Why do we show so much interest in graphic images?

We started to access contents in different formats since internet came to into our lives in Turkey in 1993. Diversity of these contents increases day by day. Unlike the early days of internet in which content diversity was relatively low, we can develop our own filters and determine the channels to follow and to block.

Even though we develop our own filters in the presence of such diversified contents, we may occasionally face graphic videos or photos which we do not want to see. Many of us try to avoid these undesired contents. However, the data we obtained from researches and an analysis published on teyit.org may point out just the opposite.

Various claims and photos were shared on social media after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi who were lastly seen while entering to Saudi Arabia Consulate General on October 2. It was claimed that the photos showing severed limbs and a flayed off face of a person belong to Jamal Khashoggi. However, our research indicated that some of these photos were taken in Egypt and some of them belong to a person murdered by a cartel in Mexico in 2017.

In the last week of April 2018, we declared our users that we changed our citation procedure. Mehmet Atakan Foça, the founder of teyit.org conveyed his thoughts in his article about this subject as follows: “In the last year, we noticed the existence of several followers of teyit.org who do not click the links or who do not read the whole analysis after clicking the links. For us, the most remarkable point was that the followers who read the analysis do not click the links in the text.” Click rate of the links given in the top displayed 5 articles on teyit.org was only 8 percent.

On the other side, the situation in the case of Jamal Khashoggi was different. Our analysis was displayed 66.000 thousand times from October 21 to today (November 2). The sources provided in the article which contain dismembered human bodies and specified particularly as graphic images were clicked 14.835 times.

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When it is considered proportionally, the outcome obtained is much more different than our experiences. 8-percent rate rose to 22 percent after publishing of the analysis about Jamal Khashoggi. What can be the underlying motivation? May people really like watching graphic images or show interest in them?

Graphic videos circulate very fast

Anthropologist, Frances Larson who made a speech on Ted Talks discusses the interest of people in violence from various aspects. Many of us remember the murder of the American photojournalist James Foley by ISIS in 2014. ISIS recorded beheading of Foley and caused millions of people to witness this violence.

Larson illuminates us from a different aspect, using this example: “A poll taken in the UK, for example, in August 2014, estimated that 1.2 million people had watched the beheading of James Foley in the few days after it was released. And that’s just the first few days, and just Britain. A similar poll taken in the United States in November 2014 found that nine percent of those surveyed had watched beheading videos, and a further 23 percent had watched the videos but had stopped just before the death was shown.

According to Larson, social media made such images available as never before. Brianna Synder who wrote an article titled “Why I can’t stop watching horrifying ISIS decapitation videos?” in 2015 expresses her thoughts as follows: “I guess I’m just so scared of death that I’ve become obsessed with looking at it and trying to understand it. How much it will hurt. How sad and scared and furious I’ll be when I die. I’ve watched maybe a hundred of the worst kinds of deaths and I still can’t find peace with the knowledge that I will die—and maybe horribly.”

A study on the influences of death footages revealed that the people who had witnessed the deadly events in real life were less traumatized than those who viewed footage of these events. In short, violence footages create lasting psychological effects compared to reality.

Larson thinks that virtual internet environment destroys empathy. Internet divides people into two in such cases: Victim and viewer.

This sense of separation — from other people, from the event itself — seems to be key to understanding our ability to watch, and there are several ways in which the Internet creates a sense of detachment that seems to erode individual moral responsibility. Our activities online are often contrasted with real life, as though the things we do online are somehow less real. We feel less accountable for our actions when we interact online. There’s a sense of anonymity, a sense of invisibility, so we feel less accountable for our behavior.” says Larson.

Five men known as Cato Street conspirators were executed in May 1820 due to attempting to assassinate the members of British parliament. Larson told the witnesses of the execution as follows: “Each man’s head was hacked off in turn and held up to the crowd. And 100,000 people, that’s 10,000 more than can fit into Wembley Stadium, had turned out to watch. The streets were packed. People had rented out windows and rooftops. People had climbed onto carts and wagons in the street. People climbed lamp posts. People had been known to have died in the crush on popular execution days.

Many people were disappointed with the invention of guillotine in France in 1792, because the executions which used to get people in festival mood were replaced by fast and short death moments.

Steve Lillebuen who wrote an article on CNN in 2012 reports that a video showing the stabbing and dismemberment of a Chinese student who had been studying in Montreal was copied thousand times and spread on the internet rapidly. The footages shared by only a web site attracted 445,000 views in a very short time.

“Many people tell themselves that they are watching violent news stories to stay informed, but unconsciously they are becoming addicted to the titillation that this violence creates,” says Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman Vice.

We warn our users while sharing graphic images

As teyit.org, we prioritize warning our users as part of our approach to graphic images. Nevertheless, we should use a photo which is shared on internet and found to be fake, as well, because it is almost unlikely for the people to understand the topic without viewing such images. As teyit.org team, we discussed the case of being “between scylla and charybdis” led by this situation, and came to the following conclusion: we should absolutely warn our followers about any graphic image and we should inform them before sharing such image on social media accounts, and explain them to what they will be exposed.

I would like to give an example for our practice based on the above decision. We had included a graphic content warning at the beginning of our analysis about a shared video showing the violence resorted to Pakistani refugees in Africa. Similarly, we had made the same warning at the start of this video while sharing it on social media.

The data we obtained from the case of Jamal Khashoggi and the studies mentioned briefly above demonstrate that people are inclined to watch graphic images and are curious about them.

As teyit.org, we tend to avoid publishing graphic images as long as the content can be understood without them. However, we include “graphic content” warning as a rule when we are obliged to provide such images. The remarkable interest of our followers in contents with this warning motivated me to write this blog article. If you would like to suggest us different methods to use while providing graphic contents, you can leave your comments below.


teyit.org, We change our citation procedure: why and how?

teyit.org, The claim that photos show dismembered body of Jamal Khashoggi

TED, Why public beheadings get millions of views?

Wired, Why I can't stop watching horrifying ISIS decapitation videos?

Vice, Can you get PTSD from watching murder videos online?

CNN, The sick fascination with a death video?