Violent videos and “brutal voyeurism” are reshaping modern warfare

A first-person video released by the Israeli military shows navy fighters using assault rifles and hand grenades on weapons to detonate people floating in the water. Military officials said the targets were Hamas terrorists trying to storm Israel's coast in raids that sparked the Israel-Gaza war; Now everyone is dead.

Such graphic footage once circulated mostly in the dark and morbid corners of the Internet, hidden from the casual viewer. But the Navy video made its way across social media channels and discussion forums, including Reddit's 1.6 million-follower subreddit r/CombatFootage, where it was one of dozens of violent scenes posted that day.

Discussing the video, one commenter said they were living in a “golden age of brutal voyeurism” in the now-deleted post.

The wars between Israel and Ukraine have led to an explosion in online videos depicting the horrors of modern warfare, bringing the killing and brutality to a global audience that is not ready – or very eager – to see.

The supply of new graphic videos has increased as fighters use cell phones and GoPro cameras to record or live stream footage for both military strategy and propaganda purposes. There is also demand, as Internet users flock to moderated video sites, message boards and private groups where they can view and share extreme footage to satisfy their curiosity or score political points.

Our “increasingly fragmented online media system means there are many other outlets for this type of content and a wider variety of content moderation schemes,” said Colin Henry, a George Washington University researcher who studies political violence and the Internet. “It's like suddenly there are a lot more movie theaters in town, and some of them are much more snuff-friendly.”

In both wars, military leaders and digital native soldiers wanting to document the reality of their conflict or rally international support have shared the videos directly through group messaging services like Telegram or reposted them on social media platforms like X, formerly Twitter. .

On Telegram, Hamas' military wing posted a training montage showing the training of Hamas militants, as well as uncensored videos of bloody clashes, drone attacks and the killing of Israeli soldiers. A Hamas military spokesman also vowed to broadcast the hostage executions online.

Bassem Nai, head of Hamas's international affairs group, told The Washington Post in an interview that the footage was shared on social media both to gain world attention and to embolden Hamas militants for the upcoming war.

“Who is terrorizing whom? We are the victims of this huge murder,” he said. The videos “show us that we can do something. We are not the only ones who beat each other all the time. No, sometimes we can answer too.”

For many people away from the battlefield, the risk of such videos suddenly appearing on autoplay websites or social media feeds has become a constant fear, prompting some schools and education groups to teach parents to monitor or block their children's social media use. Psychiatrists have warned that repeated viewing of such visceral images can cause what is known as “vicarious trauma”, damaging people's mental health.

However, others actively seek it – and are helped by the fighters themselves. Ukraine's 110th Mechanized Brigade, an infantry unit specializing in the production of IEDs, has posted more than 100 videos on its Telegram channel, many of which show Russian soldiers throwing explosives to a heavy metal soundtrack.

The videos are often reposted with English-language descriptions in subreddits such as r/UkraineWarVideoReport, where they often receive thousands of comments and views.

Some commenters there say the videos teach a terrible lesson. They “basically took all the ‘glory' out of the war,” said one Redditor in a thread discussing the life of an injured Russian soldier himself. “I wish politicians would watch these videos while having their morning coffee.”

There, others note the violence or riff on the strange banality of seeing such carnage from home. “I'm eating coco puffs watching this,” one Redditor said of a video showing Russian soldiers being killed by grenades.

Graphic footage has long played a role in shaping public understanding of current events. Horrifying images of fighting and carnage broadcast on television news helped mobilize Americans against the Vietnam War. The videos of the jets attacking the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, were a defining moment for mainstream viewers of the atrocity; Also, footage of journalists who have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan during the years of war.

But such videos are also used to sow terror and provoke an emotional overreaction that can anger viewers, escalate conflict or play into the hands of attackers, said Amanda E. Rogers, a researcher at the Century Foundation who has studied extremist propaganda. Nearly a decade ago, he said, footage captured by the Islamic State beheading aid workers, journalists and others prompted terrorists who saw value in releasing the footage so many viewers felt they could not ignore it.

“People don't realize that through propaganda you can get involved in a conflict to help the side you think you're against,” Rogers said. “Now these videos have spread in a social media environment where the lowest common denominator and sound bites become consumable like a partisan team sport.”

Some of the gruesome videos have proven valuable to investigators and journalists looking to find hostages or document war crimes. And the moderators of the CombatFootage subreddit, which has doubled its subscriber base since the start of 2022, said they rate videos on their “combat footage to propaganda ratio.” Clips with too little focus on actual combat have been removed.

But the line between such videos and propaganda is not always clear. White supremacists have for years released videos showing violent acts committed by people of color to incite racial animosity in hopes of winning over potential recruits, Henry said. In recent conflicts, such gruesome videos have been used to dehumanize the enemy and make international audiences feel more invested in the fight.

“Violent content, especially war footage, can be really traumatic for people, but it can also be a great mobiliser,” he said. “When various people affected by the war in Ukraine share videos of Russian soldiers killed in drone attacks, part of the strategy is to appeal to an American or European audience that sees Russian soldiers as part of a more hated outgroup and Ukrainian soldiers as one. Like yourself.”

Major social media platforms generally block or restrict videos depicting death or violence. X's rules allow violent videos as long as they are hidden behind a warning disclaimer, but the company bans “gratuitous gore” unless the image is “associated with news events,” saying that “research has shown that repeated exposure to overly graphic content online can negatively impact an individual's on well-being”.

However, some violent videos from the Israel-Gaza war remain unrestricted on X, including footage of a gunboat and other clips of the Israeli military showing Hamas militants being gunned down by a tank on the Israeli border.

In some cases, wars have also led to changes in long-standing rules when it comes to speech. Last year, Facebook said it would temporarily allow violent messages related to the war in Ukraine, such as “death to the Russian invaders,” because they constitute protected political speech. Credible calls for violence against Russian civilians are still prohibited, the company said.

The Ukrainian government last year began posting photos and videos of captured and killed Russian soldiers on Telegram, Twitter and YouTube, hoping to stoke Russian protests over the war's human cost. Military justice experts told The Post that some of the images likely violated the Geneva Conventions, which require governments to protect prisoners of war from “indignity and public curiosity.”

Israel's foreign ministry has used a similar tactic to rile up Western audiences by running hundreds of gruesome YouTube ads, including videos in which Israeli doctors describe what they saw dissecting the bodies of children killed in Hamas attacks. Advertising library.

one YouTube advertising Showing a colorful scene of smiling unicorns and rainbows, it quickly transitions to a darker message: “We know your child can't read this… 40 babies killed in Israel by Hamas terrorists (ISIS),” the ad reads. “As you would do anything to protect your child, we will do anything to protect our child.”

YouTube representative whose Advertising rules Ban violence and “shocking content”, says ads not shown on child-oriented content and doesn't warrant any enforcement action.

Foreign Ministry officials, who did not respond to requests for comment, also posted a photo earlier this month of a blood-soaked dead baby with a masked face on his 1.4 million-follower X account, calling it “the hardest. image we have ever published. “

On Monday, Israel's military tried to reach foreign correspondents by showing a graphic 40-minute video showing “scene after scene of appalling violence,” according to Britain's Times newspaper. Some of the videos were taken from the phones, cars and helmets of Hamas fighters.

Military officials also shared instructions they said were extracted from Hamas fighters detailing how to “live” the killings: “Don't waste your camera's battery and storage, but use it to the maximum.”

Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman, told the crowd that the videos would be a “collective memory for the future.” “We will not let the world forget who we are fighting,” he said, according to the Times.