Social media after tragedy

Image by Rupal Hira (original illustration by Jean Jullien)
There’s a saying that goes around Twitter every time there’s a tragic news event. It goes something like this: Twitter is at its best in the minutes after a breaking tragedy, then at its absolute worst for about 48 hours thereafter.

But, it’s not just Twitter. It’s all social media. Social media is the best in the minutes after because there’s an almost instantaneous spread of reports from the ground. When big news strikes, traditional news outlets seem to always be a step behind, often relying on the same reports that crowd your feed.

Social media is the worst in the 48 hours thereafter because as soon as the bare fact that something is happening gets out there, the internet hive mind inevitably spirals out of control. When it comes down to the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? minor assertions become fact when retweeted and shared. What may begin with (at best) a well meaning share of information or (at worst) an attempt to promote one’s ‘personal brand’ through virality, can end up shaping people’s perceptions in a way that cannot usually be undone.

When tragedy struck Paris over the weekend, Twitter was onto the story as fast as it was digitally possible. Initial news reports were retweeted and, for the most part, the populace was quickly and legitimately informed. But after the initial information surfaced, it didn’t take long for people to start sharing almost anything that seemed even tangentially related.

This tweet from Donald Trump, written in relation to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January, began being retweeted as if it were a contemporary comment from The Donald, drawing support and scorn from hundreds of people, none of whom bothered to read the date.

Similarly, a picture of a gathering in Paris with ‘Not Afraid’ written in lights following the January attacks was shared as if it was was happening on the ground, gaining thousands-upon-thousands of retweets and shares as a result.

People trawled photos of the aftermath, looking for familiar faces. Someone thought they spotted Martin Kelly, a defender on English football team Crystal Palace.

Only for Martin Kelly to later confirm it wasn’t him at all.

In a more deliberate act of misinformation, someone photoshopped a photo that Veerender Jubbal, a gaming journalist from Canada, had taken of himself holding his iPad. The image was doctored to show him holding a Quran and wearing a suicide vest, and shared widely on social media.

In a matter of hours, Jubbal’s face was on the cover of a major Spanish newspaper:

Noticing all the misinformation spreading online, Rurik Bradley, who maintains a satirical Twitter account @ProfJeffJarvis, hoped to teach people a lesson in the uncritical nature of social media. Bradley posted a picture of an unlit Eiffel Tower and, knowing that the tower is turned off at 1am every night, wrote “Wow. Lights off on the Eiffel Tower for the first time since 1889”.

Of course it wasn’t true. And while hundred of people jumped up to correct Bradley, tens-of-thousands more shared the image without for a moment considering that the tweet might be wrong.

“Millions of people with no connection to Paris or the victims mindlessly throw in their two cents: performative signaling purely for their own selfish benefit, spreading information that is often false and which they have not vetted at all, simply for the sake of making noise,” Bradbury said in an email to The Washington Post.

In the days since the attacks, social media has continued to get it wrong. As is common on social media after a tragic event, sometimes well-meaning, sometimes self-serving users (a notion well articulated here) posted missives about how we should all be just as up-in-arms about a similar or worse event that recently happened in a non-Western nation. Sure, we should probably be up-in-arms about everything all the time, but where these commentators continually get it wrong is in the assertion that the media show their Western bias and structural racism by actively not covering these similarly tragic events in certain parts of the world.

As is often the case, this is just not true. After the attacks in Paris, many posted sentiments about the bombing in Beirut that killed at least 43 people earlier the same week, including this one (with a photo of Lebanon in 2006). But, according to Vox, it’s not that these events aren’t covered, it’s that they aren’t read and, ultimately, they aren’t shared on social media.

Other, also well meaning, users have been posting pro-Muslim stories to help edify their friends and family. One of the most touching was this:

As you can see, it did get shared well over 10,000 times. The only problem is that it isn’t true.

It is true that a security guard named Zouheir was working at the stadium at the time of the bombings, and gave an account of the bombing to the Wall Street Journal. But he was working inside the stadium, not outside where the bombs went off and gave the account based, in part, on what he’d heard from other guards. He did not come into contact with the bomber at any time. And not only that, it has never been confirmed that Zouheir is a Muslim. He never mentions his religion to the WSJ. Why would he?

(Note that while over three hundred people retweeted an incorrect story about Zouheir, less than ten retweeted the correction.)

The whole point of social media is to share. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the others are just empty platforms waiting for you to fill them with your thoughts, photos, babies, old school photos, events, missives, engagements and whatever else you want to put out into the world.

They are built to reward you for sharing. Hearts, likes, retweet, thumbs up, have all been found to give you a little dopamine hit; so when your sharing is appreciated by others, you want to keep doing it. The trouble is, when tragedy strikes, we're already conditioned to share, even if we have nothing of value to add. We share for the sake of it. Social media gives us a voice, and when the world seems the loudest, we speak even louder. We all want to contribute. And social media doesn’t just give us an opportunity to contribute, but a compulsion to.

Social media has blurred the lines between expert and novice, professional and amateur, outlet and audience. This has been an incredible force in the world, giving a voice to those who have traditionally been silenced. But where this can become a problem is when something big happens, and we all run out of ways to tell each other ‘hey this is happening’. At that stage, the things we start saying, just to be saying something, are usually not worth saying at all.

Social media values novelty, so our impulse is to share things we haven’t already seen shared in our network. We want to be the source of novel information, even if we’re just a conduit of someone else’s work. But so often the reason why we haven’t seen something shared widely is because it hasn't been confirmed as the truth. And because confirmation can be slow, and slow is boring, slow is irrelevant, slow is silence. And, on social media, there’s no value in silence.