THE BLOG

Why, In the Information Age, Are We Still Happy to Perpetuate Speculation?

04/06/2013 15:58 BST | Updated 31/07/2013 10:12 BST

This post is not about the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on a Woolwich street on Wednesday the 22nd of May. Nor am I about to directly address issues of Islamophobia or extreme Nationalism that have erupted from the incident. Chiefly, this post is about opinions. The internet age has afforded us many opportunities, a wealth of information at our fingertips and platforms from which the the entire population can discuss, debate, spout and vent. As I'm sure is the case with most of the people reading this, my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed were not nice places to be on the evening of the murder. In the wake of Lee Rigby's death, social networks were bombarded with a torrent of accusations and sweeping generalisations - right, left and centre.

Once the initial shock of the news reports had subsided, it wasn't long before my housemates and I, without even going online, began to discuss the inevitable comments that would be circulating on social networks. Let's think about that word for a second - inevitable. What was waiting was as bad as we feared, if not worse. To prevent this article from encouraging the precise behaviour I am discussing, I am not going to name any of the people whose opinions I am writing about.

As the millennial generation, our days rise and set with social networking. Beginning with a tweet complaining how early it is, ending with a selfie posted on Facebook, clinging to a bottle of wine before heading out. It can be excessive and relentless but at its core it remains innocuous. Whilst I might disagree with your opinion of Mumford and Sons or think you are a bit lame for following Keith Lemon on Twitter, at its worst it can be switched off and ignored. The challenge faced by Wednesday is when the same voices turn their thoughts and attentions to issues that hold far greater social significance.

Despite the internet being the same place where a quick Google can provide answers to almost any questions, statistics about anywhere and anyone - a startling number of reactions contained assertions and accusations that were inflammatory and unfounded. On the same afternoon as the attack, a young chap uploaded a video to YouTube. It was titled 'evil muslums have gone to far woolwich attack'. It is a puffy rant about his personal outrage, posing hard hitting questions like "how long before these Muslims get together and start killing every white person they see?'. For someone as incensed as this YouTube user clearly was, his speech contained no facts - even about the murder itself. His suggestions were little more than vague statements of 'persecution' and 'exile', he didn't even look up the spelling of the religion he was about to denounce. Fittingly he had disabled comments on the video. One man, one camera - no other opinions welcome. His video has so far clocked up over 11,000 views and he is far from alone. Facebook statuses reinforced the 'enough is enough' mantra. Whilst being buoyed by the support of 'likes' and 'shares', the selective ears of the online 'opinionaters' encouraged vocal protest. Another YouTube comment responded to footage of the actual attack, describing a dream he has, in which all Muslims are extremists in order to justify the British slaughter of every one of them. Two days earlier they had commented on a video of a UFO sighting, saying "under intergalactic law visiting alien craft are subject to CAA rules and have to display lights at all times", perhaps giving us an insight into the reliability of his sources.

The freedom of speech that the internet provides is truly a blessing and not something I am for a second calling in to question, but for networks that are supposed to be 'social', Wednesday represented a decided lack in conversation. Perhaps more startling was a form of pseudo-academic rhetoric that emerged in many posts. My friend shared with me a post he had seen on Facebook. It is an email written by eminent German psychiatrist Dr Emanuel Tanay. The post started by saving the reader a great deal of time in terms of research by clearly stating -

"A German's view on Islam - worth reading. This is by far the best explanation of the Muslim terrorist situation I have ever read. His references to past history are accurate and clear. Not long, easy to understand, and well worth the read. The author of this email is Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a well-known and well-respected psychiatrist."

The post goes on to argue that whilst extremist Muslims are in a minority, so were the Nazis in Germany and the communists in Russia - yet their radical views eventually allowed them to manipulate inaction, claiming power through brutality. In Dr Tanay's opinion, it has already begun with the inclusion of Muslim prayers at schools and halal emblems on relevant foodstuffs. The good news is I don't have time to tear his "accurate and clear" historical analogies to shreds - national political party being compared to a minority religion? The even better news is that I don't need to. One Google search of the established author's name instantly supplied me with the information that Dr Emanuel Tanay is not responsible for writing the article, it was written by a man called Paul. Dr Emanuel Tanay isn't even German.

As a generation that can communicate 24 hours of the day on a plethora of platforms, Wednesday proved us to be shamefully self involved. Even the more liberal users were posting statuses responding to how much racism they were seeing on Facebook. "Guys just because they were Muslims doesn't mean u shud be racist!!!" Naturally I agree with this sentiment and I was equally appalled by the xenophobia that was 'trending' - without planning to, I found myself wading in to debates on status updates. I resent this and I wish I hadn't. It wasn't the time and clearly it wasn't the place. Very few people stopped to question whether they had the relevant information or context to provide a statement about the events. Within the hours following a man's murder the internet was busy shouting at each other, listening only for their own echoes bouncing off the walls. Hopefully we can take something away from last week, that we need to at least attempt to understand things before we publicly declare our opinions. Surely if people were so angry about what had happened in Woolwich they would have attempted to comprehend them instead of being swept up and coerced by a snappy meme or badly researched, copied and pasted statistic. Fabrication and unsubstantiated claims are nothing new in debate, but they are harder to spot and easier to believe now - set free on the internet, set in stone pixel by pixel.