Monday 19 August 2019

Paris terror attacks: Why social media is turning us into idiots

Paris massacre demands an intelligent response, not social media stupidity, writes Bryony Gordon

French soldiers patrol the Trocadero place near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
French soldiers patrol the Trocadero place near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Bryony Gordon

The world feels a little less safe this week. That’s what everyone is saying on social media, isn’t it? It feels less safe and less secure and less sure - unless, of course, you belong to the camp who felt the need to point out that the world rarely feels safe or secure or sure to people in, say, Beirut, 43 of whom were blown up a day before the Paris attacks without anyone apparently noticing.

One friend on Facebook posted that the 'media hype’ surrounding the deplorable events in France should not distract us from the fact that these things happen all the time all over the world. He obviously hadn’t read any of the hundreds of media reports that had appeared about Beirut at the time, or considered that it is only human nature to get upset about things that happen on your doorstep.

Another had a go at all of us who had turned our profile pictures to the Tricolore. “You’re really sticking it to the terrorists!” I don’t know. I thought that it was more about showing solidarite. But, to use the common parlance of the young: whatevs.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion - not just columnists on national newspapers. So the grief-shamers turned on the grief-stricken and vice versa, and we were too busy bickering to notice the irony, to see that broadly speaking, we are all for the same thing: liberte, egalite, fraternite.

Do you know what I think the world feels this week? Less safe, less secure, less sure, but above all, more stupid. And when I say 'the world’, what I really mean is the world as seen through the eyes of social media. Every time I have looked at Facebook or Twitter, a little part of me has despaired. I know that, given everything in the past month - the destruction of a plane full of Russian holidaymakers; the bombing in Beirut; the killing of people on a night out in Paris; the 11-year-old girl used as a suicide bomber by Boko Haram in Nigeria - the behaviour of relatively privileged people on the internet should not be cause for concern. (Let me hashtag this piece firstworldproblems before you do). But it is. It really is. It is because if we can’t behave with a modicum of intelligence online, what hope do we have in real life?

Take the curious case of the footage on the Channel 4 News website of Syrian families fleeing an air strike. The footage was posted three weeks ago, long before the attacks in Paris, but only this week has it been shared so widely that it has now garnered more than five million hits - more than any of the organisation’s Paris coverage.

Many of the comments underneath the footage go some way to explaining why - people haven’t bothered to look at the date it was published. They have presumed it shows French airstrikes on the country, or that Channel 4 have hastily uploaded it to make up for accusations that the media have ignored the plight of the Syrian people. This neatly sums up the modern day mentality on social media: share now to show you care, think later.

Then there was the tweet put out by Rurik Bradbury in the early hours of Saturday morning. He noticed that Fox News had mistaken the Eiffel Tower’s normal 1am darkness for a tribute to the victims of the attacks. So he posted a picture of the landmark with the caption 'Wow. Lights off on the Eiffel Tower for the first time since 1889’. “It should be obvious, with a pause for thought, that the lights haven’t been on continuously since 1889,” said Bradbury later in an interview with the Washington Post. “That scale of lighting would not have been viable in the late 1800s (the lighting was only installed in 1925); there were two world wars in between...” Still, almost 30,000 people retweeted it, with another 29,000 'liking’ it.

Of course, this shows us that social media hasn’t just turned people stupid - it has also turned whole organisations into unthinking idiots whose knee jerk reaction in such situations is not to uncover the truth but get hits. And if news organisations such as Fox can’t be bothered to fact check, what hope everyone else? Little wonder that this week, Ofcom released a report which found an increasing number of children believe everything they read on the internet. Eight per cent of youths surveyed said they now go to YouTube to find out what is going on in the world, while only a third were able to identify paid-for adverts.

Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web as a way to share information, but more often than not it now shares misinformation. “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction,” is an Albert Einstein quote often shared on the internet. “The world will have a generation of idiots.” Ironically, there is no evidence that he actually said this - it actually comes from a 1995 movie about him called Powder.

What, if anything, have the events of the last week taught us? I have no clever answers to that. All I can say is that in the grand scheme of things, likes and retweets and Facebook updates mean next to nothing. So maybe we should turn off our phones and our computers and head outside into the actual world we inhabit, however unsafe it might feel. We should go and be with the ones we love, even if, as social media so often shows, we don’t always like them.

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