Social media, will you hold your horses?

opinion March 22, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The fast and furious broadcasting of bad news is exacerbating the mental trauma of those affected; in cases of tragedy we need to pause before clicking "share"

Good news or bad news, to the fast and furious social media, it’s all the same. The Internet’s role in aggravating the grief or mental trauma of the unfortunate is not new, but the social networks take it to a new and alarming level. The broadcasting and sharing of bad news is getting quicker and quicker, with less and less caution being practised by users. The situation was already bad with the conventional media, but it’s threatening to get out of hand thanks to the phenomenal rise of the social media.
Who hasn’t seen the photos of the heartbroken father who lost his children to the political violence? Even if you don’t buy newspapers, the photos will probably have found you. And imagine being related to someone on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. What can it be like for them when Twitter and Facebook go wild with sensational speculation?
People share stories of loss to get a broader perspective on life or to better understand the world. With breaking news, social media can help by offering tip-offs or checking facts. These are the good sides of the online networks, which have played a big part in positive political change in several countries. The dark side is that it takes just one person who isn’t so ethically sensitive to kick-start a misleading rumour or outrageous slur that “goes viral”.
Regulation is out of the question. No one can or should ever rein in the social media. But while the need for freedom of expression sustains the networks’ strong points, it keeps the bad ones alive as well. As in most other spheres, ethical standards need to be instilled, not enforced. Social-media users must realise they must use the power they have responsibly.
Such responsibility is more important than ever, and its significance is growing by the day. As people’s lives revolve more tightly around the Internet, stories of how social-media users misbehave or turn against innocent people are accumulating. Last year the issue of online harassment reared its ugly head when a 14-year-old girl committed suicide in Britain, purportedly being persecuted by anonymous online bullies who tore her self-esteem to shreds. That story made headlines, but there must be countless more in which “victims” of the social media chose to stay silent.
Freedom and even the empowerment of the social media are worth advocating. There’s a fine line, though, between that freedom and the tweeting of names of accident victims before official confirmation or the next-of-kin have been notified. Sharing a father’s tragic loss is one thing; sharing photos of his darkest hour as they go viral is quite another.
Many people are sincere in asking what can be done. Good intentions can easily result in bad outcomes on the social media. A friend might never intend the heartbreaking story and photo he is sharing to spread like wildfire, but another friend with a much bigger “network” picks it up and off it goes. “Stop posting it” comments might only fuel curiosity and thereby make things worse.
There is no textbook answer to curbing the excesses of online networking culture. Some recommend a “human approach” when considering whether we should share a sensitive item via Facebook or Twitter. In other words, we should simply ask: “What if it were me, or someone I loved?” Ask that question and you might get a better idea of whether a picture should be broadcast or victims identified. That’s probably the best we can do. In fact, it’s the very least we should do.