“Going viral,” the expression used to describe the astonishing popularity of a seemingly modest little item that within a few days racks up millions of “views” has quickly become part of our modern lexicon. Sometimes it seems harmless enough, just a nice little form of entertainment to be able to watch, for example, that really clever and very funny little dog-tease video about a man having a conversation with his dog about food that ended up being fed to the cat. The fact it went viral to the tune of many millions of views on YouTube shows just how much people all over the world are hungry for a little comic relief.
But it’s also interesting and more than a little ironic that the expression also compares the rapid spread of the suddenly most popular videos and such on the internet to the onset of a disease. Those who would argue that the internet should not be censored, that freedom of expression should prevail, might buttress that view with the argument that people need first to be confronted with the realities of the world in which they live if they’re going to be part of making it better.
I’m inclined to favour freedom of expression on the internet on that basis myself, with one huge exception: Pornography has gone “viral” on the internet, and it is indeed a disease eating away at the soul of humanity. But how to control it in the international Internet age is the big question. Various jurisdictions have shown an ability to co-operate in the investigation and prosecution of Internet child pornography rings. Regarding the broader issue of Internet pornography, perhaps some sort of world-wide convention of laws governing pornography on the Internet is required. But first the thing itself would have to be defined, and that would be a tall order given that some cultures have very intolerant, ultra-conservative views that regard any public display of the nude human form as pornographic, while others are much more liberal.
But let’s get back to freedom of expression on the Internet as it pertains to what might be broadly described as “news.” Unfortunately, or not, depending on your point of view, much of what ends up on the Internet is raw, unedited video footage. Then, it’s up to the organized, professional news media outlets to decide how they want to edit it, or if they want to show it at all.
That was the case with the raw footage of the now former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s capture and death. Some news organizations chose to run “stories” with some of the footage, with warnings that it contained “graphic” content that might be disturbing to some people. Meanwhile, the full raw footage was easily available on the internet. It was indeed disturbing. It was poor quality, shot on cell-phone cameras by Gaddafi’s captors. But the chaos of the images accurately reflected the chaos and uncontrolled nature of the events as Gaddafi, still alive, begged for his life as he was abused and tormented.
The controversy in the organized news media was all about whether or not Gaddafi was summarily executed by his undisciplined captors. That’s too nice a way to put it. Was he murdered? The images tell everything but the final moment, when the gun was actually put to his head. But I for one would be very surprised if he escaped from that virtual lynch mob with his life, somehow made it alive to an ambulance, and then was caught in a “crossfire,” as Libya’s new, interim government claimed.
The raw, uncensored footage on the Internet, however “graphic,” should be seen for layers of reasons: It tells the truth about the criminal acts that happened to Gaddafi in his last moments. No matter what he did in his 42 years in power, they were wrong. The footage also tells the world that post-Gaddafi Libyan society has a very, very long way to go, from chaos, to something resembling the rule of law, and the creation of a workable democracy in a country where most of the population has no experience of either. It will be some sort of miracle if it happens. There’s no sense pretending otherwise.
In time the people of Libya may be ashamed of how Gaddafi died, and other people the world over, for that matter, who say he deserved what he got. Perhaps the more they see the reality of what happened, the more they will learn from it, change their attitudes, and be part of building a better society.
Much the same could be said in the aftermath of that truly horrible video on the Internet of the toddler who was run over twice on a street in a city in China, then ignored by passers-by until she was finally picked up and taken to safety by a woman. That people can be, for whatever reason, that callous is a reality of human nature that needs to be seen, as hard as it is to watch, so people can hopefully think about what happened, and consider what they might do under similar circumstances. I know I have.
We make a huge mistake if we suppose such callousness is a Chinese problem. Consider the fate of Jamie Hubley, the 15-year-old Ottawa teen who recently committed suicide at least partly because he was so badly bullied at school for being gay. How long will many of us stand by and ignore such dangerous attitudes as hateful homophobia before we stand up and say, no more?
If free expression on the Internet opens our eyes to see such things more clearly and change our attitudes for the better to help create a kinder, better, more tolerant human society in the “global village,” as the great Canadian visionary Marshal McLuhan called it, then so be it, by all means.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.