There is a persistent belief in the power of media images to transform the events they depict. Yet despite the instant availability of billions of images of human suffering and death in the continuous and connective digital glare of social media, the catastrophes of contemporary wars, such as in Syria and Yemen, unfold relentlessly. There are repeated expressions of surprise by some in the West when the dissemination of images of suffering and wars, particularly in mainstream news media, does not translate into a de-escalation of conflict.
In this article I consider today's loosening of the often presumed relationship between media representation, knowledge and response under the conditions of “digital war”. This is the digital disruption of the relationship between warfare and society in which all sides participate in the uploading and sharing of information on, and images and videos of, conflict.
Is it the case that the capacity of images of human injury and death to bring about change, and the expectation that they would stir practical intervention in wars, is and has been exaggerated? Even if we are moved or shocked upon being confronted by such images, does this translate into some form of action, individual or otherwise? In this article I contend that the saturation of information and images of human suffering and death in contemporary warfare has not ushered in a new era of “compassion fatigue”. Rather, algorithmically charged outrage is a proxy for effects. It is easy to misconstrue the velocity of linking and liking and sharing as some kind of mass action or mass movement.
Humanitarian catastrophes slowly unfold in an age of continuous and connective digital glare, and yet they are unseen. If the imploded battlefield of digital war affording the most proximate and persistent view of human suffering and death in history cannot ultimately mobilize radically effective forms of public response, it is difficult to imagine what will.