Over the past few weeks, I have become more aware of how quickly someone will convey an opinion on social media. Not a careful thought, a well constructed joke or a considered insight. A electronic vomiting of emotive reaction to an event that has happened. It is largely considered to be harmless. It is the exercise of our human right to speak our minds. An opinion can cause no injury, so we should be free to share our insights. If that's what you think, you are sadly misinformed about the complexity of the human condition and the power of words.
The social media works like a megaphone, magnifying the one small voice to make it sound like an army chanting. In reality, it tends to be a few thousand people, in a sea of millions, if not billions, speaking about a certain topic. Like a whirlpool, it sucks everyone else in. Then we have insights that shoot off on tangents. As they do, they become less informed and more damaging. Loud noises don't get people heard. They make the other side shout louder. Until all the world is deaf.
Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the aftermath of the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, where over a hundred people lost their lives. The shock, horror and outrage was understandable. Whether it be people who have an affinity with the city or nation, or just plain and simple human beings, to see innocent lives taken away so brutally is sickening. At first, the tidal wave of opinion was to stand resolutely with Paris and her people. Then the social megaphone went from one loud voice to a fragmented signal, filled with divisive posts and wrathful rhetoric.
People blamed the refugees and the migrant crisis, with no true evidence that such a thing was a factor. People blamed God, because a religion's name is attached to an organisation that is driven by extremist ideology and bitter politics. The irony that these posts came shortly after the hashtag #PrayForParis started to trend wasn't lost on me. Some pointed out that it was selective hypocrisy, akin to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, when we mourned the gunning down of a dozen journalists, while hundreds were slaughtered the same day by Boko Haram. Others tried to call for calm and consideration, recognising that extremism is the product of a society that has allowed people to become marginalised. Once we let people drift into the shadows, the darkness will consume them. We can blame them for their choices but we can't do it without being introspective about things.
That very introspection leads us back to the megaphone example. People's voices get more readily heard these days and those opinions feel like weapons to some groups. ISIS and all extremism is the counter to a mass of opinions and actions we and our governments have taken. We have told people that their way of life is not acceptable. We have cut them off, derided them and invaded their lands. We have lectured them on right and wrong, when we are hardly masters of it ourselves. The reaction has been a harsher response. Rather than be talked down to by the social megaphone, they entrench themselves in things deeper, so to be sure of their primary convictions.
It's not just ISIS or other extremist groups. For example, political parties are subject to it. In the UK, as the left uses social media to vilify the Government, it's almost as if they consciously shift further to the right. Either it is a "We'll show you" attitude or a "We'll stick with those who listen" belief. You see, hatred doesn't start with a bomb in Paris. It starts with someone being intolerant of someone else. One to one, that's an argument, a mere falling out. Do it on a national scale, it becomes a diplomatic situation or even a war. Do it on a global scale and you get radicalised factions, shifted into the social shadows, who will do anything to shout back as loud as they can.
Does a Facebook post bring on an assassination? No. Does a tweet motivate a suicide bomber? Not a chance. How about a hundred posts though? How about a million? Or a billion? We are entitled to an opinion but we have to be careful that our opinion is not straw on the back of the unfairly marginalised. World wars have been started on lesser things than the events of the Paris attacks.
Social media has given us a voice but with that comes the responsibility to choose our words more carefully. We should not make the villain out of anyone until the evidence proves them guilty. We should not show hatred to someone's way of life or beliefs because we don't understand them. We should not advocate the withdrawal of someone's rights for the supposed protection of our own.
More than anything though, we should learn when to NOT use social media. Knee jerk reactions are usually the most foolish. Once you share an opinion, it's hard to go back on it or change it. Vocalising it tends to solidify it in place. We should slow down, consider the facts and then seriously think about whether we are joining the conversation to improve it, or just because we just want to be heard. Because if it is the latter, then we will pay for that conceit, one way or the other.
The old saying is that you have one mouth and two ears, and that they should be used in that proportion. Well, the average human mouth is a lot smaller than the average human brain. Maybe we use them in that proportion too. Right now, courtesy of the social megaphone, the mouth is winning. And, as a consequence, we are all losing out.