public social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and start being passed on to messaging services.
“WhatsApp is still owned by Facebook and a [artificial intelligence] could be enforced, but they chose not to and therefore the platform remains end-to-end encrypted,” he says.
“There’s a whole other discussion to be had about whether that’s a good thing.
“At the moment, the responsibility for filtering must rest with the people who use platforms like this.”
Although Meta does not access private messages on WhatsApp, it uses a combination of techniques to enforce its policies.
In 2019, it reduced the number of people users could forward a message to – to five chats at a time – and introduced “forwarded” and “highly forwarded” labels to highlight when something was shared. several times.
Since then, the company has also reduced the number of people who can send a “highly forwarded” message to a single chat at a time.
It says this resulted in a 70% reduction in the number of “highly forwarded” messages on WhatsApp.
Professor Leaver says research shows the privacy of private messaging apps is key when sending content, like shark attack videos, going viral.
“If you receive this video from someone you know and trust, the power of that network and affiliation is part of the reason you open it,” he says.
“It’s more like having a conversation with someone at a water cooler and you see it and there’s a fear of missing something and that’s a big part of why these things can spread so quickly.”
Audience appetite for macabre content
Before this week, Sydney’s last fatal shark attack was in 1963, when prominent actress Marcia Hathaway was bitten in Middle Harbour.
At the time, newspaper splatters breathlessly detailed the celebrity’s death: how her fiancé had “fought the shark for several minutes” to free her, and what her last words were.
“There was a time, not too long ago, when access to this material was really difficult,” says Professor Biber.
“It was considered sensitive and rare, but the way the media engaged with the criminal courts and accessed the video footage created a public appetite for this stuff.
“I think there has been a transition over the last 10 years.”
If the media are at least partly responsible for creating a thirst for horror, the events of this week show that they are no longer needed to feed it.
“It’s really about individuals now,” says Professor Leaver.
“If you’re shooting something graphic on a smartphone and you’re thinking, ‘I’m just going to send it to these people I know well’, it’s already too late.
“The context changes when someone else shows their friends.
“Then you move three dots in that chain, and once the genie is out of the bottle, even with a small group, it doesn’t fit.”