Is YouTube Citizen Journalism Desensitizing Us?

By Megan O'Neill Comment

Every Human Has RightsYouTube has recently become one of the most popular mediums for spreading the word about human rights violations around the globe, from the death of female protester Neda Agha-Soltan after last year’s election in Iran to police brutality in Zanzibar and human rights abuses in Russian prisons. But while this influx of amateur footage of human rights violations is certainly giving us a better idea of the inhumanity going on in other parts of the world, I can’t help but wonder whether these snuff-like videos aren’t desensitizing us to these atrocities. The more videos we see of people being killed, beaten and treated like animals the less shocking it is. Is human rights citizen journalism desensitizing us?

YouTube has been working on a blog series with WITNESS, human rights video advocacy and training organization, and in their most recent post they ask YouTubers for their opinions on human rights in a series of questions. One of the most interesting questions that they ask regards our desensitization to human rights footage:

“In the past, in many countries, human rights images were largely filtered through the news media. But today, nearly everyone has seen a video or photo on the Internet that has made them aware of injustice. With access to these kinds of images getting easier, and more stories appearing from more places, the sheer quantity of this content risks either overwhelming viewers, or desensitizing us to its value. How do you think people can stay alert to the power of these images without becoming immune to them?”

One of the best examples of citizen journalism exposing human rights violation on YouTube was the case of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman that was killed in a protest following the Iranian election of 2009. Footage of Neda’s death was uploaded to YouTube where it spread instantly, shocking politicians and citizens around the globe who were totally unaware of the extent of injustice that was going on in Iran. Protests broke out around the globe as people fought to prevent these injustices from happening. You can check out a great documentary about Neda, Iran and the effect of the YouTube video below.

Since Neda, more and more videos of human rights violations have been popping up on YouTube, hoping for the same effect that the video of Neda had on the world. However, it seems that with each and each video of human rights violations, people are paying less and less attention. Maybe the video of Neda was so shocking and appalling that it was able to serve as a wake up call for online viewers, who previously had no idea that things like this were happening around the globe. Now that we know that this isn’t such a rare occurrence we aren’t so anxious to protest and help out – after all, we can’t help everyone, can we?

If you watch a horror film from the 70s or 80s today you can’t help but laugh at the lame special effects. Ketchup blood and rolling mannequin heads on scarecrow bodies are hardly frightening. Horror films today are so realistic that it’s hard to remember when we thought the original Friday the 13th was scary. Could it be that, like with horror films, the more videos of human rights violations that we see the less affected we are by them? After all, once you’ve seen the YouTube clip of Neda’s death many other human rights videos of people simply being tortured or beaten may not seem quite as bad.

Personally, I still feel sick to my stomach whenever I see a video of a person being treated as less than human – whether they are being physically abused, verbally abused or mistreated in any other way. I would like to think that this will never change, that I will never become desensitized to it. However, the more shocking footage we see, the less shocking it becomes. It’s a law of nature that this occurs. So how can we stop ourselves from being desensitized to human rights footage? Do you think human rights citizen journalism will lose its effect?

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