Issue 4 out now!

Trauma porn gives people front-row seats to consume pain at arm’s length


By Sonia Kovacevic.

In the digital age, it’s not a difficult feat to come by disturbing videos that portray pain, suffering, or injustice. Being equipped with a real-time communications infrastructure has allowed for such instances to be captured and vastly circulated, relentless and unavoidable on our feeds. The fervid consumption of such content has been dubbed “trauma porn” and can be likened linguistically to “food porn.” The fascination and incessant sharing of clickbait content is likely more damaging than good, and results in questions regarding American society’s obsession with the commodification of pain and misfortune.

On August 31st, graphic footage of Ronnie McNutt, a 33-year-old army veteran who served in Iraq, committing suicide started circulating, which had been filmed on Facebook live. While Facebook removed the video after 90 minutes, the footage had already found its way onto other social media platforms. Viewers, particularly the Gen-Z youth of TikTok, had little warning or opportunity to swipe away as the video automatically played on their ‘For You’ pages. While TikTokers have been advising each other to keep a lookout for the video of a bearded man sitting at a desk, others got sent the footage from friends, with many videos edited to trick users into watching the content by adding innocent content before cutting to the death. The first wave of reactions turned McNutt’s death into a meme. The second wave is questioning the way in which internet trolls capitalize on shock value, shifting the focus on mental health and social media giants’ responsibility and ethics.

Similarly, the most rampant evidence of trauma porn can be witnessed in conjunction with Black bodies, most recently with regards to the moments after Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by policemen. Social media was immediately flooded with graphic footage of the event. Those who share such content often utilize the defense of ‘raising awareness,’ reasoning that witnessing such misfortune compels us to act on it. However, watching, liking, or sharing videos is not activism. While it can be argued that filming these instances has drawn attention to acts of police brutality, people – particularly white people, must be mindful of the content they share. It is advisable to opt to read articles as opposed to watching and sharing trauma. With so much content and social media’s DNA focused on the 15-second attention span, circulating such content weakens our capacity to absorb it, process it, and make a lasting impact that cultivates empathy and sentiments toward real action and systemic change. Instead, it gives people front-row seats to consume pain at arm’s length. As Destiny Singh shares, “to say that we’re raising awareness is to blatantly ignore this country’s past,” she says. “America is already aware, it just doesn’t care.”

Not only is trauma porn ineffective in encouraging people to act, it is also immensely dehumanizing. Often, many of these videos depict marginalized communities’ pain and suffering, stripping them of their dignity, as sharing a window into the injustice they face becomes a token of performative allyship. Meanwhile, this content is a harrowing, triggering reminder to these communities of trauma and psychological damage. For the African American community, this concept is not new. In the early 1900s, lynching barbeques were an ordinary social gathering. Yes, people would gather to share meals, socialize, and witness a victim being tortured. Afterward, they would take photos with the body and reportedly have the opportunity to take limbs or flesh home. While few would like to admit it, sharing trauma porn of Black bodies could be perceived as the modern equivalent of the grotesque 1900s practice.

Sharing videos of Black deaths on social media won’t save Black lives. Instead, it normalizes police brutality and leaves the system responsible intact. We should not have to witness people in their most vulnerable and frightened states to believe their pain is real and exists. And while Black bodies and people of color are often targeted in such circulation, we must critically question what leads any form of trauma to go viral on the internet.

Next time you come across footage depicting suffering, ask yourself these questions before you make the decision to share it:

  • “What is my intention in sharing this?”
  • “How could sharing this help and how could it hurt?”
  • “Will sharing this contribute to a social ecology that encourages this behavior?

And, most importantly:

  • “Other than sharing this content to spread awareness, what am I willing to do to help break the vicious cycle of voyeurism that destroys lives, particularly Black lives?”