Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando and Social Media

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” And to think that Charles Dickens published those famous words 145 years before the founding of Facebook.

Social media is at its best—and its worst—in the aftermath of some horrific event such as the Orlando shootings. At its best, it provides a way for loosely connected individuals to openly express grief and sympathy in a fast and convenient way. At its worst, it is a vehicle for spreading misinformation (if not outright lies) with no accountability, as well as being an easily accessible public forum for propagating hate, bigotry, and ignorance with impunity. It reinforces stereotypes and preconceived ideas and tends to generate far more heat than light when hard facts are not readily available.

A part of the problem is the speed with which fragmentary information about a fast-breaking news story is shared in a 24-hour news cycle. The pressure is to get the story out first. Speed is too often viewed as more important than accuracy. How many times have we seen the first details reported about a breaking story later retracted? This is how the pros operate; people with at least a theoretical commitment to a professional code of conduct that supposedly obligates them to check out a story before reporting it. What few constraints reporters live with are completely absent on Facebook and Twitter where people can and do say anything they please.

A second issue is the ease with which we can wrap ourselves in a comfortable and protective information “bubble” that guards us from contact with any ideas that conflict with our own views, opinions, values, prejudices, etc. Make sure you only go to news sites that correspond with your political, social, and religious views. “Defriend” people who post ideas you dislike. Always repost stories, however absurd they may be, if they support your way of thinking, but never check to see if the story is accurate. You don’t want facts that you dislike cluttering up your thinking.

And then there is the relative anonymity of internet communications. Heated words typed by the glow of a computer screen by somebody in their bathrobe at 1:00 AM seldom correspond with what that person would tell another face-to-face in broad daylight. The effect of this anonymity is like that of alcohol—it loosens inhibitions. And as many a deflowered virgin has regretfully learned after a night of drinking, some inhibitions are good.

As the details of this horrific massacre unfold, the story becomes more, not less, complex. That is to be expected. Life is complex. People are incredibly complex. The mind of a mass murderer is always a tangled labyrinth. It now appears that Omar Mateen’s motivation was likely a lethal combination of perverted and distorted religious belief and his own disordered sexuality. The extent to which he was aided in his crime by others will hopefully become clear in the weeks to come. At this early date, less than four full days after the attack, it seems that at least his wife may prove to be an accessory before the fact. Beyond that we are merely speculating.

As Christians we are by definition witnesses of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The love and mercies of God should be demonstrated in us and through us. Truth and truth telling should be revered by us above all people. May your social media presence be consistent with that high calling.