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Death on Live-Stream: How Social Media Changed the Way We Mourn

When police shootings are streamed live on Facebook and life stories are replaced with hashtags, how can we have any closure?

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Illustration by Ryan Casey

You wake up and reach for your phone, check Twitter, and that’s when you first see the name. You’ll read it hundreds of times over the next couple of weeks – in hashtags, articles, protest signs, eventually even on T-shirts. If you’re lucky, it’s the name of a stranger, but you know that for someone it’s not. And without even scrolling any further down your feed, you already know what happened.

Starting the day with news of death delivered digitally has become America’s new morning ritual. Early yesterday, I learned of the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer. Before 8 a.m., I had already ingested countless tweets, photos, and very hesitantly, watched the video, which showed a man bleeding out in front of his girlfriend and her child.

The nearly 10-minute recording was taken in the immediate aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds. Instead of screaming or crying, as one would assume, she instinctively knew to take out her phone. Streaming live on Facebook, she calmly and clearly recounted exactly what happened, with the austerity of a witness on the stand.

It’s hard to say if we’d even know Philando Castile’s name without that video. Cell phone cameras have emerged as the only weapons the disadvantaged have against the state’s weapons, and their power. “The videos are smoking-gun evidence,” Paul D. Butler, Georgetown University law professor and a former prosecutor told the New York Times. “Both literally because they are very graphic, which generates outrage, and figuratively, because people believe their own eyes.” For Castile and other victims of police shootings, visual evidence and the chaos it sparks are the only shot at justice, although even if the entire world witnesses the crime, the chance of any meaningful resolution is slim.

Soon after the live stream, Castile’s mother got a call. Not from the police, as one might expect, but from friends. They’d seen her son die on Facebook. Learning of a loved one’s death online – potentially even watching a video of it – is a trauma outside of the murder itself. Then there’s the trauma felt by black Americans, who can see in Castile’s face their own, or that of their brother, or father. “The flagrancy of public murder exacts an exponential toll on the black life that survives; it renders the power of witness moot,” wrote Doreen St. Felix for MTV. “The reminder isn’t that we are alive. It’s that we have yet to die.”

This reminder is relived again and again as the video is shared on our timelines. Once it goes viral, more facts will emerge, and we learn about the victim and his family. Rapidly the grief – the emotional experience of loss – will transform into mourning, the expression of it. And social media will make these two things indistinguishable.

People will post Black Lives Matter banners on Facebook; they will take to Twitter to share links about how white people can help; they will Instagram a photo of a young, happy Castile. It won’t be clear which post is genuine, and what is nothing more than social posturing. Without a digital forum to publicly perform grief, to what extent would some of us have it? Would actress Mischa Barton, who shared her condolences from a yacht (rosé in hand!), have given it more than a thought? We will never know because the only tangible proof – action – is hard to define and even harder to police.

These more cynical questions are balanced by an acceptance of the Internet as our society’s most powerful community, made stronger by the countless smaller ones that make it up. In her Atlantic piece on how mourning has become #content, Megan Garber offers that we unfairly have a “desire to restore order to a practice that has become, culturally, chaotic.” Mourning is inherently communal, and all social media has done is expand the community from the family at the wake to the millions contributing to the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

The day before I woke up to #PhilandoCastile, it was #AltonSterling that I obsessively followed. And when I woke up in the middle of the night and checked my phone, I saw another ominous hashtag: #DallasShooting. But unlike the past two days, I didn’t keep scrolling. Instead, I tossed and turned and vowed not to look at my phone tomorrow. The problem with collective mourning in the digital age is not the act itself, but that it doesn’t ever end. Unlike a funeral, the casket is never lowered. In 2016, the grief the American people feel from one tragedy is simply transferred to another. And instead of building to a crescendo, I’m afraid that we slowly grow numb.

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