The Story You DON'T Want To Read
January 23, 2002, American journalist Daniel Pearl was travelling to an interview in the city of Karachi when he was abducted by a group of Pakistani terrorists. His captors believed he was a spy working for the US government, and called for the Bush administration to release all terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay. “We give you one more day,” they wrote in an email sent to news organisations. “If America will not meet our demands we will kill Daniel.” Back in the US, Pearl’s wife and his editor at The Wall Street Journal both pleaded for his release, and president George Bush met with Pakistan’s then leader Pervez Musharraf. A month later, Pearl’s captors released a video of his beheading. Thirty-three-year-old Dawn lives in Pennsylvania, United States. She saw reports of the journalist’s killing and found herself thinking about it afterwards. The brutality of it bothered her. This was before the rise of ISIS, whose atrocities are now a routine feature of news reports around the world. At the time, abductions and beheadings were almost unheard of – especially those targeting Americans. She found it hard to believe someone could do that to another person, in this day and age. But part of her also wondered what something like that would look like. The footage of Pearl’s final moments runs for three minutes and 36 seconds and is entitled The Slaughter of the Spy-journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl. It shows him discussing his Jewish heritage and sympathising, under duress, with Pakistani detainees held at Guantanamo. It also shows his murder. Several years after the video was leaked online, Dawn’s curiosity got the better of her, and she decided to track it down. “Finally,” she says, “I got up the nerve to look.”
People have been drawn to the macabre for centuries. From spectators cheering gladiatorial contests at the Roman Colosseum to public hangings in medieval Britain or criminals facing the guillotine in revolutionary France. The last public execution in America took place in Kentucky in 1936, and drew an estimated crowd of 20,000 onlookers. The fascination with death is not new. But, at least in Western cultures, the topic has gradually become a taboo. With developments in medical science over the past century, death began to be seen less as a natural stage in the life cycle and more as a problem to solve. Something to fear. Such is the reluctance Australians have for discussing death, the Australian Medical Association recently suggested it’s preventing people from adequately preparing for the final years of life, including the planning of end-of-life medical care or funeral arrangements. We rarely talk about death, much less witness it. While death has drifted from view in polite society, our fascination with it has migrated to the place where so many cultural taboos flourish – online. In the mid-’90s, several websites began to attract an audience of those who sought out the macabre, the most prominent of which was the now-dormant rotten.com. Billing itself as “an archive of disturbing illustration”, it featured mainly grim photos of crime scenes, autopsies and other morbid materials. But back then bandwidth was slow and anything too graphic was hard to access, especially videos. In the past decade, that changed. In April 2008, Slovak Mark Marek launched Best Gore. Based in Canada, the website hosts the kind of imagery and videos that most people would be unaware even existed online – uncensored terrorist executions, grisly crime scenes, traffic accidents and beheadings. In the years since it was founded, it’s quickly built an audience. “I don’t collect stats, but the site is more popular than it’s ever been,” Marek tells GQ. “I’ve never spent a single penny on advertising, nor otherwise driven internet surfers to our pages. Best Gore has grown, and continues to grow, entirely and exclusively through word of mouth.” He estimates it currently attracts upwards of five million visitors a month. Far from a celebration of gratuitous violence, the 42-year-old insists Best Gore, which calls itself a ‘reality news website’, offers a public service allowing people to see the world as it really is. Many users speak of visiting the site to get an unfiltered view of the world. “If I read an article on a popular news website, I will find a post about the same event on Best Gore with more accurate information that is not being bias [sic] towards certain political views,” one user explained, over email. Some of this information includes articles on what Marek calls the “Holocaust racket”, and which often cite authors David Irving and Ursula Haverbeck – both of whom have been convicted of offences relating to Holocaust denial. He also refers to Holocaust survivors as “pathological liars”. But Marek sees himself operating in a similar vein to Wikileaks, whose slogan is ‘We open governments’, and claims several instances where users have exposed misinformation that went unchallenged in the mainstream media – a domestic gas explosion that some suggested was the aftermath of an air raid by Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria; an earthquake in Tibet that was passed off as evidence of Russian atrocities in Eastern Ukraine. “Best Gore destroys conspiracy theories and fake news with evidence the public can see with their own eyes,” he says, adopting President Trump’s favoured pejorative for the mainstream media. “I’m interested in reality. I wish to understand the world the way it really is – raw and uncensored. Not filtered through a rose-coloured lens.” Besides showing the world’s true colours, Marek says he’s helping people avoid real-life tragedies. “Best Gore saves lives,” he states. “It prevents accidents, makes people more responsible, less reckless and more aware. There is zero doubt about that.” Research shows an estimated 70 per cent of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, either directly or indirectly, which essentially means witnessing a death, threatened death, serious injury or sexual assault; or learning that a close friend or relative was exposed to it themselves. If Marek is right, he could be helping a lot of people. “By posting the videos and photos that we do, we help desensitise people to gore, so when a real-life event involving gore happens in their lives, they won’t faint, they won’t freak out, they won’t throw up, they won’t make it worse,” says Marek. “They will remain collected, much as a doctor is when he performs a gory surgery.” Marek also disputes suggestions that by hosting hostage executions, the website offers terrorists a platform for their atrocities. “Do you think ISIS, after setting up the scenes, executing the captives, then spending days in post-production, would change their mind about publishing the videos on the internet if Best Gore was shut down?” he asks.
“Do you think they would just cut their losses and keep the videos to themselves? Of course not.” Instead, he says, Best Gore prevents them from seeking out other avenues to publicise their acts. Despite the traffic the site receives, Marek insists profit was never his motivation. Attracting advertisers to a site like Best Gore is, as you might imagine, not easy. And though the website recently gained an income stream through banners promoting external porn sites, Marek insists it costs more to run Best Gore than it generates in revenue. “No company with a reasonable budget would want to advertise on a website that exposes police brutality, government abuse of citizens, war profiteering and similar anti-people activities. So all I’m left with is porn. Worse yet, porn earns less today than it did five years ago.” Today, Best Gore is just one of a handful of so-called ‘shock sites’ that feature graphic content along similar lines. One, Rigoremortis, was launched last August by a group of former Best Gore members who were dissatisfied with Marek’s handling of the site, and who dispute his claims about its profitability. (“We’re not making money,” one of Rigoremortis’ moderators tells GQ. “We pay out of our own pocket to keep the site up.”) Another, Live Leak, grew to prominence after a number of controversies. They include the publication of a video of Saddam Hussein’s execution; an antiIslam short film by divisive Dutch politician Geert Wilders; and footage of American journalist James Foley’s execution, which led to warnings from British police that sharing or even viewing the video may be a terrorism offense in itself. Together, these sites draw a large global following. Live Leak, for instance, is more popular than the homepage for US GQ.
to presume what kind of people might want to visit sites like Best Gore. But among the dozens of members we spoke to, it was hard to find a common thread. They are men and women, mothers and fathers, people of all ages. Some are drawn to the site for a particular kind of content – footage of war zones, say – while others find themselves consuming videos of all descriptions. There are visitors who keep their viewing habits to themselves, while others share it with friends or family. They also come from all corners of the world, including Australia. The most popular videos on Best Gore tend to be those produced by Mexican drug cartels, which are often the most extravagant in their violence, and terrorist groups like ISIS, which are appreciated for their high production values. Most members, including Marek, cannot bear to watch animal cruelty. Dawn can’t remember how many beheadings she has seen since the Daniel Pearl video. Hundreds, maybe. But the Pearl footage always stuck in her mind, even though parts were missing. His captors made a mistake during the recording and were forced to ‘recreate’ scenes. “I remember thinking it was much worse than I expected,” she says. “I imagined a swift sword to the neck, like in movies where a king might have someone beheaded. But I felt sick to my stomach.” After watching it, Dawn took a shower. “Now I visit every day,” she says. “For me, it was a gradual build up. I was not desensitised at all before, but nothing really shocks me anymore, and I don’t take it with me. As soon as I shut my computer, I can go to bed.” Dawn thinks she’s probably watched every available ISIS video, but they don’t bother her so much. They’re so well produced, they look like Hollywood movies – the blood almost unreal. She sometimes wonders what the people in the videos are thinking. The executioners and how they could do that to someone. The victims and how they react. How some remain stoic, while others cry. She hopes that if it happened to her, she wouldn’t give her captors that satisfaction. “A lot of people talk about [visiting Best Gore] because it’s reality,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s reality. I’m not on guard all the time. We’re seeing the worst of the world, but I don’t think the world is so bad.” Chris is 28 and lives in South Australia. He saw his first gory video in high school, when a friend showed him some grainy footage on an old flip phone. He would have been about 16 years old. But it wasn’t until more recently that he became a regular Best Gore visitor and now goes there at least once a day. “There’s a bunch of [shock sites] now – but I would say Best Gore is at the forefront of getting the material first and posting it,” he says, adding that gore is not simply more abundant now, it’s also becoming more extreme. “A lot of that stems from less-developed countries having access to social media and [smart] phones, places like Brazil and Thailand. It’s definitely been ramped up a notch.” He says some people visit to push the limits of what they can handle, while others get a ‘rush’ from seeing people being harmed or even killed. But most, he offers, are just curious to see what death actually looks like. “People think if someone watches it, they must be a bit of a freak,” says Chris. “But for me, it’s just another news outlet. I like my content to be raw and uncensored. Some people find that very confronting, but bad shit happens in the world. I feel like I respect life a lot more, now that I’ve seen how violent death can be.” Grant, 46, grew up in country NSW. Like Chris, he visits Best Gore every day. “I usually check it in the morning, before work. Then maybe at lunchtime and then at night – at least a couple of times a day, for sure.” He’s been frequenting the website for around two years and now finds he’s no longer bothered by much of what he watches. “Generally, I haven’t seen anything on there that has made me turn away. I wouldn’t say these things haunt me or give me vivid nightmares. Whether I’m desensitising myself over time, I’m not sure,” he says. “But now I’ll open the ipad and I’ll find myself eating lunch, watching something that would turn most people’s stomachs.” He believes exposing himself to this content has made him prepared for situations most people might find difficult to process. “I’ve always been pretty good in emergency
situations – I’ve had a few of those incidents and I always seem to be able to handle them pretty responsibly. So I don’t know whether in the long run my desensitisation would make me less inclined to freak out.” Grant says the site also provides a window into places he might otherwise never see. “I’m from a small country town and I haven’t travelled to any Third World countries,” he explains. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but looking at what other cultures are like makes me appreciate my life a hell of a lot more.” Jen is a 49-year-old single mother from Oregon. Two and a half years ago, she was leaving the doctor’s and was hit by a car and nearly died. She says viewing videos on Best Gore took her mind away from the trauma of her experience and made it feel less real. “Every sound I’d hear or every smell would remind me of the accident,” she says. “It has sort of allowed me to relive the accident in a safer way than in my nightmares.” Jen has been visiting Best Gore for around six months and mainly watches ‘dash cam’ footage of accidents, filmed from inside cars. Some things she finds difficult to watch – especially anything involving brutality – but she says the site has opened her mind to understanding the way other people live. “It helps me through the accident, but it’s also showing me a different side of people. We’re so closed-minded in our own countries, but we’re all human beings trying to be happy and survive,” she says. “I’ve changed in a much more positive way. I’m more aware of people, accidents – especially cars – and I’m more patient in general. You see some of these images of people splattered or torn up and you just think we’re so fragile. We’re all just little ants that mean nothing in the big picture.” there is little hard evidence about what draws people to watch extreme violence. But if there’s a pattern to the viewing habits of the people we spoke to, it’s that they follow a natural progression. Some will seek out information on a particular incident after seeing reports on the news, while others will be shown graphic footage by friends, or click on a link to something they weren’t quite sure of. The first video is always the hardest to watch. Then days or even years will go by before they can bring themselves to watch another. Eventually drawn back, their tolerance is now increased. From there, often people find themselves unwilling to stop. Some find themselves unable to do so. Many of the people we spoke to talked of being ‘addicted’ to the videos. Professor Kim Felmingham is chair of clinical psychology at The University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences, and specialises in fields of trauma and PTSD. She says those who view graphic violence may fit a psychological pattern. “Some people get an arousal response to watching violence, and if that continues over time it may actually be engendering a desensitisation, where it almost becomes normalised – the goalposts shift about what becomes shocking,” says Professor Felmingham. “With that reduced arousal, they seek out further violence to get that arousal response. It’s a classic model of addiction. “If you’re talking about people seeking out very extreme violence on websites, you’re venturing into the territory of antisocial types of personality,” she adds. “They have lower levels of arousal and they are also more impulsive and sensation seeking. Seeking out stronger stimuli is a compensation for that blunted emotional response.” Best Gore visitors speak of an adrenaline rush or of feeling ‘numb’ after watching videos. And while some expressed concern about the psychological impact of their viewing habits, many wear their desensitisation as a badge of honour, insisting that viewing these atrocities has been beneficial – not only in coping with situations where they were exposed to trauma themselves, but in their broader outlook on life. They felt a greater appreciation of being alive and the privileges they enjoyed. “I absolutely regret watching these videos, but it’s something of an addiction now,” says 32-year-old Robert from Texas, who has been visiting Best Gore for five years. He recently took a break from the site for several months, but lapsed back into the habit after reports of ISIS activities again piqued his interest. “Part
of me watches these things out of guilt. How could I have such an easy life, while others know nothing but pain and misery? What makes me better than people in war-torn countries or Third World slums who have to see this shit on a daily basis? Nothing.” The mere presence of sites like Best Gore raises a number of questions. Most notably: how is this legal? The internet has created a range of statutory issues that are yet to be fully resolved. Most traditional media, including newspapers and television broadcasters, are bound by internal sets of guidelines addressing things such as violence or racism. Beyond specific cases – coverage of children in crime, or issues relating to contempt of court – the actual legal framework for gratuitous violence is limited. “We have codes of conduct, if you’re talking about violence in television news and current affairs,” says Professor David Rolph, a media law specialist at The University of Sydney. “But if you set up a blog and had gratuitously violent imagery, then there aren’t really press restraints that can operate on you. The short answer is there aren’t terribly many restrictions, other than good taste.” Besides, websites based overseas are virtually immune to national regulations, even if Australians are the ones viewing that material. “As a general proposition, if someone outside Australia uploads material to a website that is accessible in Australia, then our regulators and courts have very limited jurisdiction – usually no jurisdiction – over them,” adds Professor Rolph. Some might assume sites such as Best Gore are tucked away in a hidden corner of the so-called ‘dark web’, far removed from the unsuspecting general public. But they’re not hidden at all. Even a cursory look through the right search terms will return thousands of relevant results. In wondering why most people are unaware these sites exist, the simplest answer may be that not many people want to find them, and so they don’t. Just as the average person browsing the morning headlines probably won’t inadvertently land on a website streaming hardcore pornography. But with a few considered keystrokes, it’s not hard to understand how they could find themselves on such a page. Marek argues that not only are unsuspecting people unlikely to find themselves on his website, but visitors also know what they’re getting. “Best Gore makes it clear on every page that it is a website intended for mature audiences, and warns users that the content within is graphic, shocking or otherwise sensitive in nature. The website’s URL alone suggests all one needs to know about the page,” says Marek. “The point I’m making is nobody ends up on Best Gore except by deliberate physical action of their own. And when they do, they will always be aware that should they proceed further, what they will see will be graphic.” But occasionally, this content escapes the confines of niche websites and slips through to the wider web, usually on social media. In fact, many of the videos they host – however fleetingly – actually start off this way, as cartels and terrorist groups regularly use social media platforms to promote their cruelty. They want to be seen and heard, after all. In 2015, the Federal Government founded a new internet watchdog, called the esafety Commissioner, mainly amid concerns around cyber bullying. Research into online violence is thin on the ground, but the body reveals that 17 per cent of Australian teenagers have reported being exposed to ‘inappropriate content’ online – an admittedly broad category that covers everything from violent imagery to coarse language. Still, the prospect of graphic violence appearing on your child’s social media feed presents a problem. Companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Youtube devote significant resources to identifying material that breaks their codes of conduct, and removing it. Both of these stages are jobs that require not some complicated computer algorithm, but actual people. A representative for Facebook asked not to reveal too much about their methods for removing inappropriate material – people often attempt to game the system – but essentially, users flag any content they think might be inappropriate, and then teams sort through this content to identify any ‘Community Standards’ breaches. “We have a community of 1.86 billion people that helps us enforce our standards,” a Facebook representative explained. “If someone shares something that is abusive, we want to hear about it and remove it, so we make it very easy for people to report content to us.” This operates as a triage system, whereby the most objectionable material is addressed most quickly – such as child pornography or images reported by government agencies – to ensure it has limited opportunity to be seen by as few eyes as possible. Facebook has teams all over the world that monitor content around the clock in more than 40 languages – these include experts in child safety, hate speech and counter-terrorism. “The vast majority of reports are reviewed within 24 hours,” says the Facebook representative. “Our global team reviews these reports rapidly and will remove the content if there is a violation. We take down content based on whether it violates our Community Standards, not based on how many times it’s reported.” May 29, 2012, a Chinese national called Justin Lin was reported missing. His friends hadn’t heard from him since he sent them a text message several days earlier, and their subsequent calls and texts went completely unanswered. The 33-year-old had moved to Canada the previous year with the hopes of making a new life for himself. He was studying engineering and computer science in Montreal, and had a job at a local convenience store, where his boss said he was reliable and never missed a shift. So when Lin failed to show up one day, his friends knew something must be wrong. The same day he was due to arrive at work, an 11-minute video was uploaded to Best Gore. It was simply titled 1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick. Roger Renville, an American lawyer, stumbled upon the video while browsing the web. Renville, who lives in Montana, decided to call the police in Toronto to report what he’d seen, but they either didn’t believe him or dismissed the footage as fake, and took no further action. Over the next three days, Renville again phoned police in Canada, as well as tip-lines for the police and FBI in America. Still nothing. He had seen gory videos on the internet before, but this one seemed different. The disturbing footage showed a man later identified as former porn star Luka Magnotta committing what appeared to be a grisly murder, but it was one that Renville hadn’t seen reported anywhere before. He wondered if the murderer might still be out there. The grim footage shows not only Lim’s murder, but also his mutilation and dismemberment. But by the time Toronto police identified Magnotta as Lim’s killer, he had fled Montreal for Paris and then Berlin, where he was arrested in an internet cafe, browsing news reports of his crimes. In 2013, the then 32-year-old was charged with first-degree murder and a range of related crimes, and was found guilty on all counts the following year.