Sharing Footage of Police Brutality on Social Media Can Do More Harm Than Good

Getty Images | Westend61
Getty Images | Westend61

Tyre Nichols is one of the latest Black people to die at the hands of police brutality. The 29-year-old was reportedly pulled over on Jan. 7 for reckless driving by Memphis police, according to the New York Times. In the body camera footage since released, we see Nichols attempting to escape five Black police officers during a confrontation and then being aggressively beaten, punched, and kicked while he begs them to stop. Nichols died in the hospital three days after the incident.

This example of senseless violence and the gut-wrenching video that accompanies it is a trend we know all too well within the Black community. When footage of George Floyd being choked to death surfaced in June 2020, social media networks were flooded with images of Floyd's last moments. Two weeks later, the video of police shooting Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot quickly ignited protests. And what seemed like a stream of police killings would follow. In late August, a video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back went viral. Only weeks later a video came out of Dijon Kizzee being shot by LAPD 19 times.

Avoiding footage of police brutality is almost impossible — especially considering that we live in such a social media-driven world — but research suggests that continuously watching footage of police brutality can leave a lasting impact on Black Americans, and frequent exposure to images and videos of police harming Black people can trigger racial trauma.

What Is Racial Trauma?

According to Mental Health America, racial trauma "refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes." Some symptoms of racial trauma include, but are not limited to, re-experiencing of distressing events, higher reports of somatization when distressed, chronic stress, negative emotions, and hypervigilance. These negative psychological symptoms of racial trauma aren't just found in adults, but have been seen in Black children as young as 12 years old. For Black people, watching television is directly linked to the formation of post traumatic stress disorder. For example, watching the video of Tyre Nichol's death can trigger stress reactions in people who watch it.

Collective racial trauma makes African Americans experience more susceptible to mental illness than other groups. There is a clear relationship between racial discrimination and psychological well-being. Studies have shown that experiencing internalized racism and witnessing police brutality can lead to difficulties in sleep. To mitigate this impact, experts recommended making a list of places and things that trigger racial trauma, addressing why those things trigger racial trauma, and role-playing how to behave when faced with those triggers. Engaging in activism is a great way to combat racial trauma instead of consuming footage of police brutality. Advocacy contributes positively to building self-esteem and a deeper sense of community. The American Psychological Association encourages people who experience trauma to practice self-care. One of the best ways Black people can practice self-care right now is by avoiding footage of police brutality.

What Is "Trauma Porn"?

Trauma porn is the fascination with another group's suffering; in this case, white America's fascination with Black pain. The consumption of Black pain has been, and continues to be, an American pastime. Beginning in the 1700s, families gathered to watch Black people get lynched publicly. Today, Americans indulge in what has become a modern day lynching: trauma porn. Short video clips on Instagram and Facebook cannot fully convey the pain and suffering Black people have experienced over hundreds of years. But, for some reason, people love to watch them.

Login to Instagram and see a video of a police pulling a man out of a wheelchair and beating him on the ground. Head onto Facebook and watch a viral video of a New York police vehicle running over a crowd. These instances became the norm throughout the summer of 2020, and seem to resurface every time there's another instance of police brutality. But in spreading this trauma porn we are only further contributing to Black pain and suffering. Trauma porn fetishizes Black pain, and turns Black suffering into a form of entertainment rather than a collective human experience. So, when you see the latest video of a police shooting, think first before hitting the share button.

What Kind of Content Should I Be Sharing Right Now?

Refrain from sharing videos or images of Black people being hurt or killed by the police. Instead, share protest signs, links to donate to racial justice organizations, and powerful images and hashtags that call for the police to be held accountable. The last thing a Black person wants is to be reminded that they could be next in a long line of people whose lives have been taken at the hands of the police. More than anything, Black people want to be seen and heard. Share content that promotes Black joy and healing rather than Black trauma and fear.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones