See No Evil: Sharing Content in the Age of Sensory Overload
There is a certain kind of social media share I’m thinking about. It’s often a blurry picture of people in hair nets and blood splattered clothing. Or maybe it’s an image of an animal hanging from a pole, tree, or kill line, people standing around him menacingly or indifferently. Animals in wire cages, panting and desperately pacing, or lethargic. Buckets of blood; steam rising from a grisly kill floor. If it’s a video, it will be traumatizing. If it’s an article, it’ll be demoralizing. Sometimes, it’ll just be an image, not shared with much — or any — text or context. And of these particular kinds of social media shares, the overarching takeaway is that humanity is the absolute worst.
We’re living in stressful and difficult times, to put it mildly. With so much happening in the world, from the dizzying and cruel chaos of the Trump administration to the steady drip of anxiety about the future of the planet, every day we’re exposed to fresh trauma, be it a threat to us or those we care about, or sympathetic traumas, the kind we experience because we’re sensitive beings. All of this chips away at our resilience and works to erode our spirit. This content is not isolated to violence against other animals: every day on social media, we are exposed to starving or scared children; bloody, broken limbs crushed under rubble; devastated, tear-streaked faces facing unfathomable loss. It’s not that there’s more suffering in the world now; it’s that our exposure to it is ramped way up now.
This leads to a conundrum I’ve tried to grapple with since I first became an activist, way before social media. How does one pull back the curtains on cruelties hidden from public view without activating someone else’s coping mechanism of numbing out, anger at the messenger, or, even worse, feelings of hopelessness and despair. How do we walk that fine line of opening eyes without closing hearts? I don’t know if there are definitive answers on this but I will say that we face this with Vegan Street, where part of our mission is to shine a light on what happens behind closed doors. We also spend a lot of time focusing on really positive and inspiring stories, but there is no doubt that there is a lot of fodder for disheartenment, too. So what do we do?
I believe that it’s a shirking of responsibility to not share with the public the suffering and cruelty that are so often obscured from view but, as social change agents, I think we have an equal responsibility to not add to the collective despair in a careless or reckless way. Many people who will see the content you share are already hanging on to their sense of hope and willingness to engage by the skin of their teeth. Should our point be that humanity sucks? Or should our point be to try to get people to care enough to do something about reducing suffering and increasing compassion in the world? I think it’s the latter. Towards this end, I have three ideas.
• If you are going to share graphic photos and videos, do so with text and context. Even a sentence or two can mean the difference for someone who might otherwise scroll past.
• If you can, choose photos that are not so grisly that people look away or resent the messenger. This doesn’t mean Vegan Street shies away from exposing the violence other animals live with but that we can find images that still communicate the cruelty but are maybe not so graphic as to make people shut down.
• If at all possible, include helpful action items with your disturbing content. As pointless as they often are, even a petition gives people a sense that they are “doing something,” but better are links that are actually helpful, like links to fundraising pages, people to call or email or vegan starter kits or anything else relevant to your post that could be considered an action item. These days, whenever I post upsetting content with regard to animal agribusiness, I also include a link to our free Guide for New Vegans.
I’d recommend that before you share disturbing content, you ask yourself what your goal is. Is it to shame or to educate, to indict or to illuminate? Do you want to add to the collective despair or do you want to empower to take compassionate action? Of course, you are not responsible for how someone reacts to the content you share — I have certainly had people interpret things in a different way than I intended — but if you share your posts with the overarching goal of wanting to build a more kind and just world, my guess is they will be better received and create the most positive influence for the animals.