Luca Cerabona


A war documented in detail through all its atrocities has been going on for years now in Syria. A truism about war is this: war is hell. I understand new things now. I understand why people who flee war-torn lands want to forget their past. I understand the hushed tones in which older people I knew who had survived war speak of it, almost wanting not to conjure its ghost.

There’s been a lot of discussion about “vicarious trauma” — trauma experienced by those who report on wars from afar. With the advent of social media, this group of traumatized people has grown to include many who care about the people trapped in these wars, or are reporting about it even from a distance. We all deal with it in our own way. Some turn off images and autoplay. Some choose not to log on at times. Looking at war pictures all day makes everything else feel small and unimportant, including one’s own trauma. The trauma is vicarious, but the feelings are real.

We now face an extra set of decisions: Do you share that picture, that video? Should I? During the past few years, I have stumbled into a role that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable for me, taking on the tasks of reporting, editing and curating traumatic moments of war if they originate from Turkey or sources within Turkey. Since I’m from Turkey, I see many things before many in my social network because I can directly follow news from Turkey. I’ve a social network that includes many journalists as well as ordinary people who are not in Turkey.

I am a person who acts as a bridge of sorts, certainly not the only one.

I have to decide: What should I share?

My calculations over each picture are harrowing. Is it too upsetting? I know some people will just turn it all off if they are overwhelmed. It’s understandable. I have the same urge everyday. Sometimes I log out as well.

This is not the first time I’ve dealt with either images or stories of massive loss or death. I’ve been in the aftermath of major natural disasters. I lived through the nineties in Turkey. My formative personal and intellectual experiences involve many encounters with past atrocities, and stories of victims and survivors.

Lately, I’m startled by a new response though. I’m bursting into tears at the sight of happy children. It comes out of nowhere. Just the sight of … happy, ordinary children in groups. I’ve been pondering this. I’m not depressed. (I’m not prone to “clinical” depression, and never have been as far as I know. I am well aware of depression’s tentacles as one of my best friends is a lifelong sufferer. This does not feel like that.)

It’s been puzzling. Why happy children?

I think I finally understand why.

I take pains not to share incorrect, false or fake images. That is the new front in censorship and denial of human rights abuses and even war crimes. Unable to block the flow of information, authoritarians, censors — and even war-mongering dictators like in Syria — have learned to flood the (social and mass) media ecology with bad information and use a mistake here and there (inevitable) to fuel disbelief about everything.

In the age of the Internet, censorship works best by attacking filters — often journalism, sometimes the academy, or now crowd-sourced and decentralized versions of reporting and story-telling — to claim that “everything is unreliable”.

Here’s one example: I watch every day as pro-government “journalists” in Turkey spend a lot of time finding errors in tweets of random government opponents, or other journalists who have not fully succumbed to the government. It used to puzzle me. Most of these examples weren’t that important. Meanwhile the atrocious situation in pro-government mass media, where the government is pressing on all cylinders to censor and pressure mass media into compliance and propaganda, continued full blaze. These “journalists” ignored it all and continued to nitpick on somewhat irrelevant errors, sometimes no matter how small the source, as long as it could be tied to opposition somehow.

Why pretend to care about integrity of facts when one obviously doesn’t? I pondered if this was just a form of “whataboutism.” But it’s more than that. The method is this: find an error, even if a relatively minor one in the overall scheme of things, and claim the whole medium is unreliable and that all of opposition claims are false.

The goal isn’t correcting errors, it’s finding excuses.

Pumping out bad information is a long-held tactic of those who would censor and suppress the truth. Now, with the flourishing channels of information, the maxim “bad speech can be countered with good speech” has been turned on its head. “Good speech” or facts are countered, and drowned, in a sea of bad speech along with a massive dose of claims of “hoax” or “photoshop.”

As long as one can find one instance of a hoax somewhere, that is then used to deny every inconvenient truth. Many ordinary people give up trying to discern facts from this apparent sea of fiction.

Similarly, many men and women spend their days arguing with me that certain pictures of refugees are hoaxes. They claim journalists are deliberately hiding the fact that there are few or no children among them. Often, I try to answer with facts and findings. I explain the situation as best I can. I find quotes about how Western countries refused to accept Jewish refugees — even kids — because of ugly, racist notions on how they would grow up to be “ugly adults.” And so on.

And that is how I end spending time methodically verifying date, place and manner of death of pictures of dead children. (No graphic descriptions ahead).

In this quest, I methodically do go through a whole host of very difficult pictures, looking for clues to date, place and time, and to try to triangulate from many sources. Last month, for example, in a discussion with Andy Carvin, I became aware that people thought Aylan Kurdi’s harrowing picture on a Turkish beach was fake, a staged hoax. I tracked down the full sequence of time-stamped images from the photographer of his brother (who also drowned) which were the basis of hoax claims, and sent them along to Andy.

I’ve known Andy for many years, and he has written about vicarious trauma as well: he has been reporting from social media for many years. Andy and I lived about 10 minutes apart before but I never met in the city we both lived in — we always end up seeing each other in conferences elsewhere. We almost met once, though: I reached out to him after he came across a picture of a neonatal unit in Syria that had been bombed just as he was tucking in his children to bed. He was terribly shaken, worse, I think, than the time someone online threatened his children. (That time, I offered to watch that person online myself, sparing him the difficulty of having to assess the credibility of a threat to his kids.)

It’s puzzling how these juxtapositions are what shake us so badly.

Last week, I came across a video of a refugee baby being rescued by Turkish fisherman. (“He’s alive! Alive!” They exclaimed and cried.). I researched it and shared it. Later, Robert Mackey — who writes the “open source” pieces at the New York Times — created a story out of it. He tweeted that I was the source. I didn’t feel better or worse, but it’s part of why I do what I do.

A day later, I was sitting out in a park in the nice fall weather, right next to another gaggle of happy children. I absentmindedly checked Twitter. I saw that New York Times tweeted out that video. I saw the retweets, the comments of relief that this child had been saved. Children’s laughter filled around me; they were playing a game of chase. At that juxtaposition of happy children and refugee children, once again, I had the familiar outburst of tears.

And then it dawned on me why I felt like crying.

The people who argue with me all day aren’t interested in whether this or that picture is real. And in my heart, I know this. The world can love and appreciate these children as long as they are the right color, their parents are the right religion, their passports are the correct ones. We are neither as poor or globally war-torn as during the last refugee crisis, World War II.

The whole fact-finding edifice is part of an excuse-making machinery about why we should not help those children.

Arguing over a source of a picture is often not important, really. Just like Turkey’s pro-government’s “journalists” spending their days finding random government opponents “to correct” isn’t about integrity in media.

Much of this is a shell game.

Many of us who will keep doing our best to verify, and to fight for the integrity of filters — as journalists, editors, academics and even as ordinary people who stumble upon facts and stories worth sharing— know this in our hearts.

We know facts matter, but there is also a deeper, ugly truth.

That’s why the sight of happy children has become so unnerving. The trauma may be vicarious, but the truth we remember is not about things far from us. The world is perfectly capable of caring about children. As long as they are correct ones.