One week ago today, gunmen stormed Garissa University College in Kenya and massacred 147 students. There are people reading this who will not have heard this happened, as it has been severely under-reported in mainstream Western media. What you may have seen, however, is the shocking photographs being shared across social media of the bloodshed, some of which feature the uncensored bodies of the victims.
The lack of media coverage troublingly echoes an incident earlier in the year in which 2,000 villagers were reportedly slain in Baga, Nigeria by terror group Boko Haram, who have since pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Despite the scale of the bloodshed, the massacre was overshadowed by the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, which had occured just days earlier.
Few would dispute that our mainstream media routinely ignores tragedies that happen in countries whose culture appears different to ours. The widespread although short-lived coverage of the execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh at the hands of Islamic State militants in February came as a surprise to many as a rare exception to the rule, as the deaths of previous non-white hostages such as Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto the previous month had gone virtually unnoticed.
Western media has been quite rightly accused of judging the deaths of people from other cultures as being of less importance. This is even evident in the mainstream restraint to accurately cover the deaths of Americans Mike Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, instead refraining from comment to avoid controversy. At this time, social media lead the international charge for awareness and justice for two black men who fell victim to police brutality.
Once again, Twitter and Facebook are rallying for the popular European and American media to take notice of the 147 Kenyan lives lost on the 2nd of April. The issue is, in my view, the method to this very worthy cause.
While social media is a fantastic vehicule for independent, uncensored comment and gives regular people a recognisable voice in a world now dominated by the World Wide Web, a criticism of it that isn’t raised often enough is the reduction of information. A platform created for international conversation has taken the dialogue out of discussion and left us with effortless shock value. The pictures currently being shared are intended to force people to take note of the horrors that have taken place, but aren’t exactly condusive to the spread of information that is desired here as they condense the information in to a misguided ‘tribute’ to the victims rather than educating people on the massacre.
Moreover, the people sharing these pictures may unwittingly be partaking in the exact same crimes they chastise mass media for: the disrespect of non-white, non-First World lives. Returning to the subject of the beheadings committed by Islamic State militants, the videos of the European and American victims were rarely shared on social media platforms, due to the generally accepted belief that it wasn’t appropriate to commemorate someone through their murder. Instead, the victims of the Kenyan massacre have been accidentally objectified by well-meaning individuals on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr by their deaths.
The counter-argument to this belief is that consumers of mass media should be forced to confront and therefore deal with the reality of what is happening in countries that is not their own. But this should not be done by devaluing the lives of the deceased or by reducing the tragedy to bitesized, shock value photographs. Unfortunately, although information in this form is easily consumeable, it rarely encourages discussion or opinions to form. As useful as social media can be in providing ‘the voice of the people’, for lack of a better term, this single picture only serves to feed the cultural obsession with death, violence and shock value, removing the humane or intellectual element from commemoration or appropriate media coverage.