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Aren’t we better than this?

When did social media become so violently antisocial? 

It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves around the office over the past few weeks, and one that we’re hoping will spark some kind of intelligent discussion about how to remove the social media hate-speak that is becoming all too common across networks like Facebook and Twitter.

The murder of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher was something that hit home like a blow to the stomach, all over the country. The outpouring of social media support for her family and the efforts to find her were something we could all be proud of as a community. Then, in the aftermath of her death and discovery, the march that took place through Brunswick was a humbling display of solidarity, and, again, an example of positivity and love in the face of tragedy.

And then…

Jill Meagher’s murder has brought out the best – and worst – in social media users

As overwhelmingly supportive as the ‘Find Jill Meagher’ Facebook page had been, something turned. The anger we all felt at the senseless violence of the crime spilled over, with people taking to the site in their thousands to express their rage and hurt. The problem, of course, was that social media has the potential to severely damage legal proceedings, and even amidst police and page admin warnings that content on the page could actually pervert the course of justice, the rage continued.

Sadly, the hostility contained in the comments and threats against Jill Meagher’s alleged murderer was so vicious that it was possible to draw parallels between the violence Jill experienced and the violence the public were now wishing upon her attacker. Make no mistake – the anger everyone felt at the tragic loss of life and violation of an innocent young woman was justified; but surely, we’re better than this extreme, violent reaction? Even if it’s only expressed in words?

Vitriolic social media content

Next there was the Alan Jones debacle, in which he declared to a crowded room that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father – a man she had only very recently farewelled after a long illness – had ‘died of shame’. The wish to see him brought to account for such cruel and insensitive comments was, as with the case of Jill Meagher, an admirable reflection on our values as a society. Yet no sooner had Jones’ sponsors begun withdrawing their advertising support from his show than the vitriol directed at him online began to get out of control.

Jones’ subsequent claims that he has been the victim of cyber-bullying might seem ironic to some, but there is some truth to them. Think of how many times you have heard Alan Jones described in extremely colourful terms by someone (ironically) claiming he needs to be stopped for talking to other people in the same offensive manner?

Is Alan Jones a bully – or the bullied?

Malcolm Turnbull argued that the alleged cyber-bullying was in fact a symptom of Jones ‘getting a dose of his own medicine’. His comments have been widely accepted because he is known as a mild, measured man whereas Jones is perceived as a loose cannon. But can you imagine the outcry had Jones suggested that another victim of cyber-bullying deserved it????

For their parts, many of the Facebook pages that have sprung up in opposition to Jones have attempted to curb the hate-speech from posters on their page. For example, Destroy the Joint, a page ‘for people who are sick of the sexism dished out to women in public roles in Australia, whether they be our Prime Minister or any other woman’, posted this yesterday morning:

Since Alan Jones took to the airways this morning this page has received a very large volume of comments from people best described as trolls. These trolls have made deeply offensive comments that have now escalated into threats of violence. These comments are completely unacceptable – hate speech is exactly what we stand against. We support freedom of speech but in light of the nature of these threats and comments we have taken the decision to temporarily restrict posting on this page. We have also taken screen shoots and we will be passing these onto the police. We thank the wonderful DtJ community for your support – we will never give up speaking up and standing up to sexism.

Yet these efforts by page admins – like those by the admins of the ‘Find Jill Meagher’  page – have hardly stemmed the flow of social media comments that use the same sort of hateful speech as the very thing they are protesting against.

Surely we’re better than this?

Online mob mentality

Julia Gillard has been repeatedly abused online

Just yesterday, more offensive comments were directed at Julia Gillard during her Facebook Q&A – some of them even referencing her father’s passing or calling her vile and unrepeatable names. More proof, if it were needed, of the mob mentality and copycat characteristics that runs the risk of ruining social media for everyone.

Social media gives people the chance to have intelligent discussions with those we do not normally have access to. If, 15 years ago, the prime minister of Australia had opened a meeting and offered to answer any questions people had, do you think we would have acted so disgracefully? Why are we wasting these opportunities afforded us, and instead of offering informed, civil debate, reducing ourselves – and the process – to something no-one wants to take seriously?

How much longer do you think it will take before we see a reversal in the number of people who even use social media as a serious forum? If we don’t start replacing violent hate speech with reasoned debate, conversations – at least the ones we should be taking part in – will no longer be accessible through social media.

Social media has immense power to change society and effect real-world improvements. It also has the potential to do the opposite, and the more of us who stand up and prove we are better than petty bullying and threats, the more chance we have of achieving the former and preventing the latter.

 

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