Just because you can look, doesn’t mean you should

JAMES FOLEY-sourceCNSNEWSEDITEDWe are a generation with immense access to information. Thanks to the internet, we no longer sift through card catalogs for research or wait until the end of the day to hear about international news. We only know a world in which we can learn about anything instantly, no matter when or where it happens.

Freedom of speech is seen by many as an extension of our freedom of information and therefore representing a fundamental human right. As viewers, we feel a sense of entitlement to information, especially when it is readily available online.

Two recent incidents, however, suggest that our right to know ‘the full story’ has been abused. On Sept. 3, ISIS, considered a terrorist group by pretty much everyone, released a video of the beheading of American journalist, Steven Sotloff, just weeks after the video of James Foley’s decapitation went viral. In the same week, several celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Victoria Justice, Kate Upton and American olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney — who was a minor at the time the photos were taken — were leaked onto the internet.  It is estimated that the number of views are in the millions.

When such incidents as these make headlines, the instinct is to condemn those responsible for releasing the information or footage. ISIS murdered men and showed to the world, while celebrities had their personal information hacked from their phones and computers. We criticize those who release the information for stripping the victims of their right to privacy and, in extension, of their dignity. However, even if we are utterly disgusted by their actions, or merely suspect that there is something unsettling about them, we often feel compelled to see for ourselves and click on the link.

Although it would be questionable to equate photographed nudity to videotaped murder, they certainly have something in common. In both cases, the photos and videos spread rapidly across the web, reflecting how easily we are able to infringe upon other people’s privacy. It is us, the viewers, that continue to share and send the links to one another. The mere action of discussing the information and photos through social media increases others’ awareness of their existence.  Does our right to information extend to the viewing of someone’s naked body, or worse, of someone’s brutal murder? The line is blurred between what we ought to have access to and what we believe we ought to know.

While they may be the perpetrators of the murders or the photo leaks, the fact that these photos and videos went viral does not only reflect badly on ISIS and the internet hackers; it says something about our morals as viewers as well. No, we are not all voyeuristic animals, and most of us don’t feel as though it is our fundamental right to witness murder. However, how easily we access information can bring about a fixation with keeping up with what other people know and all too often, don’t think twice before opening a web page. We have forgotten that some information is simply gratuitous.

This is not to suggest that we strive for more censorship on the internet. Instead, we might want to reevaluate what we use the it for. While we cannot individually prevent criminals from sharing exploitative information or footage on the internet, each of us can decide whether we wish to perpetuate their wrongdoing and further exploit the victims or resist the urge and tendency to click on the link.

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