Do selfies erode our humanity?

Maxwell Morton

Story highlights

  • Maxwell Morton allegedly killed a teenager and posted a selfie with the victim on Snapchat
  • Sally Kohn: Is a selfie culture in any way responsible for senseless actions?

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Last week, 16-year-old Maxwell Morton was arrested and charged with murder after he posed for a selfie with the body of a teenager he had just allegedly shot and then uploaded the picture to Snapchat. A friend of Morton showed a screen grab of the picture to his mom, who then called police.

Of course, it's absurd to suggest a selfie was in any way an incentive or motive for the murder, just as it's absurd to suggest that social media causes criminal behavior. People have been killing each other since the days of stone tablets.
But is social media, which allows for limitless self-absorption, exacerbating hatred and violence when mixed with seeming anonymity? Or is social media simply allowing us to be more open about what we do—and in some cases, allow crimes to be easily discovered and reported? In other words, does a "selfie culture" show us as we've always been or is it turning us into something worse?
    Last year, there were several instances in which sexual assaults were documented on social media by the alleged perpetrators. In July 2014, a 16-year-old Texas girl named Jada went to a party where she was allegedly drugged and raped. Jada doesn't remember what happened. What she does know is that picture of her naked and bent body was shared all over the Internet and then mimicked in what became a perverse "meme," in which others posted pictures of themselves in the same pose.
    In an eerily similar story, police say a 26-year-old North Carolina woman had no idea she was sexually assaulted during a party in September until pictures of her assault were later posted on social media. In November, several high school students in New Mexico allegedly sexually assaulted a young girl and posted pictures of their crime on social media.
    In the New Mexico incident, people reposted the pictures to hold the Albuquerque police and school district accountable for their failure to take action against the alleged assailants. In the Texas incident, Jada spoke out about being victimized, not only by her assailants but also by those on social media—and this helped spark awareness and outrage about rape culture in America.
    Social media is also used by victims to tell their stories. A woman in Florida used social media to post a picture of her bruised arm, alleging her Florida State University football player boyfriend had battered her—leading to a police investigation. A woman in England posted a picture of her own battered face after a man had allegedly attacked her in a nightclub. The 29-year-old woman, Jeanne Marie Ryan, wanted to raise awareness about domestic violence and raise £100 for a women's shelter. She reportedly ended up raising £12,000—or over $18,000.
    There's no evidence that incidents of rape and sexual assault are increasing because of social media. It could be that the opposite is true.
    But, social media seems to have increased incivility or hate speech in our society by making us more aware of its prevalence. People who were once shouting sexist and racist epithets from the windowless basements of their parents' homes now have Internet connections and can share those epithets on Twitter and beyond. The assault on civility, just like the assault on women's bodies, is nothing new. The new part is that even the loneliest of people now have the tools to broadcast their assaults far and wide.
    One can't help but feel the simultaneous accessibility and anonymity of social media makes it easier to be less caring. Studies show Millennials feel that technology is dehumanizing. Posting the picture of an assault victim online, or a hateful tweet about someone, certainly is a dehumanizing act.
    Would the thousands who posted photos as part of the hideous #JadaPose meme have literally assaulted the 16-year-old girl if given the opportunity? I hope not. Did they even think their mocking photos were contributing to justify Jada's assault and re-victimizing her? Doesn't appear so. They probably weren't thinking much about Jada at all. She'd been reduced to a "meme"—an idea, a representation of a concept—not a person.
    We take more selfies than ever before, and yet we seem to be less self-aware. Social media allows the narcissism in all of us to come out. Some people take it to the extreme by posting assaults of violent acts. One has to wonder how much this public platform has eroded our humanity.