Analysis: Viral video of Ethiopian’s fall highlights voyeurism of social media “news”

This still image of rescue workers helping an injured domestic servant in Ethiopia was republished by BBC World Service.

Thousands of internet users have shared video of a possible suicide attempt by an Ethiopian maid in Kuwait, highlighting the crass effects of a social media environment that allows the unfettered sharing of photos and video without context or the normal constraints of journalism ethics.

The 12-second video was shot by a Kuwaiti woman who was within arm’s length of her maid as she hung by one hand on the frame of a window begging for help in an apparent last-minute change of heart. The terrified maid is seen screaming just before her hand slips and she falls down to hit a metal awning, which softens the impact of the fall.

A second video shows emergency workers helping the woman down a ladder after her death-defying fall. Paramedics rushed her to hospital where she was treated for a broken arm and bleeding from her nose and ear, according to Kuwaiti press reports.

Authorities are now under pressure to investigate the case and refer it to court. The Kuwait Society for Human Rights says the employer had a duty of rescue, citing a penal code provision that anyone who deliberately refrains from coming to the aid of a person in peril is liable to be sentenced to up to three months in prison.

What’s wrong here?

Beyond the disturbing nature of the event itself, several aspects of the media coverage of this incident are worthy of scrutiny. First, the case raises questions about whether media outlets and social media users should share videos or photos of people in severe distress. For example, is it appropriate to share a photograph of a terrified man as he is being murdered? What about a distressed woman as she is committing suicide? Is there a public interest in doing so? Is there a privacy consideration?

The Kuwait Times newspaper cited “unconfirmed reports” that the maid initially climbed out of the window because she was suicidal, before changing her mind. Others speculate that she was cleaning when she slipped. Alternatively, it’s theoretically possible the maid was pushed out the window – though authorities have not announced a homicide investigation.

Whatever the circumstances leading to the maid’s fall, it is pretty clear that the video in question is insensitive to both the maid and her family. Sharing it among thousands or even millions of people online is a violation of their privacy at a time of distress and grief.

It is not yet clear who originally posted the video online or why this was done, though thousands of individual social media users as well as media houses can be identified for their role in fueling the viral sharing of the video. Some may have done so with good intentions – expressing sympathy at the plight of the maid – but they unwittingly and reflexively took part in a social process that seriously violated this Ethiopian woman’s dignity.

The maid’s face and her expression of horror are clearly visible in most versions of the video shared online, although some media houses blurred her face when reposting the video or stills to their websites.

Sensationalism

Several major media outlets opted to re-publish the uncensored version of the video and promote the story with sensational headlines. “SHOCK VIDEO,” blared Russia Today in its headline. TRT World, in an edited video of the event, froze the video momentarily on a close-up shot of the terrified maid’s face just before her fall.

“The internet is fired up,” the outlet wrote sensationally of the incident. International Business Times likewise ran a story about it, accompanied by the uncensored video and a caption urging the site’s readers to “watch [the] horrific moment” of the fall.

More tastefully, BBC on its website initially showed only a still of the woman being rescued after her fall, with her face obscured. Later the British outlet added a video to the post showing the woman’s face unobscured. The UK’s Daily Mail opted to republish stills of video but blurred the face of the victim. The outlet lashed out at the Kuwaiti employer saying, “Cruel woman LAUGHS and films her housemaid as she clings to a seventh-floor balcony before falling and suffering horrific injuries.”

The Sun in the United Kingdom wrote, “HEARTLESS Kuwaiti woman just stands there and films as her Ethiopian maid screams for help before plummeting seven floors and SURVIVING.” The video was also shared by US political website InfoWars under the category of “hot news” and accompanied by the headline “Shock Video Shows Maid Falling from Window in Kuwait.” InfoWars opted for a close-up still of the victim’s face as the featured image for the post.

Crass reporting of this kind leads to crass debate and discussion. The video evoked sentiments of disgust toward Kuwaitis generally. “U wanna work for these Barbarians?” wrote one Twitter user. “Muslim LAUGHS and films her black slave-maid clinging to a 7th floor balcony before falling,” wrote another. “Arabs are cruel,” said a third Twitter user going by the handle @NewRightAnalyst.

Lack of context

Besides the sensationalism here, a major problem is that viewers of this video don’t actually have enough information to know how this event unfolded.

First, the video does not show how the Ethiopian woman got into this predicament. It starts immediately at the point of greatest shock and drama. The first video doesn’t even show viewers whether the maid survived, and it also doesn’t tell us about what steps authorities have taken, including rescuing the woman after her fall and investigating the woman who filmed the incident.

Second, many viewers also are unable to understand the words spoken by the Kuwaiti woman behind the camera, the maid’s employer. “Oh, crazy, come back,” she says. This could be interpreted as an expression of concern and distress, though some viewers see it instead as sarcastic taunting – an expression of sadism.

Alanba newspaper quoted the employer as saying that she had filmed the incident and shared it because she did not want to be accused of the maid’s murder if she had died.

Voyeuristic

For some commentators, this explanation was inadequate. “It’s the end of humanity. Now the camera and being famous are more important than human life,” wrote Twitter user Ahmed Al-Ruwi’i after seeing the video.

He was referring to the woman who filmed the fall of her maid. But the same might be said of the social media frenzy around the plight of this maid.

Why the reflex to share with the world a video that seems to be depicting the dramatic end to an unsuccessful suicide attempt? Are the clicks and retweets really worth the cost to this woman’s dignity and privacy? Welcome to the New Journalism of 2017 – crass, voyeuristic and easily outraged.