It was the best of social media. It was the worst of social media.
Last year saw more than just “a few” incidents of violence. Beginning with the abduction of more than 250 girls from a school in Nigeria and ending with the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, 2014 truly highlighted the broken state of our societies. We live in a world that is no stranger to inhumane activity, where last year set a new record low for depravity.
With a new age of terrorism has a come a new age of information transmission. An increase in the frequency of violent activity implies the need for a medium to keep people abreast of these movements, in the fastest manner possible. Contrary to the archaic methods of awareness, say, through the headlines of the local daily newspaper, the system prevalent these days is far more person-intensive. Centralized bodies such as radio stations and newspapers are no longer the only source of information. Now there are multiple online outlets for the distribution of news. Information is shared from person to person, blog to blog, status to status, rather than from newspaper to public. In the olden days such information would have been treated as hearsay or gossip. Nobody would bet their life on any of it. But in today’s day and age of technology, the news comes directly from the horse’s mouth if someone hears it from their neighbor. The most popular places for the exchange of such information and ideas have become social media forums. Similar to newspapers pursuing an issue to get the first headline out, people are now fighting to get the first status out.
Well-known celebrities such as Rupert Murdoch, managing director of Australia’s News Limited, and Erika Reidt, Fox sports reporter, have also indulged in this practice and have been completely burnt for it. Immediately following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Murdoch took to Twitter to express his “sentiments” on terrorism in general and Islam specifically. Calling upon the Muslim community to take responsibility for the actions of a few of its members, Murdoch’s tweet was welcomed with much offense. People were appalled at his blatant ignorance. Using his own words against him, J.K. Rowling’s rebuttal was especially impressive, as she questioned whether the Christian world would have to take responsibility for Murdoch and his ignorance.
But Murdoch wasn’t the only one infuriated with the attack; further, he wasn’t the only one who so unashamedly and ignorantly posted about it. Herds of people took to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and theirs blogs to show their solidarity to the victims and their families. People viewed the attack on Charlie Hebdo as an attack on the right to freedom of speech, so they took to social media to exercise theirs. Each post was more aggressive than the last, as the crowd felt compelled to increase their cause’s momentum. After a point people were posting just for the sake of posting. The pain of a few had become a “fad” for the rest of the world. The genuineness of each post was becoming more questionable. Hashtag after hashtag reconfirmed a cult that was beginning to form. People were trying to prove their awareness by posting on social media forums. Further, these “social mediators” were sitting in judgment of those who refused to fall to their level of pretentiousness.
In such a scenario, what people fail to understand is that although it is their birthright to have an opinion, it is not always imperative to voice their opinion. For instance, would Murdoch also ask Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim cop who was so violently shot by the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo, to take responsibility for the masked terrorists because they may have shared his religion? The facts of a terrorist activity can change at any moment — what may be true one day may not be true the next. The irony lies in the fact that, with the increasing dependence on social media, words, once posted, carry a substantial amount of weight and cannot be taken for granted. However, with the advent of social media, people no longer pay attention to the consequences their words may have on the individual or the whole community. Every person’s thought needs to be carefully considered before it can be posted for the rest of the world to see and evaluate. Essentially what I am saying is that in today’s day and age, a post can’t just be a post, a tweet just a tweet, at least in the context of life-threatening violence. An Internet post should be so much more; it should represent the pain and suffering felt by the victims, it should highlight the solidarity of a whole community and, most importantly, it should showcase the unity of the righteous which emerges in such hard times.
Nobody can deny the essential role that social media plays in highlighting important events across the globe and also showcasing the public’s opinion on the matter. Take, for example, the Arab Spring. The only reason that the civil conflict became a global conflict was because of social media, which resulted in intense media coverage. However, social media is often guilty of focusing attention on specific incidents while overlooking or blatantly ignoring other pressing matters. On the day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, there was a bombing next to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) building and a massacre in Nigeria around the same time. Neither of these was given much attention on social media. Further, neither of them were featured on Facebook’s “Trending” list, which instead became essentially a string of information from the Charlie Hebdo attack. The consequence was that people did not learn further about the other non-trending violence. Even more, social media results in a (nuance) variant of tunnel vision. The public is so busy focusing on specific examples that they often fail to see the larger social message. The latter is what is important and what can actually make a difference.
Tweeters and bloggers need to pay attention to the details of every incident and try not to be blatantly ignorant about the facts of a particular situation. They must realize the consequences their expressed opinions have. If attention is not paid, these very social media forums, which we view as the epitome of free speech, will become democracy’s worst nightmare.
Pranati Kohli is a College freshman from New Delhi, India.