The Student
Social media gets voices heard, for better or worse
by Lucy Barnes, 13/02/17

Social media offers anybody and everybody the opportunity to voice their opinions. Yet is it always a tool to be celebrated?

On February 2 in East Croydon, a woman was hit by a train, sparking a series of insensitive tweets. People posted about how this incident had inconvenienced their days; one post went as far to say “How selfish can you be to end your life by jumping in front of [a train on] the worst train line in London!”.

Insensitive tweets following a death are not a rare occurrence. DL Hughley, a comedian, sparked controversy with his tweet following the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds that “Black Mama’s don’t die cuz they kids do!” His tweet received over two thousand comments in the following hours and almost every comment was critical.

Katie Hopkins has also received criticism for her social media responses following deaths. Six months ago she tweeted a poll mocking the identities of five men whose bodies were discovered in East Sussex. She asked people to vote to identify these men as “aspiring footballers, mentally ill, fans of Anders Brevik or big fans of inflatables”. The Sussex police tweeted that they deemed it ‘incredibly insensitive, although not criminal.’ 

Insensitive tweets are not limited to the aftermath of a death or tragic incident; offensive posts on social media are common, meaning that cyberbullying is still a prominent issue. Catch22, a “social business working to achieve a strong society”, posted a report in January titled ‘Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence’. The key findings of this report suggested that social media offers young people a “limitless platform to disrespect and bully each other”, which in turn promotes youth violence.

Whilst some would argue that the government ought to introduce more legislation to combat internet abuse, Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, believes that it is our society that must change. Last April, The Guardian reported Creasy’s views that “it’s not the technology, it’s the inequality.”

Creasy suggests that internet abuse stems from the misogyny, discrimination and prejudice that still exist in our society today. Social media platforms have simply provided an outlet to voice these opinions.

However, technology does not produce only negative effects. Social media platforms can also be used to provide support groups, allow people to express their political views and broadcast their personal experiences. Those suffering from illnesses can find comfort through social media support groups. Last August, Patient Engagement HIT reported that social media support groups enhance patient experience. A study conducted by Matthias Alexander Kirch revealed that cancer patients who engage with other patients via social media have a notably more positive experience as they can learn about the experiences of others and feel connected to others going through the same treatment as them.

Social media also enables the public to express their political views more clearly and react instantly to new policies and legislation. Following Trump’s Muslim ban, hundreds of thousands of people have vocalised their opinions. An online petition calling for Trump’s state visit to the UK to be cancelled gained over one million signatures.

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter offered a space for those personally affected by the ban to vocalise their stories. For instance, on January 28 Nazannin Zinouri posted her story about how, despite living in the US for almost seven years, she was unable to return from her brief visit to see her family in Tehran. The post received 234,000 reactions on Facebook and she was able to return to the US on 5 February.

Whilst internet abuse and insensitivity are issues not to be ignored, it is not entirely social media platforms that are to be blamed for their prevalence. These issues stem from inequalities within our society. Social media can be a useful tool in helping people express their opinions and support each other, yet is comes with unavoidable consequences.

Image: Unsplash