Recent TikToks made by Ma'Khia Bryant, the teen girl fatally shot by police in Columbus, Ohio, last week, are being shared widely as people try to make sense of another police killing. The videos have immortalized Bryant, who was 16, as a normal girl doing Gen Z things.
Experts and psychologists told BuzzFeed News that while these social media footprints of people killed by police can help make meaning out of the collective trauma wrought by such violence, they also have the potential to be retraumatizing for some.
On Tuesday, April 20, the day Bryant died, a TikTok she had posted earlier in the year started going massively viral on TikTok and then on Twitter. She was shot by a police officer the same day the country was processing a guilty verdict against Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.
Bryant's video showed her sharing her haircare routine as a Bryson Tiller song plays in the background. The video was reportedly viewed over a million times that day.
Other TikToks she shared showed her dancing and trying out different looks and selfie filters.
Strangers said they were "gutted" to watch her mundane videos so soon after learning about her death.
"She looks so innocent and wonderful. This shit is really tearing up my heart," one user wrote. "She reminds me of my best friend growing up," another said.
The effect of being able to watch a young person's life played and replayed online immediately after learning about their death IRL is a new, discomforting paradigm for everyone. Social media experts and trauma psychologists say that this public outpouring of grief via posts can help humanize victims of police brutality.
"For strangers, these [TikToks] serve primarily to humanize her — to remind ourselves and others that a real person was killed, not someone who can be boiled down to a statistic or a line item in a police report. And not only a real person, but a child," said Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.
"Finding a sense of meaning or purpose can help people manage the impact of potentially traumatic events. To the extent that joining Ma'Khia's killing to the cause of anti-racism and police reform functions that way for people, it is potentially helpful on a psychological level."
These videos can also be, Poulin said, a "call to action" for others to engage in anti-racism discourse.
Munmun De Choudhury, an associate professor at Georgia Tech who's conducted and published extensive research on post-traumatic stress and social media, told BuzzFeed News sharing archived social media posts in memory of someone who died is not an uncommon practice these days.
However, she was personally struck by the videos people were sharing of Bryant last week.
"What stood out to me is the young age of the person who died. She had a whole life and she did not have a chance to live it," De Choudhury said about Bryant's viral TikTok. "This particular video — and I’m not a TikTok user — but what stood out is she was [a] normal girl. She was like any girl of that age, sharing a hairstyle, she was having fun, she was enjoying herself, she was enjoying her hair."
"The mundanity of [that TikTok] is what the message is here: People killed every day by the police, these are individuals in the Black community, they are normal human beings ... they want to go about their own business, but clearly they see that their interactions with law enforcement is not the same as everybody else."
De Choudhury agreed that there is an important message these videos can quickly communicate during national crises.
"The video is valuable because it tells us it’s happening to normal people," she said. "These videos can be a way to communicate to people who are not Black, to make them realize that it could have been you. The only reason it happened to her is probably because she’s Black."
Across social media, strangers shared how watching Bryant's TikToks painfully reminded them of their own young family members.
This immediate parasocial intimacy can be powerful, but experts also urge people to be mindful of how much of the content they consume and share.
De Choudhury said that while watching and sharing Bryant's TikToks can be a powerful tool for social justice, it can have a very different effect on people who actually knew her intimately.
"For her family members, we don’t know how they are feeling. It can be a difficult time for them," she said. "Social media is such a powerful tool for accountability. At the same time, so much attention and so much limelight at a time when the family is mourning can be so difficult to balance."
She added that some choose to grieve by forging more connections to people and communities, while others can be more overwhelmed by the unwieldy spectacle of it all.
Since we don't know how Bryant's family chooses to grieve, it's especially important to remember them as we're engaging with Bryant's memories on social media, she added. BuzzFeed News has reached out to members of Bryant's family.
Poulin added that even for spectators and activists, these immortalized videos played on infinite loops can force us to face difficult feelings over and over.
"Reminders of a loved one who was lost can be unsettling — clinicians are familiar with 'anniversary' effects, in which birthdays or death anniversaries can be especially painful," he said. "In the short term, social media reminders may be distressing, serving as painful reminders."
Alison Holman, a professor in nursing and psychological science at the University of California in Irvine, told BuzzFeed News Bryant's innocent TikTok is emblematic of the "burden many members of the Black community carry" in this country about racialized police violence.
"The burden many people in the Black community carry goes far beyond this one incident ... That’s the shame of this society, that we’ve allowed this to persist," said Holman. "We can't bring it upon ourselves to stop this from happening, and that’s a shame. It’s a huge stain on America. That we can’t see how damaging this constant drumbeat of Black people being killed by police is."