The world is on fire. Images of destruction fill your phone screen. What do you, the observer, do? As a young 20-something-year-old, you may say, “That’s awful!” As a student, you might try to understand how the flame started. And as a social media butterfly, you might be eager to share the post that brought the fire to your attention. But what is accomplished in all that fanfare? The fire still burns, and you still gawk. The digital voyeurism we experience on the daily has made us agents of the catastrophes we see, and doing nothing about it seems to be the new norm. For those who cannot directly help, how can you ensure you aren’t doing harm?
What brought this ethical dilemma to my attention was the devastation of the Camp Fire in Northern California that has headlined the news every day for the last two weeks. The proliferation of articles and the voices behind them grew into disparagingly different parties: cold and calculating pieces depicting only the damages versus those writing about the humanity that rose from the substantial losses. While reading these, it dawned on me that what I shared mattered; an article or picture illustrating the fire’s effacement would invoke pity, but not empathy. Did I really want to share information with others about a tragedy, only to have them say, “Damn, that sucks,” and move onto something less sad?
The debate of the journalist’s role in projecting the imagery of suffering also plays a critical part in the conversation about ethical depictions of disasters. Teju Cole of The New York Times examines the photographer’s complicity in enabling ignorance and inaction when their subject matter is destruction. The photographer must frame their work, and in doing so, much like the observer, they become part of the larger story. Do we then consider the people in the images as “them,” and not “us?” These questions are important because they determine how we react, if at all. Cole doesn’t have all the answers, but he does say that “taking photographs is sometimes a terrible thing to do, but often, not taking the necessary photo, not bearing witness or not being allowed to do so, can be worse.”
Suffice it to say, the be-all and end-all is not dystopian. While the percentage of participants in “non-doing” may suggest that little good comes from the dissemination of news, we cannot discount the valuable networking it accomplishes. I must invoke the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge, where ‘slacktivism,’ activism without time or involvement, earned its coinage. Countless participants in the 2014 media campaign, where a bucket of ice water is dumped on one’s head, failed to mention in any detail what the challenge aimed to accomplish. But money speaks — celebrities and the oh-so-wealthy (and even some internet plebeians) hopped on the viral train and donated substantially to The ALS Association, raising over $100 million in just a month, successfully funding research for better treatment of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Even if the majority did not engage in discourse about ALS, it yielded a positive effect, and so slacktivism, while not ideal, may be much closer to meaningful impact than no activism at all. It remains difficult to evaluate the extent to which this is true, but as Cole suggests, the hope in spreading awareness of suffering is that it will bring relief. Fumoto Engineering, a company affected by last year’s wildfires, proves that slacktivism can generate meaningful results, pledging to donate a dollar to Butte County Fire Relief for every like received on its Facebook and Instagram pages.
As for the question of ethics, spreading awareness alone is not sufficient reason to claim you did something positive. A responsible social media presence means creating an opportunity for others to do good in ways you yourself cannot. If you know you can donate or volunteer, I encourage you to do so, but if you can’t, definitely retweet that post about how others can help.
Evan Moravansky is a junior majoring in English.