Caught On Camera, Viral Forever: When Digital Memory Is A Curse

For families of Nikita Tomar and Alison Parker, whose death videos went viral, it's a traumatic memory. For the Internet, it's clickbait.

Seven years after his journalist daughter was killed on live television, Andy Parker created an NFT, or a non-fungible token, of the fatal shooting video in hopes he will finally be able to remove all of those clips from social media that are still viral.

"It is an act of desperation," he told reporters, explaining that by creating the unique digital copy of the footage, which is stored on a blockchain similar to cryptocurrency, a form of digital ledger, he plans to sue the platforms hosting the video for a breach of copyright.

Alison was 24 years old when she and videographer Adam Ward were fatally shot during a live broadcast in Virginia, United States of America. The 17-second clip, uploaded on YouTube by the shooter, a 41-year-old former journalist, went viral. As described in several articles published, the video captures the shock and horror of the victims, their terrified screams along with the sound of gunshots.

Alison's father set out to remove the videos from tech platforms as he nursed his grief — he did not want video sharing platforms to make money out of the visuals of his daughter's death. On these platforms, a death like this is a spectacle, and a spectacle means views – millions and millions of views. And Andy Parker did not want his daughter's death to become a clickbait.

"Facebook and Google profit from videos like the murder of Alison. So they also have a monetary motive for not removing harmful content," Parker told DECODE over email.

Parker, of course, is not alone in this nightmare. Across the world, killings, gory accidents and murders — often traumatic reminders of the brutality of a loved one's death for families — have been turned into click magnets, immortalised in the deep web, shared millions of times across social media apps, on occasions catering to a massive online community of death video fetishizers.

Except for a few people like Parker, the kin of the deceased often quietly resign to fate, deleting social media, staying off the internet as much as possible to be able to heal or move on with their lives.

DECODE spoke to families of victims to piece together the relentless battle of living with a 'viral', seemingly unerasable digital memory of the death.

TW: The story has mentions of death and violent incidents.

A 'Viral' Murder In Faridabad

Naveen Tomar was scrolling through social media on his phone at his aunt's residence, where he always waited to pick up his sister from her college a few hundred metres away, when a massive commotion broke out. Naveen followed the crowd only to find out what the chaos was about his sister: 20-year-old Nikita had been shot in the head from a point blank range by a man and lay in a pool of blood on the road.

Naveen rushed her to a nearby hospital where Nikita was pronounced dead. Within a day, the CCTV footage of Nikita's murder went viral on the internet, and the assailants, two young men called Tausif and Rehan, were jailed for life.

It has been two years since the incident, but Naveen, who has recently taken the entrance exams to join the state police force, has never watched the 'viral' video of his sister's death.

"Other people can watch it, but I can't. I have been bombarded with the video ever since her death but I could not muster the courage to watch my sister's last moments," Naveen told DECODE.

Propelled by conspiracies about 'Love Jihad', the video of Nikita's death went viral, becoming a tool for media, politicians, priests and other commenters to propagate their agendas. Clocking millions of views each day, the video ended up on websites, apps and corners of the internet that her family haven't ever heard of.

"The video was playing on TV before I saw it. We knew that the video had gone viral but we didn't have the mindframe to watch it at that time. The world had already seen my daughter's death before us," Nikita's mother Vijayanti recalled.

The video shows Nikita's attempts to save herself from two men who try to shove her into a car. Nikita and her friend are seen near the car, desperately trying to dodge the gun-waving attacker before he shoots her. The men then drive off leaving Nikita bleeding on the road, as her friend watches in horror.

The CCTV footage helped trace the attackers as well.

Unlike her brother, Nikita's father harbours mixed feelings about the video. "The video served its purpose then. The case got media attention. Do you think a court would pass a sentence in just five months after the incident?" he asked, adding "It was only because of the video."

However, he feels that the video should no longer exist on the internet. Unlike Alison's father, Moolchand hasn't made efforts to get the video removed or fight tech giants because he believes that it would be an "impossible task".

From left: Nikita Tomar's brother Naveen, father Moolchand and mother Vijayanti at their Faridabad home.

An engineer who lost his job during the pandemic, Moolchand is not deeply familiar with the workings of social media or internet revenue models. "Can we write to YouTube to delete the videos? But then what about these WhatsApp forwards which people are still sharing, how can we stop them?" he asked this correspondent.

For a while, Moolchand was almost thankful for the existence of the video. It was the evidence to get justice for this daughter. But soon, the video started to draw politicians and religious leaders to Moolchand's doorstep – it's as if everyone wanted a piece of the trauma the father of 'the girl who was shot on the viral video' was living through. Someone wanted him on live television, someone wanted him to attend a rally, almost everyone wanted a selfie with him.

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Moolchand admits that for a while it made him feel seen and heard, and convinced him that his 'daughter will get justice'. One of the promises made by the 'big people' he said, was a college for girls named after Nikita. He has not heard of it since.

"They came here for their own political reasons. Then they moved on. What did we gain out of it? What did Nikita get out of this?" After a pause, he asked, "Will we get back our daughter?"

A Leopard Attack A Bereaved Father Can't Forget

The last time Mudasir saw his daughter Ada in June last year, the four-year-old was dressed up in her favourite "Barbie dress" running around the courtyard, scattering her toys and playing by herself. Minutes later, he heard a cry. But Ada was nowhere to be found.

A massive search was launched in Kashmir's Budgam district within hours. The next day local authorities found Ada's mutilated body — the injuries suggested she had been mauled by a wild animal, possibly a leopard which had been sighted in the vicinity over the past few days.

Mudasir and his wife Nausheen had hardly gotten time to process the news of their child's death, when a family friend alerted them about videos of their daughter going 'viral' on Facebook. Mudasir says he made a mistake – he opened his Facebook account.

His social media timeline was flooded with videos of his daughter's body, mutilated beyond recognition, being retrieved by the police. Some of his Facebook 'friends' also tagged him on these videos.

A small crowd had gathered when Ada's body was found. Some locals shot videos on their phone and promptly uploaded them on social media. It did not take long for the video to spread like wildfire and land on Mudasir's timeline.

"It's a horrific video and I was already dealing with the trauma of losing my child. People were sharing it with lewd, hateful comments," he said over the phone. "The video would keep appearing on my social media feed for months after that incident," he said.

He pleaded on Facebook, requesting everyone to report the video of his daughter so it's removed from social media platforms. "Losing my precious daughter in such a manner will be a nightmare to me for the rest of my life. Hence the circulation of such videos related to my daughter and the comments on it are only adding to our wounds," Mudasir wrote, with a photo of his daughter.

"It is my humble request as a parent who suffered such irreparable loss to make arrangements for the removal of such content related to my daughter anywhere on social media.Please share this keeping in mind as it was your daughter," he wrote.

The same day Mudasir deleted his wife's Facebook account so she wouldn't come across the video. "If the video appears on my feed, I can easily skip it. But I know that she may be curious. And if she watches the video of her daughter it will add to her trauma," he said.

The local residents, politicians and the father of the girl blamed the wildlife department for the uncleared fallen trees and unkempt bushes that they say led to her death. While Mudasir was already dealing with police and the media, he was desperate to make sure his family did not come across the video. "I wrote to the cybercrime department of Jammu and Kashmir police too asking them to help me with taking down the video," he said.

A year later, Mudasir hasn't heard back from the police regarding the video; from reporting videos multiple times to blocking accounts, Mudasir says he has done as much as he could to prevent the videos from easily reaching his wife or other close families. And now, he is exhausted.

Why Can't The Videos Be Removed Easily?

Andy Parker's biggest problem in getting his daughter's killing videos permanently removed, he says, has been Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act passed by the United States Congress, which says social media companies can't be held responsible for what their users post.

"Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that Congress passed in the mid 90s gives social media platforms complete immunity from any liability. Since they are not compelled to do the right thing, they don't," Parker told DECODE. He recalled that Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower had stated this when she testified before Congress.

The controversial piece of Internet legislation- Section 230 of the US' Communications Decency Act - provides additional protection against liabilities in effect immunizing social media platforms and website operators from lawsuits. While it has been argued that the law keeps the Internet as a free space, many critics argue that the same law leaves the Internet free to spread lies, slander and disinformation that can wreck people's lives.

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Some of those numerous videos of the slain journalist have been posted to YouTube, and have advertisements associated with them – in effect meaning the people reposting the video are also making money off of it.

Prateek Waghre, Policy Director at Internet Freedom Foundation explains that although there are community guidelines that prevent users from posting graphic content on social media, users often bypass them. "And once such videos are uploaded, the discretion of taking them down lies on the platform themselves," he said.

"The only way to get platforms to take down a piece of content is through either a court or a government order," Waghre said, adding that in cases of these videos it may be difficult to get such an order. These cases won't fall under the "right to be forgotten" where an individual has the right to have private information be removed from Internet searches under some circumstances — as the people who are in those videos are no longer alive. "No law says that this sort of content has to be taken down," he added.

And even if Parker or Tomar did get a court order for platforms to take down their daughters' videos, the challenge, Waghre says, is that they may keep coming back. "Someone has to keep monitoring to ensure those videos don't reappear," he said.

Parker told DECODE that he is starting a political action committee dedicated to supporting Congressional candidates in the US who will commit to reforming laws that will hold social media companies accountable.

However, apart from policy hurdles that place the burden of getting any content removed, especially in cases such as these, entirely on the victim's kin's personal enterprise, there's another issue that makes this a nearly impossible challenge. And that is the massive online audience who consumes death videos for entertainment.

Internet's Obsession With Death Videos

Nikita Tomar. Alison Parker. Mir Adda. The two Scandinavian tourists who were beheaded in Morocco. A wrestler from Uttar Pradesh's Muradabad who died during a fight. An engineering student who was stabbed to death in Lucknow. Ivan Lester McGuire who died during a skydiving accident in 1988. Connected tragically, the last moments of all of them have been captured on camera and stayed on the internet.

Turns out that the internet has a massive appetite for death videos.

A Reddit forum 'Watch People Die" that consisted of gory death videos— where people are beheaded, incinerated, exploded, crushed, electrocuted, drowned, mangled, stoned and disemboweled — had over 4,25,000 subscribers before it was banned in 2019. The number of people who would have watched those videos — anyone on the internet— would be a lot more.

Dr Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist, told DECODE that people are inherently attracted to photos and videos of violence that can even turn into an addiction. Lierberman has studied patterns of violent behaviour for years and has provided expert witness testimony for cases that have included the murder of Scott Amedure, a gay man who confessed his crush on another man and was shot dead by the latter in Michigan.

"Sigmund Freud discovered that violence (and sex) are inborn drives. Just like some people are addicted to pornography, others are addicted to gruesome killings and deaths," she said.

This explains why when Parker typed out Alison's name on YouTube, there were pages and pages of videos capturing her death— some were from the live TV broadcast, some included GoPro footage the killer posted online and some were hoaxes, edited by conspiracy theorists.

"I was horrified and angry that this could be allowed to proliferate on their platforms. Sadly I think some people have a morbid fascination with this kind of thing," Parker told DECODE

The subreddit r/watchpeopledie which was created in 2012 grew quietly in an obscure corner of the Internet and even after being made untraceable in 2018, it remained active for anyone to visit directly until the tragic mosque massacre that claimed 49 lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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The Christchurch attack was broadcast live on Facebook, in one of the most horrific incidents of violence to spread through online in realtime. Internet users who were able to capture the video before Facebook took it down uploaded clips of the incident on other platforms. As tech companies scrambled to remove content left behind by the shooter, the r/watchpeopledie subreddit became dangerously active as users went there looking for the video, asking each other for a copy of it.

The subreddit was banned the next morning as the company said in its statement that content that "incites or glorifies violence will get users and communities banned from Reddit".

Lieberman, who holds a Master's of Public Health degree from the University of California, Los Angeles where she also serves as a member of Clinical Faculty in the department of Psychiatry, said, "Studies have shown that the more violence you consume, the more violent or aggressive you become, especially if you have underlying problems, such as loneliness, depression, family problems, etc. Repeatedly watching such videos of real-life death not only makes some people want to copy what they see, it makes even more people desensitised to death and less respectful of life."

A Redditor, who used to follow r/watchpeopledie, told DECODE that he doesn't remember why he checked the subreddit all those years ago but it did "attract" him. "I've always been curious about more morbid topics… I spent a lot of time reading about serial killers in high school, for example. I think it's cool to see some of the things the human body can go through and still make it out on the other end," the Reddit user, who wanted to stay anonymous, said.

The Redditor, an admin of r/medicalgore, a subreddit of photos and videos of exactly what the name suggests said that the admins don't allow any images or videos of dying or deceased people unless they're in the context of an autopsy. "We try to keep focus on the medical aspect of the 'medical gore' title," he said.

Since the ban, several threads have been created asking for "alternatives" of the subreddit on death videos.

DECODE found out about a website with the same name: 'Watch People Die' on the internet. On an everage, 25-30 videos of beheading, accidents, suicides are uploaded every hour.

"Repeated exposure to these events through the media can be traumatizing for some people," said Dr Alison Holman, a professor at the Department of Psychological Science at the University Of California, Irvine.

The only tool available to Andy Parker's family in taking down Alison's video from YouTube and Google was a repeated nightmare of seeing their daughter's death: watch these videos one-by-one in order to report them. In 2020, YouTube said it had removed thousands of videos relating to Alison's murder over the past four years.

On being asked about the trauma that the grieving family faces when they are forced to watch such videos, Dr Holman told DECODE that it can be a "horrifying experience" although they have not studied the exact phenomenon of watching a loved one get killed live on media.

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"A similar process took place in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks when someone shot a video of the terrorists murdering a policeman who was begging for his life. They posted the video on Facebook, and it got onto the news channels. The policeman's brother had to watch the video of him being murdered," she said, adding that repeated exposure to those videos would perpetuate the pain and suffering for the families.

Moolchand Tomar told DECODE that during the course of the investigation, he watched two hours of CCTV footage showing his daughter stepping out, the men trying to abduct her and then shooting her. In the video, he saw Nikita lying on the road, bleeding till her brother and some others scooped her unconscious body up from the road and put her in their car. "I was told she was still breathing," Moolchand said.

Nikita breathed her last, her brother Naveen by her side, in the vehicle. "When television channels start playing the video, I leave the room," he said.

Updated On: 2022-06-20T12:39:57+05:30
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