AS THE world was reeling from the horror of the Boston Marathon blasts, news came through of the massive explosion at a fertiliser plant near Waco in Texas.
As I trawled for information, I came across a video posted on Twitter. At first it seemed innocent enough: a father and his young daughter stopped along the road, watching in awe as the first fire raged.
Suddenly the secondary explosions erupted and their car was engulfed, the video went dark and you heard the terrified 11-year-old girl pleading with her father to get them out.
I felt sick and suddenly the horror facing the community of West became daughters, nieces, young innocents – and I didn’t want to hear any more.
In reality, it was a considerably milder than the bloody Boston images of people with shattered and severed limbs, but it was what caused me to self-censor.
And that’s the problem. It’s up to us these days.
Never before have we been so instantaneously connected to the pain and suffering of those caught in a tragedy.
But at what point do we lose our empathy and become nothing more than voyeurs?
The immediacy of the raw images, captured on phones at the scene, had no filter and no warning, and it was left to us to decide on the suitability of what some thought was nothing more than media porn.
And, as we now know with porn, voracious consumption can cripple and desensitise to such an extent that the person becomes disengaged from healthy sexual function.
So why should it be any different with repeated and often gratuitous exposure to violence and tragedy?
It’s unchartered territory for many social media experts. Under the old rules, editors would pore over graphic images and decide what was socially acceptable, within the framework of strict industry guidelines. And it doesn’t stop at violent images. Twitter broadcasts damaging and inaccurate information that in the past would have be subject to rigorous validation and fact checking.
Social media strategist Hugh Stephens, from Dialogue Consulting, says the posting of borderline material is the downside of real time communication.
“Many people were labelled terrorists, with people desperate to be first rather than accurate, jumping to conclusions,” Stephens says.
“Even with police working as fast as they can, and in reality that was pretty fast, the demand for answers is going to lag behind social media.”
The Boston Globe’s Twitter followers have tripled since the marathon blasts, probably a lot to do with the demand for fact over fiction.
Chris Cillizza, a political reporter for The Washington Post, made this thoughtful observation about Twitter in the days after: “I’ve started to think of Twitter as a well-meaning but sometimes ill-informed friend. The friend isn’t maliciously passing along bad information but also isn’t an expert.”
But that friend can be malicious. Social blogs exposed veteran entertainer Rolf Harris after his arrest well before mainstream media.
And what, if anything, can the publisher do about it, be it Facebook, YouTube or Twitter?
“While it’s the responsibility of the publisher, and they do have a duty of care, it’s almost impossible to monitor and censor in any meaningful way,” Stephens says.
As Facebook increasingly becomes the centre of social life for many, it has grappled with a duty of care when posts point to self-harm ahead of someone taking their own lives.
So it teamed up with Lifeline, which has offered guidelines to identify, report and respond to warning signs of suicidal behaviour online. Twitter claims there are tweets it removes, but prefers to keep these exceptions narrow so it serves a broader and more important rule: not to remove tweets on the basis of their content.
Social media adviser Anne Howard, of Howard Partners, believes we are only just beginning to come to grips with the impact this open access will have.
“From a social psychology perspective, I don’t think there is an answer at the moment,” she says.
“Cultural studies that track this sort of behaviour will give us a clue, but it’s too early. But it’s possible this technology generation could feel the effects from years of exposure.”
Sounds like the need to find our inner censor has never been more urgent.