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The Difference in Purpose Amongst Social Media Users Prevents Constructive Debate

20/11/2015 14:14 GMT | Updated 19/11/2016 10:12 GMT

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Image: Jason Howie

Over the past week, many of our friends will have shared articles castigating western media for its selective humanity in its coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris, pointing to the imbalance of coverage, when countless other terrorist attacks across the world are given far less prioritisation. Others have pointed to how it is the duty of the reader to engage with coverage of other atrocities which have been covered by the media. The statuses we have read though have largely confirmed our expectations of how we predicted our friends would react.

The overarching theme to these debates however, is that most of us are failing to distinguish between the variety of functions that people use social media for. For example, some will have put the French Tricolour as their profile picture for a multitude of reasons. Some wanted to show solidarity with the people of France. Others argued that the flag could be used as a symbolic catalyst, encouraging a heightened sense of empathy with refugees who have been fleeing countries like Syria to avoid similar attacks. Others used the French Tricolour ultimately because Facebook provided them with the option, at the click of a button, to follow what their friends were doing. There is a lack of consistency in purpose amongst users of social media.

Many will share comment pieces as an implicit endorsement of their own political beliefs, and by extension hope to validate their opinions to their friends - in this sense, it is not far off from mentioning the same articles to your friends in a pub, so that they know where you stand on a particular matter. Especially amongst social media users who are outwardly politically engaged, they might qualify the article they shared with a line or two about their own comment on the matter. Others will share a piece merely because they thought an article was interesting to them. All of these points may seem immensely basic and self-evident, but consider the wider inconsistency.

If you are having a few pints in your local on a Friday evening, you are reasonably going to assume that the entire pub is not honing in on your every word, armed with links to a recent article that is trending on Facebook, ready to pounce on your views. You are just having a conversation with friends. Social media on the other hand can for some provide a platform for a performance in the public domain that allows users to validate their views.

The countless number of articles appearing on our newsfeeds have not simply provided us with a clearer lens through which to view ISIS, or the rise of fascism in Europe. Rather, the multitude of ways in which people have shared content have demonstrated that social media is not necessarily an enlightening means of engagement with current affairs These are not issues I would expect to get a quick answer from, especially when the links to these articles appear in-between videos of pandas climbing up slides, or event invitations to a flat party on the weekend. There has been a confused interaction between those who use social media particularly for political discussion, those who use social media as a natural extension of their daily conversations, and those who are somewhere in-between.

Herein lies the problem. Our newsfeeds effectively act as personal filters- characterised by the same opinions or preferences as our friends and the pages we like - meaning our engagement with current affairs is immensely selective from the outset. Moreover, rather than viewing the purposes of using social media as multifaceted, we may assume that everyone is sharing their opinions, or sharing the views of others, with a consistent purpose. As important as the debates are about how we channel our attention to geopolitical affairs, such an issue must first be preceded by the recognition that we are not all using social media for the same purposes. Otherwise, the attempts by some to understandably deconstruct political events and reactions will be made in vain, when some will see such attempts as unnecessarily intellectualised responses. We are not all on the same wavelength when using social media.