Something Traumatic Just Happened To Me: The Commodification of Trauma in Current Media

You see trauma all the time: turn on the news and they’re talking about the most recent war or mass casualty event. You open up your Tik Tok app and instead of seeing funny videos, the first thing that pops up is a video of someone crying, explaining that they are suffering in some way. Open up Twitter, and there are a multitude of tweets explaining the newest political scandal, or reason to boycott a company. It surrounds us on every platform, and it seems impossible to escape. Though there have always been traumatic events happening around the world, people have never been able to access them on such a large scale. Most people have a phone, or a TV, or some access to news sites. You can easily know what’s happening on the other side of the world incredibly quickly (Eriksson 2016). Because of this, I believe that more people are suffering from mental health effects. The more traumatic news someone sees, the more I think that they suffer emotionally. I also believe that traumatic events being used to sell news commodifies this trauma. The commodification of trauma is abundant because trauma sells newspapers and brings clicks to websites(Bowers 2012). So they are more likely to show traumatic stories, which in turn then makes people more mentally distressed and unwell. My social phenomenon is trauma in the media becoming a commodity. Some people are numbed by it, but many people end up getting secondary trauma through the amount of it that is shown to them. Traumatic news consumption has an effect on an individual’s mental health.

The other concept I will be exploring in this paper is the idea of the commodification of trauma. Commodification is defined as the act of turning something into a commodity. A commodity being “something useful or valuable” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2022). In the capitalist world that we are currently in, everything has become commodified. We are separated from our labor, and everything costs us money. This idea was brought up by Marx, in his views on commodity fetishism (Felluga 2011).

So it would make sense that trauma, a raw and terrible thing, would end up being commodified as well. With trauma becoming a commodity, even though it causes major effects to people even when they aren’t the one actually experiencing it, does that change how we see ourselves and the world? If traumatic events get co-opted into commodified moments used to further political and social narratives, does it cause major societal problems? This paper does a case study of the topic, specifically using Tik Tok hashtags and media websites.

The Academic Perspective
The trauma that people face is commodified in the news, and this can cause mental health effects to individuals. Evidence points to therapists getting second hand trauma by hearing their clients’ pain. When children are traumatized in cases of physical or sexual violence, their trauma is then commodified in the news (DiBennardo 2018).

Therapists and social workers end up with mental and physical effects from hearing the trauma of their clients. They end up with nightmares, and feeling compassion fatigue from being inundated with trauma (Jirek 2015). The effects of secondary trauma are similar to the effects of a trauma victim. The social workers experienced sleep disorders, nausea, fear, anger, and an increased need for social support (Jirek 2015:2). As well as feeling the pains of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue, the social workers and therapists interviewed had a different view of the world than they did before they started working at the domestic violence shelter. Their view on human goodness had changed (Jirek 2015:2). Secondary trauma is also called “vicarious trauma” (Pearlman & Mac Ian 1995). Those who work with survivors of combat trauma were more likely to have symptoms, as well. In addition, therapists and social workers that have a history of past trauma are more likely to feel the effects of secondary trauma than those without (Pearlman & Mac Ian 1995). Secondary trauma is caused by being exposed to the pain of others,(Dwórznik & Garvey 2019). What people consider trauma can be different. In a study conducted on patients with HIV, some of them considered having the illness as a trauma. But some of them did not see it that way (Mujumdar, Pierson, Briceno et al 2020).

Trauma is also commodified by the media in order to attract attention. The media uses horrible crimes as entertainment, and as a way to create moral panic (DiBennardo 2018). ThEre is an over emphasis by the media when it comes to crimes committed against children. Crimes committed against children are more likely to be viewed tragically than a crime committed against an adult woman (DiBennardo 2018). The media will mourn those lost to a traumatic event, and then twist the narrative in order to fit into a political or social issue. For example, after 9/11, the victims of the attacks were used by the media as a way to further the patriotic feelings in the United States, and to justify going to war (Simko 2012). In speeches done on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, politicians in different areas of the country used the tragedy as a way to further their narrative (Simko 2012).
The “true crime” genre is another way that people will commodify trauma for entertainment. Journalists contribute to true crime by reporting on the crimes that happen, and turning them into sensational events. But, people as well will share their stories of horror. Living with a psycho killer ex boyfriend, or surviving a cult, for example (Williams 2020). The victims of the crimes are not asked if they want to participate in their commodification. Some of them are against the idea entirely (Williams 2020).
Journalists help further traumatic narratives when they choose which stories they deem newsworthy. Trauma is a mainstay in journalism, and emotion is what appeals to readers (Bowers 2012:190). Showing these emotions, both good and bad, in the news creates excitement and entertainment for people. Though emotion is the best way to connect with others, journalists might find being emotional to be too biased, and not objective enough (Bowers 2012) The media loves to hear stories of trauma, and it loves to focus on the one committing the traumatic crime (Bowers 2012). Specifically, confessions by the perpetrators of crime creates an excitement to the viewers of traumatic content (Arav & Gurevitz 2014). The story of the victim gets exploited (Bowers 2012), and the perpetrator becomes humanized (Arav & Gurevitz 2014).
Through being viewed from an entertainment and shock value lens, media then commodifies trauma. The stories of trauma are exploited for consumption (Bowers 2012). Traumatic content, such as the stories of those who have been abused in human trafficking, is used to lead people to action (Heynen & Van de Meulen 2021). Protecting the traumatized is then turned into a way to sell products, and promote a brand (Heynen & Van de Meulen 2021). By being against human trafficking, as well, the celebrity or brand involved is able to appear charitable while also being able to ignore the exploitation and trauma of those who are making the products they sell (Heynen & Van de Meulen 2021).

Since journalists have the ability to choose what gets shown to the public or not, they should feel a responsibility to trauma sensitivity. Journalists are exposed to traumatic events constantly (Dworznik & Garvey 2019). But in journalism school there is not an emphasis on teaching journalists how to deal with their own secondary trauma, as well as how to not retraumatize a victim when interviewing them (Dworznik & Garvey 2019). Victims of traumatic events can easily be retraumatized when interviewed (Godbold 2019). In order to avoid this, journalists must have on-going consent, as well as offering breaks for the interviewee and comprehend how trauma affects individuals (Godbold 2019).

Traumatic content can be easily obtained through the internet and social media websites. Twitter is a website that is full of content from people all over the world. It is easy for a traumatic event to be spread around the world in a short amount of time because of this. Trauma management can now be done over the internet (Eriksson 2016). People are able to come together and share their disbelief and anger over a tragedy on Twitter (Eriksson 2016). But these traumatic events don’t last long on Twitter. The discourse can disappear after a couple of days (Eriksson 2016). Though people’s trauma becomes front page news, it doesn’t seem to last in people’s minds for too long. Twitter is also a website where people are able to create their own personal brand (Marwick & Boyd 2010). People use Twitter in order to be political, and there are many politicians and political activists on the website. People also view Twitter as their form of news (Marwick & Boyd 2010). Thus, what happens on the website is very important to how people consume media.

Into the Thick Of It
To understand the phenomenon of commodified trauma, I went to the internet in search of examples. The internet is a good place to find anything related to current events and traumatic events, as everything in the modern era can be found on websites and applications. (Eriksson 2016). I conducted an ethnographic observation by scrolling through different hashtags on the video sharing application Tik Tok. According to the Washington Post, the majority of Gen Z is getting their news from Tik Tok (Lorenz 2022).

Since it’s so big, there are several different “sides” to Tik Tok. If you’re on one side, it’s odd to see any videos of a different side. So if you only watch and like videos by liberal knitters, you’re never going to end up seeing videos by a conservative gun lover. This is great if you’re not looking to see opposing opinions. But having these sides means that this might be the only content you want to see. When it comes to trauma and what Tik Tokers call “Traumatok” that means constantly consuming content about your own, and other individuals’ trauma.

While doing my case study, the war in Ukraine had just commenced, and there were multiple videos dedicated to people worrying about the possible outcomes. There is always a collective trauma event happening somewhere in the world, but the start of a war happened right as I was ready to conduct my observation. The war in Ukraine, started on the 25th of February 2022 (Lorenz 2022). On the internet, such as Twitter, there were the hashtags that were serious; such as politicians crafting Tweets condemning the actions of Russia. But there were also trending hashtags such as #WorldWar3 is full of people creating memes about being drafted, and saying things like, “we’re all going to die!”. The White House even briefed Tik Tok stars on how to address the war, as so many people get their breaking news on the site (Lorenz 2022).
Tik Tok is a goldmine of information about anything you want. There are billions of videos, and millions of accounts on the site, all vying for your attention. After joining the site, users don’t have to post anything if they don’t want to. They can lurk, watching any video they like on a public account. There are all sorts of people on Tik Tok, from accounts about plants, accounts about poetry, accounts about travel, and many different celebrities. It’s the home to many influencers, and huge stars have come from the app.

I used mainly in-vivo coding and initial-focused coding when looking at the videos on TraumaTok. I took many screenshots of the comments that appeared on videos. Screenshots of the videos themselves were also taken. When going through the app, I took lots of memos to be able to record how I was feeling and what I was observing.

“I Would Definitely Classify This As A Cowabummer”
Traumatok has billions of videos. The very first video that I stumbled upon was of a girl making a joke about how her boyfriend ended up killing himself. But it was a dark humor joke, and clearly her way of coping with it. The next few videos had similar ideas. People were joking about their trauma, and the people in the comments were agreeing, and laughing along with the original poster. None of this seemed out of malice, either. It was just that they were so numb to the traumatic things they had sustained, that they were able to talk about it casually. Traumatok also has many therapists and psychologists posting with the hashtag. They’ll come up with a one minute video explaining some form of trauma, and even have “Put A Finger Down” videos to see how traumatized someone is. “Put A Finger Down” is a trend where the audio will describe different things, and if you’ve experienced it, you put your finger down. At the end, the person with the most fingers down wins (or in this case, is the most traumatized). These Tik Tok therapists will also try to explain why traumatized people do the things they do. If these therapists are actually licensed, or giving good advice is uncertain. Even if they were completely frauds, most people would still believe them. Comments on their videos seem to agree with being traumatized.

When it comes to news and trauma, there was one account I found that fit perfectly into the phenomenon that is being discussed. It’s called “Good Morning Bad News” and is a Tik Tok account with over a million followers, and over 23 million likes. This account is actually run by a Ukrainian born journalist, which makes the news they shared about Ukraine feel a lot more personal (Lorenz 2022). The whole point of the account is to first thing in the morning say the bad things that are happening in the world. The videos are well made, with good graphics and colors that will intrigue people. There are memes interlaced within the images, and it’s very clear that this Tik Tok account is trying to appeal to Gen Z. It’s working, as the commenters seemed to use gen z slang and thoughts. Gen Z seems to be a generation full of ennui, and many of them seem to have given up. On a video about Russia invading Ukraine, many commenters joked about this being their “first war, kinda nervous” and “I would definitely classify this as a cowabummer.” One of the comments that stuck out to me was “I am tired of all these once in a lifetime events.” This is a sentiment that a lot of people could probably agree with, as I’ve heard it a lot.

Trauma Sells
The commodification of trauma is a true issue. The wording of “commodification of trauma” is also not a singular idea. When searching it up on google, one can find many journal articles that use those words. Including one of the articles used for this paper, “Why I stopped selling my pain: On the commodification of trauma” by Isabel Abbott.There are many traumatizing events that have happened within the last few years that have led to articles speaking on trauma and commodification. One example being the revival of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020, having been re-ignited because of the traumatic death of George Floyd. The video of George Floyd being slowly killed by a police officer was widely shared, and was traumatic for the people watching it. Black children ended up seeing the video on the news, and feeling traumatized because of the harrowing footage (Ajasa 2021). His death was exploited by the media, and even politically. Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for giving his life to the movement of Black Lives Matter (Malbrough 2021). The expectation for Black individuals is that they must be ready to share this trauma, in order please white people in their circles, and also so that they can receive grant money (Malbrough 2021). People also will share these horrible videos in the name of raising awareness to the issue (Abbott 2021). But in the end, it just continues the pain of the victim. Their trauma is commodified for likes and views.

When war breaks out, there is a new wave of traumatic tv coverage of what is going on. The soldiers who die are mourned, but their death becomes a national tragedy that furthers the narratives of both sides. The one who suffers is the family of the dead, who feel that their loved one’s death is sensationalized and exploited (White 2009). But this sensationalization and selling of trauma does not make the victim feel more loved or understood. As Isabel Abbott said about her own trauma selling, “Your humanity must be proven through offering your suffering for public consumption, and in doing so you are dehumanized” ( Abbott 2021, paragraph 7).

Is It Ok That I Am Entertained?
As well as being traumatized by the 24 hour local news and breaking news, people can be traumatized by what they see in popular culture. There is an immense amount of television shows, movies, books, and video games that use traumatic storylines. There is a large amount of sexual assault that occurs in TV shows. The scenes are there to titillate the viewer, and the focus is not on the victim (Samson 2017). These types of scenes also cause shock, which can lead to more people watching it. Trauma might be commodified, but it’s not taken seriously. Musicians have been accused of glorifying their trauma, and having it be a part of their brand. Singer Lana Del Rey was heavily criticized at the beginning of her career for using a traumatic backstory of physical abuse and drug use in order to push a narrative for her music (Savage 2020). Reality TV star Kim Kardashian exploited the trauma of her robbery in 2016 by making one of her show’s episodes based on the event. The episode was released months after the event, and was the first time the reality star talked publicly about her traumatic robbery (Espinoza 2017). People wanted to know what happened before then, but the star had to keep the public intrigue alive in order to get a high rating on the show.

Politically, current United States president Joe Biden includes his traumatic backstory as a selling point in his relatability. On his campaign website, a timeline of his life has the subheading of “victory turns to tragedy” when referring to the car crash that killed his wife and child. Once again on the website, the loss of his son is mentioned as “The Biden Family Loses a Hero” to get the sympathy of the populace (Joe Biden For President 2020).

True Crime is a growing genre, with podcasts and television shows based on the topic popping up all the time. True Crime takes the true stories of people’s deaths and turns them into consumable products, effectively commodifying the trauma of others. When asked why people enjoy true crime so much, their answers vary from fascination with tragedy to solving crimes. Sensationalism, morbid curiosity, and wanting to know the dangers that exist in the world are mentioned on a reddit post about the topic (u/mindfulminx 2021). But in the same post, people also mentioned hesitation with liking true crime as much as they did. There was a genuine concern about whether enjoying true crime was insensitive to the victims. True crime is entertaining, but it might not be morally good seemed to be the consensus (u/mindfulminx 2021).

As DiBennardo and Williams said, there is a sensationalism to the crimes committed against children. Comedian John Mulaney even joked about the news’ sensationalization in his comedy show “New Kid In Town.” In the show, Mulaney jokes: “The number one thing that you can be in the eyes of the New York Post is an angel. An angel is a child who has died. That is the best thing that you can be in the eyes of the New York Post. The less amount of time you live, the better… in the eyes of the Post.” (Mulaney 2012, track 9). The murder of children is seen as a horrible, gruesome thing, and at the same time is seen by the media as a fascinating scandal. TV shows about the event get created without the consent of the victims’ families (Williams 2020: 323).

Everything is a Commodity
The United States is a capitalist country that runs on consumerism. Everything is about making money, and selling products (Margrain 2020). Impossible to escape, people have leaned into and accepted that they must commodify whatever they can in order to survive. Karl Marx’s ideas on commodification and commodity fetishism can help explain this phenomenon. Commodity fetishism to Marx is how everything can become a commodity with value if people decide to place value on it (Felluga 2011).
This commodification shows up in places like Tik Tok, where the people suffering decide to turn their pain into something they can promote and profit from. Fake therapists create accounts that tell users different generalized tips about anxieties and trauma. They use the trending sounds in order to attract attention, and have a good amount of comments agreeing with them (Palus 2021). “Traumatok” commodifies and commercializes traumatic experiences. Users start to “trauma dump” in the comments, and there are countless light hearted trends that are based on sharing your trauma with others. These trends are done by bigger creators, and the likes, views and comments add up to a monetary value because of this (Colombo 2021).

Conclusion and Discussion
Traumatic media can be found everywhere, and it is increasingly being commodified. From victims of war and terrorist attacks, to celebrities sensationalizing their trauma, it isn’t hard to find some form of traumatic content being explored. The most important things that I found in this study was that people are very well aware of their trauma. They are also increasingly aware that their trauma is a commodity in which they can profit from. While laughing along with others over their dark humor, people are able to find a sense of community, and feel that they are being heard by others. Since everything is a commodity, people seem to be realizing that the negative events of their lives can also be turned into something profitable.
Further research on this topic would include more interviews, asking people if they think that using their trauma in order to profit is right or wrong. Further study also would involve studies on true crime, war stories, and consumable media’s role in the proliferation of trauma. Nonetheless, these findings show that there is a wealth of information on traumatic media and people’s view of society through it. While people are being traumatized, they seem to be able to find humor and success through the bad parts of it. This ends the study with a slightly positive outlook, as people are able to survive and thrive even after their trauma.

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Megan Virginie Stephenson

Megan Virginie Stephenson

Lover of people, pop culture, and sociology.