Opinion

The Pointless Consumption of Pain in the Era of Trauma Porn

Is sharing an upsetting video depicting someone’s suffering ever an effective and harmless way to spread awareness? Or is it the exact opposite?

By Chloé Meley

Sharing a congested, shifting digital space with memes and witty observations, disturbing images are not difficult to come across on our favourite social media platforms. In a world filled with horror and equipped with an ever-expanding communications infrastructure that allows for such horrors to be instantly captured and widely circulated, pictures and videos that encapsulate raw misery and pain are relentlessly relayed on our feeds. There is a term for the avid consumption of such awful content: trauma porn. 

Using the same linguistic device as the terms “food porn” or “poverty porn”, the phrase “trauma porn” is impactful by virtue of being the grotesque association of two words we’d rather not put together for the sake of respectability. The discomfort we may feel when faced with such a term is intentional, as the phrase itself reflects the obscenity of the act of consuming depictions of suffering. Trauma porn refers to the perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune; a phenomenon which has become increasingly pervasive in a digital era where pain is commodified, and upsetting portrayals of it stripped of their emotional impact as they sink into the depths of content overload. 

Trauma porn is obviously the term used by those who are staunchly opposed to the spread of distressing images on social media, whether that be of the drowned bodies of migrants on Mediterranean shores, of fatal encounters between police officers and African Americans in the US, or of emaciated people in famine-stricken countries. For those who defend the diffusion of such images, they defend it by appealing to the elusive notion of ‘raising awareness’. According to this line of reasoning, witnessing pain compels us to act on it, coaxing us into deploying whatever means necessary to put an end to the misery unfurling before us. 

However, shocking, shaming, and saddening people into action has never worked to this effect, and believing it can means ignoring the way we actually use social media. The ever-moving digital wheel that churns out content is producing much more than we can consume, even less so digest. As attention fatigue grows and our capacity to absorb content mindfully and carefully weakens, we become numb – reacting to everything passively, swiftly moving on to a never-ending stream of distractions. We see too much, unable to process any of it, yet at the same time we don’t see things repeatedly enough for us to acknowledge their presence. Every traumatising image appears long enough on our feeds to add to our long-term weariness but not long enough to make a lasting impact, to force us to act because of how ubiquitous and unbearably inescapable such an image has become. Our exposure to upsetting videos and pictures lasts long enough for us to develop empathy and express outrage, to show we care; but not long enough to act on such sentiments, to prove we in fact do. It seems that disheartened resignation is the default feeling, the one we keep coming back to as the emotion of those who know they should care but to whom horrors have become intangible by virtue of their sheer number, their mind-boggling accumulation. 

Not only is trauma porn ineffective in forcing people to act, instead turning us into disenchanted cynics who are painfully aware of their own powerlessness and growing desensitisation, it is also profoundly dehumanising. Racial dynamics play a central role in trauma porn, as a wide majority of these pictures and videos usually depict the suffering of black and brown people. The implicit idea is that marginalised communities’ pain has to be portrayed, as if the telling of it wasn’t enough, as if additional, visual proof was required. Trauma porn caters to well-meaning privileged Twitter and Facebook users who will consider their outrage a sufficient show of support, their outspoken indignation a token of their allyship. Seeing lifeless bodies comforts them in their politics, confirms the good adjustment of their moral compass. It validates their inertia as long as they feel the anger they are supposed to feel, as long as they hit the retweet button to “spread awareness”. Meanwhile, those whose communities are affected may experience renewed trauma and psychological damage when viewing distressing images that depict an agony that they know all too well. They don’t need to see suffering to know that it exists and that it shouldn’t. 

As consumers of media and active participants in it, we should remember that broadcasting someone’s pain is exploitative, dehumanising, and voyeuristic. There is nothing that a disquieting video or picture can accomplish that pre-existing written or oral testimonials from those who suffer could not have accomplished better. We should not have to see people’s pain, to witness them at their most vulnerable and frightened, to believe that their pain is real, that socio-political and economic forces have forced them into a state of vulnerability. We shouldn’t have to see blood to believe that it has been unfairly, repeatedly spilled. 

Trauma porn is a symptom of many combined ills: a demand for gruesome content, pervasive racial bias, and one’s unconscious or conscious desire to be seen as good-hearted and empathetic – which cannot itself be disentangled from the performative character of social media presence. To further ponder the cause of trauma porn’s emergence as a category of internet content is a crucial task, but one that goes beyond the scope of this article. Right now, what matters most is to remember its consequences. Relaying portrayals of pain on social media is as ineffective as it is harmful. The attention deficiency, media fatigue, and content overdose that plague our lives dilute the emotional power of raw, sinister portrayals of pain; except for those who are violently reminded of their own or their communities’ misfortune, for whom the emotional impact achingly lingers. Some fail to care and others fail to heal, and nothing ever changes for those whose pain is passed around mindlessly. 

Chloé Meley is a soon-to-be final year International Politics student at the University of Surrey.

Leave a Comment