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Let's Not Be Too Quick to Judge the Twitterati's Reaction to Tragedy

27/03/2016 21:14 | Updated 27 March 2016

Reactions to tragic events tend to follow a familiar pattern. First comes the wave of breaking news stories when the media tries to piece together the bare bones of the story. The public waits for confirmation of how it should react: is this going to be a 'major' story? Then comes confirmation - the number of deaths, location, and cause often being the prime determinants.

After that politicians are called upon to issue their official statements whilst the public use their own channels to express their emotions, frequently in the form of tweets, hashtags, and coloured flags over their Facebook profile photos.

The next day, as the dust settles on events and the focus gradually moves from establishing the what to the who, how, and why, the analysis kick in. The press has established a meta form of journalism: journalising the journalists. Writers assess the impact and meaning of their peers' articles from the previous day and critique the sentiment of politicians' reactions and those of the public.

Increasingly the latter is coming in for much scorn. The online postings of the hashtag generation responding to the bombings in Brussels has been condemned as empty and shallow and there is a growing concern that people's understanding of how to display genuine emotion is being docked by the instant and pre-packaged postings encouraged by Twitter and Facebook. Worse still, they have been described as highly selective - choosing to display sadness at the deaths of people presumed to be white Europeans whilst ignoring the ongoing tragic deaths of communities in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen.

On the first of these points, I don't believe the criticism is justified.

The idea that a Facebook post or profile picture change is somehow replacing real emotion is based on an overvaluation of the role that social media plays in dictating our styles of communication and an underestimation of the intelligence of the general public. No one who has changed their profile picture to feature a Belgian flag would imagine that their digital magic was going to bring down international terrorism and I seriously doubt that they thought it would make a substantial difference to the lives of those suffering in Zavantem. These expressions are much more about saying "How appalling - what a terrible tragedy" and forming a group solidarity around that shared emotion. It's a natural process that communities go through as they try to understand the enormity of incomprehensible events.

And far from the idea that social media has somehow devalued our emotional intelligence - I would say it has given people a medium through wish to express their emotions that didn't previously exist. Without mass communications it simply wouldn't be possible to hear the wall of noise that echoes around after a major international event. Those routes of self expression were simply not in existence 20 or 30 years ago. If they had been, I'm willing to bet people would have jumped on the bandwagon just as much as they do now. People that want to donate to a charity will. Those who want to send flowers will do so. They might also tweet. The things don't have to be mutually exclusive. Rather than criticising an already emotionally repressed society for showing any form of emotion, I'd rather these kinds of reactions were welcomed and encouraged.

However, I do agree that there is an issue with the selectivity of the public's reaction. It's like a form of digital imperialism the way in which the internet in Europe glows red hot in the aftermath of a tragedy that takes place on this continent but seems mute by comparison when similar events unfold further afield.

But, I wouldn't lay the blame for this at the doors of the general public. They receive their information - framed as it is - through the media. First and foremost it is the job of journalists to channel that information and make it relevant and if they are failing to do so they need to be held to account. Secondly, I'd argue that it is actually invariably the general public, through their use of twitter and facebook, who are the ones sharing information about events outside of Europe. Part of the reason we are aware that the selectivity of people's reactions has become such an issue is precisely because social media users have drawn our attention to it.

So, what can be done? Well, first off I think we need to draw a line under the criticism of those who choose to express their emotion via a Facebook post, Tweet, or hashtag. It means something to them and that should be respected. We're hardly going to move towards being a more compassionate or caring society by lambasting those who think they are doing the right thing. And for those who are in the know about events taking place in countries that the Sun and Mail choose only to write of when they need a straw man, woman, or child to victimise, we have a duty to share that information, to spread it on social media, to buy alternative newspapers and visit alternative media sites. Crowd pressure can bring change and alter a narrative - remember that the media feed us what they think we want to hear.

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