Summer Reflections: Social Media and Exposure to Violent Death

By Dr. Tina Thomas

Dr. Thomas is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology. Featured Image courtesy of the Independent:

This summer, I am taking time to reflect on the past year and what I want to do in the near and distant future. I am also reflecting on my relationships with others. When I think about personal relationships, I automatically think about social media. Before I begin this blog post, I want to preface this writing by stating that this is not a judgment to those who are on social media. I find it to be a wonderful vehicle for staying connected to family and friends, both near and far.

With that said, I have been told that social media is a necessary evil—especially as an academic. It helps you gain a following if individuals are interested in your scholarly work, and it gives individuals easier access to you and all the wisdom you can impart through your research. I have seen professors extremely successful in this venture and I have great respect for how some academics use social media to impart messages related specifically to social justice issues in which I am interested.

Despite this respect, I have to be honest. I dislike social media. A lot. I recently signed into my Facebook account after a few months off. As these things usually go, I got bored, and wanted to see how everyone was doing, who recently graduated, and how teaching was going for other colleagues. In other words, I was using social media as an avenue to stay tuned to all of the changes and experiences that people I knew were currently undergoing.

The first day back on social media, it is fine. It is nice to see people have gotten married, someone’s child has celebrated another birthday, or a well-liked professor from graduate school receives a prestigious award. These are all beautiful markers of life. After day two and three, I start to think back on how people formed relationships prior to social media. Friends were lost along the way just to be found at a later date, or never to be spoken to again. It makes me wonder, is social connectedness a phenomenon that is essentially finite? Is it healthy to be so connected–particularly about bad news?

These thoughts related to mental health rose most recently as I saw many posts regarding the failure of the legal system to see the personhood of Mr. Philando Castile. For those unaware, Mr. Castile, a dedicated public-school cafeteria supervisor, was shot and killed by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop. He was murdered in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. As the officer approached, Mr. Castile shared with the officer that he was carrying a legally licensed gun and that he was not reaching for the weapon. Shortly after, Officer Yanez shot into the vehicle seven times. Ms. Reynolds, Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, documented the entire deadly exchange on Facebook Live. Despite the video evidence, the officer was acquitted of the charge of second-degree manslaughter.

I have not posted anything on social media concerning this current event, and I genuinely wonder why. I wonder why I cannot muster up a single word on social media that encapsulates my anger, my fear, my sadness, my disgust, my horror, and my exhaustion at the devaluation of black and brown bodies on a consistent basis. There are several dimensions that come into play as I reflect on this, including among others, Latinx anti-Blackness and mental health concerns associated with the consumption of such violent acts.

I will focus on the latter for now, as it is fresh on my mind with a friend posting a commentary on why people should not view the Philando Castile Facebook Live video. In all honesty, I cannot view any more of these videos. In the past, I viewed these videos to honor the death of those who were murdered. However, after the initial pain, they became desensitizing. It is almost as though I kept seeing these events happen over and over again, and I started to feel numb to the pain of it. Not only did I feel numb, but there was an expectation that the most recent video being posted would not be the last. In short, I felt myself losing hope. That was not a positive place for someone who tries to develop ways to address social justice issues.

So, I haven’t watched the video, although I have inadvertently viewed the photos as I scroll past my Facebook newsfeed and that is heartbreaking enough. Despite these difficult feelings, I am glad to feel heartbroken and upset. I am glad to feel both the pain and the anger at thinking of the tragic loss that Mr. Castile’s girlfriend and her small child had to witness.

In short, everyone has their psychological limits as to what they can process and consume without damage. I have discovered that my social media limit abruptly halts when hope for change is no longer a possibility. As an anthropologist, I constantly ponder on the complexity of humans–namely their ability to be both cruel and kind. Despite our particular propensity for cruelty, I also understand that acts of kindness and altruism override the need for violence in all forms. My hope leans into those who see the humanity in all and in the change that we can create beyond social media and can apply to the collaboration of bettering the lived experience of others.