The Dark Side of Social Media

June 9th, 2016

I had a very interesting conversation on radio the other day on the topic: Is Social Media Dehumanizing Us?

This is not a new concern, but it has not gone away. It remains a troubling presence that taps you on the shoulder every now and then. It’s a difficult one to tackle. I am afraid, too, that it will inevitably remain with us.

What is this dehumanizing factor? It is the increasingly common tendency to record unpleasant and disturbing scenes, whether on video or photographs (although video is far more effective) and post them on social media. Look at this! We say. Your followers express shock, or amusement, or amazement. Whatever emotion they express, the effect of the post is generally titillating. Followers don’t generally say, “Take this down – it’s disgusting and it’s an infringement of a person’s privacy!” or words to that effect. At least, I have never seen that kind of disapproval. The person posting the video or photo has a perfect right to do so, without any consequences; this is accepted.

Now, I am not a prudish person. Nor am I easily shocked. However, this kind of voyeuristic fascination with the distress or suffering of another human being (or more than one) makes me very uncomfortable. One doesn’t have to look very far to find numerous examples online. Here’s one… A contact shared a video of the aftermath of a serious accident, and although I was reluctant, I decided to be brave and watch some of it. The videographer (to use a grand word) wandered around among the injured people, strewn on the road. He/she zoomed in on a man with a serious head injury.

Yet, another even more disturbing element of this struck me. During this fifteen-minute long video, others were walking round, taking photographs, peering curiously into the car. A couple of schoolgirls hung around. A taxi cab drove slowly around one body on the road, not stopping. A man on a bicycle rode up and down, taking in the scene. I did not see anyone trying to help Рnot even to comfort an injured passenger by holding their hand or seeking to make them comfortable. Only the Jamaica Fire Brigade, arriving on the scene, rushed to help a man lying prostrate on the ground and spoke to another victim, who was clearly in shock. That was a relief. I then stopped the video.

This air of detached curiosity among the onlookers troubled me deeply. One supposes that if a family member had been in the accident, they would have acted differently. I also believe the kind of artificial distance between those watching and the victims themselves was enhanced – facilitated, if you will – by the fact that a smartphone was being held up between the two sets of human beings. Of course, not everyone had a phone; but those who did used theirs in lieu of actually moving to assist. I supposed they would show it to their friends later. This was an emergency situation, but you would never think so. The whole scene was almost frozen in time, until the Fire Brigade arrived.

This is not just a Jamaican phenomenon. I recall seeing footage (on TV) of an Islamist who had just attacked and beheaded a soldier on a London street a few years ago. It was a horrific incident. While the man walked up and down shouting, a bloody knife in his hand, a crowd of people stood there, smartphones held aloft, doing nothing, just recording the man waving his dripping weapon. Are we losing touch with reality?

I would say this side of social media – this lack of compassion and empathy – is something of an ethical dilemma. Some might consider it a moral issue. Of course, onlookers might not always be in a position to help. But we are not living in a movie set. We are all made of flesh and blood, aren’t we? I even heard of a case where the family of a woman who was murdered first heard of her death via a photograph of her body, on social media. The horror of this is unimaginable.

So, how should we handle this? During our discussion on radio, I suggested that anyone who comes across this kind of stuff on social media (I know it turns up on various platforms, not only Facebook) should delete or block the post immediately. We should not entertain it (funny – I am using that word “entertain,” as that is exactly what it is to some people, it seems – entertainment). Do not “like” or comment at all. If one feels inclined, one can also report it to the social media platform that you are on. However, this does not necessarily mean that one can get it removed altogether. Facebook and others have their own “community rules,” which may not always square with your own rules of appropriateness.

There is only one “upside” that I can determine from all of this. There have been numerous videos of abusive situations – a schoolteacher attacking a student, a male student abusing a female – that have sparked such shock and concern that they have been reported on traditional media platforms. The incidents have been investigated and perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions. So, sometimes the aftermath can be positive. Perhaps it really depends on the mindset and motivation of the person who is recording and posting: are they aiming at sensationalism, or to raise awareness of a problem?

This takes me back to the smartphone. In fact, it is not technically social media that is to blame. With more and more Jamaicans acquiring smartphones – including teenagers, who may not know how to use them sensibly – it’s the phone that is the tool. It makes all of this possible.

We cannot go backwards. Technology moves on. This will continue, we know. All we can do is to “check ourselves,” each time we get involved on social media. We must ask ourselves: Am I comfortable with this? We must also remind ourselves that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

It’s a simple question of humanity.

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2 Responses to “The Dark Side of Social Media”

  1. Dennis Jones says:

    The Intenet isnt a space where ‘moralising’ has much sway; it’s more ‘approval’ based, and audience appeal holds more sway. Not the ideal, but look what happens when so-called celebrities get offensive. It’s often some public disapproval that makes them pull back, and even then with mealy-mouthed apologies. With few exceptions, social media can’t be policed. The internet provides one of the best cloaks ever designed and has made lots of its users immune to the implications of much of what they do. Which explains why thing like trolling are so widespread. Like playing pranks in the old days–ringing door bells and running away. Now, also the Internet brings ‘fame’ or the semblance of it, and that’s powerful poison. But look also at how ‘powerful’ people use it with seeming abandon. Whatever else it is it’s not a place where civility rules, and codes of good conduct have been torn up and thrown away a long time ago.

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    You are right, Dennis – which is why I said that this issue isn’t going away – we cannot police it. We just have to deal with it the best way we can. I still have my own “built-in” rules though – as I am sure you do, too.