In the Wake of Tragedy, the Internet Responds With Art
The French-Lebanese cartoonist Swaha learned about the terror in Nice, France, much like everyone else did: she awoke in wee hours and glanced at her phone. And then she did the only thing she could. She started to draw. “I drew in a state of emergency,” she says. “I wanted to ask where we are headed, because it is becoming too much, too ugly.”
Two hours later, she posted this:
— swaha (@swahacartoons) July 15, 2016
It was one of many beautiful expressions of horror and grief interspersed among the photos, videos, first person accounts, and speculation that dominated Twitter and Facebook following Thursday night’s horror. As was the case after the attacks on Charlie Hebo and Paris, the artwork is raw, cathartic, and essential.
“Many times, art can be an extremely powerful way to get to externalize these very primitive feelings for which there are no words,” says Ginette Ferszt, a psychiatrist at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s a softer, gentler way to communicate shared grief, and lessen the feeling of isolation.”
— ✏️Louison✏️ (@Louison_A) July 15, 2016
— PLANTU (@plantu) July 14, 2016
— Clément Martel (@martelclem) July 15, 2016
— Ismael Cala (@cala) July 15, 2016
Cartoons in particular are well suited to social media grieving. They’re symbolic, simple, and immediate—the visual equivalent of a hot take. “The urgency of cartoons is a powerful creative weapon,” says Swaha. “But I’m very aware that I have a big responsibility for what I’m broadcasting.”
That responsibility lies in the immediacy of the medium. Although social media often is seen as shallow and ephemeral, it also offers permanence. Anything posted tends to remain. “This changes how we live with each other,” says Jeff Hancock, a media psychologist at Stanford. “Over thousands of years, we’ve evolved to share our emotions with each other and then have that disappear. When you put them on social media, they remain.”
More than that, they are shared. This can foster a global sense of empathy that, say, moves artists. But it also can lead to the dangerous, reactionary emotionalism that fuels Islamophobia or encourages asinine hastags like #BanTrucks. “Seeing media coverage of these mass events provokes disparate reactions in people: anxiety, fear, depression, numbness, hate. Social media becomes this reflector of that human emotion,” says Brian Houston, director of the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri.
Whatever the reactions, they are visceral and honest. They bring out and reflect the best and worst in humanity. “There’s a phenomenal authenticity to it,” says Alan Mutter, media consultant and lecturer at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “And the fact is it can’t be stopped.”
Social media has its problems, but when it comes to shared trauma, the social part might actually be the best part. “We’re all going to the same funeral now,” Hancock says. And that’s the most powerful way to mourn: together.