From Moscow to Gaza: smartphones mean there’s no escaping the horror

One of the more striking comments made by the lawyers of the South African team that brought allegations of genocide against Israel to the Hague this year, was that the Palestinian people, through the almost total penetration of smartphones and internet technologies, were broadcasting their genocide in real-time, for all the world to see.

If the September 11 attacks occurred in 2024, we would have people streaming live from the towers as they crumbled, we would watch silently on X the videos recorded by the victims, soon to be killed. People screaming in panic, rushing down dark stairwells. We would have POV footage from firefighters working to rescue the trapped and afraid moments before millions of tonnes of concrete fell upon them.

On Friday last week, a group of armed men claiming to be Islamic State militants assaulted random people at a rock concert near Moscow. I watched the terrorists indiscriminately shoot and kill fleeing innocents on Saturday morning as I was preparing breakfast for my daughter.

The videos were there, posted with a small caption on X. Survivors filmed the attacks on their smartphones. There are multiple angles at different times of the attack. I sipped my coffee as a man hid for his life under a chair. Gunshots ringing.

It is believed that 137 people were killed in the attack that left the Crocus City Concert Hall a burnt ruin. I followed the story throughout Saturday as I went about my weekend business. Not only did I watch the attack, but I also watched the reaction from Russian law enforcement following it. This included one POV video of a Russian soldier cutting an ear off and feeding it to one of the alleged attackers soon after he was captured.

I also know from social media that the specific Russian soldier is selling the knife he used on Ebay, and that he has white nationalist sympathies. I told my wife about it, she said “Isn’t the world just a wonderful place?”

Broadcast yourself doing unspeakable evil

According to a GSMA report from last year, smartphone owners are now in the global majority with around 4.3 billion people having access to the technology. “Smartphone owners are much more likely to be aware of, and adopt, mobile internet services, as well as use it more frequently and for a wider variety of tasks,” the report reads.

Together with advances in smartphone penetration, telecommunication firms have been toiling to ensure total connectivity. In South Africa, MTN claims it enjoys nearly 100 percent coverage. The company will travel to the most rural and remote places to build towers because it suits their profitability. This means that more people can broadcast their lives to the world, usually for the worse.

Now anyone can be a political pundit, anyone can be a celebrity chef, anyone can be a lifestyle guru, anyone can be a comedian, an actor, or if they were on an active battlefield, the real-life Rambo.

There is a subreddit with nearly 2 million followers dedicated to sharing real videos taken in warzones.

Most of the footage is from Ukraine, with some of the videos depicting situations never before recorded. Have you ever wanted to know what it’s like to fly a Russian Hind into an active battlefield, flinging missiles and dodging anti-air? There’s a video of that, POV and everything.

With the war in Gaza, recent videos on the subreddit depict IDF soldiers clearing out alleged Hamas militants from homes, but there is smartphone footage too. In fact, footage taken and posted by IDF soldiers themselves was used extensively by the South African legal team in the Hague to prove Israel was promoting genocide of the Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers filmed themselves celebrating the destruction of Gazan homes and livelihoods, filmed themselves shouting inciteful songs and phrases. Taken and shared by soldiers themselves, some video their screens as they inflict pain and death on their enemies.

Some cut and edit videos of drones dropping grenades on human beings. They take inspiration from ISIS snuff films from the 2010s, images of death and ruin cut to fast-paced electronic music now, instead of Arabic hip hop. Military companies splice in their logos before the explosions start. Sometimes they insert Looney Tunes sound effects.

Pick a side: misinformation and the politicising of bad news

Despite what platforms like Facebook, TikTok and X say about efforts in content moderation, it seems time and again that having employees sift through hours and hours of the worst humanity can offer only results in the degradation of the mental well-being of moderators, while uploads of horrible images and videos continue unabated.

What would once be relegated to the dregs of the internet, on fringe image boards and dark web forums is now front and centre for all to see, and all are not prepared for it. Video and images of calamity and destruction are immediately politicised. Users are spurred into picking sides and misinformation is rife.

From the attack near Moscow, to recent violent unrest in Haiti which saw an unfounded narrative spun up and spread by mostly right-wing users on social media, including the owner of X Elon Musk, that roving gangs of Haitians are engaging in cannibalism, eating the people they have killed. Commentators spin narratives to fit their own agendas and spread fear and hatred.

“There are cannibal gangs in Haiti who abduct and eat people,” right-wing pundit Ian Miles Cheong posted on X, “Reminder that these people are now illegally entering the US en masse.”

Second-hand trauma is still trauma

Endless streams of negative information, trauma-inducing visuals and politically-charged narratives based on them eventually exhaust the user, whether they feel compassion for Palestinians or are on the side of Moscow in their war against Ukraine. This is besides the countless studies that indicate just how bad social media is for the brain.

“As other pressing conflicts continue to unfold in the world and ordinary citizens are confronted by their own problems, attention is bound to be diverted elsewhere,” writes the Magdalene Karalis of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

“This manifests itself in a form of compassion fatigue (dubbed ‘Ukraine Fatigue’), where users become weary of the Ukrainian struggle for freedom on social media. It is under these conditions that the Russian capabilities in the information war begin to thrive.”

The same can be seen in users from Arabic countries, where endless consumption of the violence in Gaza via social media caused them to develop compassion fatigue, a form of “second-hand trauma.”

“While [social media platforms] play a crucial role in keeping people informed, psychologists have warned that people exposed to ‘secondhand trauma’ through repeated exposure to graphic images may experience what is known as ‘compassion fatigue,'” writes Al Arabiya.

“Repeated exposure can lead individuals to experience emotional and physical exhaustion, which can be identified as ’empathic distress’ – when we care deeply about others and become distressed from witnessing them going through traumatic experiences.”

One can only see so many videos of toddlers trapped in rubble after explosions and be unaffected. Psychologists recommend individuals who suffer from this second-hand trauma engage in self-trauma debriefing and reflection, essentially using psychological coping strategies.

Put the phone down

But is this really how far we have come with social media? That we must now protect ourselves mentally from what we willingly engage in? Or should we delete our apps and blind ourselves to the realities of the world, the horrors that exist and that happen every day?

“Put your devices down, take deep breaths, do things that help you calm down and feel balanced. People can choose certain parts of their day to catch up on the news and avoid constant exposure,” advises Dr. Fabian Saarloos, Clinical Psychologist at German Neuroscience Center.

The only thing that will stop the constant stream of bad news is you. There is no need to passively scroll through the apocalypse. Find solace that no great evil lasts forever. To quote Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, “The hate of men will pass and dictators die. And the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

From Moscow, to Gaza, to the Donetsk, to Sudan, Malaysia, Iraq and to New York, the world has always been in turmoil, smartphones and social media just allow us to look the void right in the eye.


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