Social media and connective technologies transformed all of us in potential witnesses of crimes and abuses, shocking confessions and chilling testimonies, viewers of images that come with the immediacy of a video streaming, testing our sense of integrity and exposing us to the horrible realities such as police killings and terrorist claims, ecology disasters or military actions. What are the moral and political consequences of these new forms of witnessing and participation?

According to Michal Givoni in Witnessing/Testimony: “No matter what it recounts and how it is performed, testimony is an event in which the responsibility of the witness – and only rarely his or hers alone – is at play. Testimony is a speech-act that brings moral and political subjects into being, sometimes almost in spite of themselves; it is one of the most prevalent devices available today for individuals to come to grips with moral obligations. Before it is a transmission of a message – of a story, of values, or of critique – testimony puts in motion a rather minimalist operational code that consists in drawing victims, perpetrators, and spectators or hearers into direct confrontation with political evil.”

A still from Lavish Reynolds' live video posted on Facebook, the moment when Philando Castile was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez on the 6th of July 2016.

A still from Lavish Reynolds' live video posted on Facebook, the moment when Philando Castile was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez on the 6th of July 2016.

Connective media become powerful tools in exposing the truth and claiming justice: facts otherwise ignored by mainstream media and public opinion become known, as has happened in the case of Lavish Reynolds and the daughter of Keith Lamont Scott, two black women who have filmed and broadcasted shocking instances of police brutality and racially informed aggression in the US. Their videos have received millions of views on Facebook; as the world witnessed the courage of these women and the cowardice of the police, growing anger called for on- and offline revolt, violently shaking the public opinion and inciting active participation.

A still from a body worn video camera which recorded the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a city police office, Brentley Vinson on the 20th of September 2016.

A still from a body worn video camera which recorded the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a city police office, Brentley Vinson on the 20th of September 2016.

As Michal Givoni further explains: testimony is the idiom in which the individual speaks back to the structures of power. Uploading videos to YouTube has become also the preferred action of many groups of social activists, giving birth to video activism. Testimony in the digital age gathers a greater power than before, extended to a major number of people, defined by no limit of space and by an extreme speed of dissemination. Witnesses don’t have to be physically present to the event they witness, for their role to be just as important. However, this complicates the already ambiguous relationship between the witness and the testimony. Is physical distance a problem for the digital witness of today, who relies on technologies to discover the truth? What are the evolving moral implications for these remote participants to acts of cruelty and violence?

This issue is fundamental, especially today when terrorist factions look for an audience to their crimes and violence. They use social media to validate their horrible acts and they try to turn witnesses into victims and, at the same time, instruments of terrorism, as fear and horror spread across limitless channels. Nevertheless, fear and panic are countered by a growing sense of power of a community that cannot be silenced, since social media presence in itself is a form of eradicating silence. Connective action and new modes of participation define the power struggles at the core of negotiating, witnessing, and documenting reality. The power of the witness as social and political agent rests today with the primacy of transparency, fact-based knowledge, and a growing interconnectedness between seeing injustice and acting against it.

Words: Veronica Mafolino

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu