Paris, November 13, 2015. A European capital is badly hit by fundamentalists who legitimise their crimes by using a holy name: an impactful event that shocked the whole world. It is neither the first nor, unfortunately, the last tragedy whose consequences on the general public have become the subject of analysis on social media.
Before the appearance of cable television in the first half of the 1990s, Romanian communities, especially those from the countryside, lived a life informed by first-hand experiences. For most, their direct experiences did not instill fear, revolt, or terror. As a result, they slept with their doors unlocked unless they were aware of imminent danger in the community. The liberalisation of the information market has come with certain costs: we know more, and this affects the way we relate, suffer, or come to be afraid—after the appearance of cable television and, especially, the 5 o’clock news, people began to put bars on their windows.
Nowadays, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks connect us in just a few seconds to the misfortune of people experiencing dramatic or tragic events. The way in which these means of communication convey emotions and influence our lives is unprecedented in the age of technological communication.
The virtual world has become an important component of the real one. The reason is simple—all the events happen before our eyes, on our phone or computer screens. We feel, live, judge alongside the others with whom we are connected virtually. Opinions expressed online are, most of the time, emotional and impulsive. Emotion spreads as easily as opinion. We are not talking about journalistic or scientific quality anymore. We are talking about the impact, the ability to produce emotion and the sensational.
We work with the available information and we take it, often unsuspectingly, from the Facebook feed, where viral information mainly spreads. It is easy to believe what is presented to you when hundreds of thousands or even millions of people like you press “Like” on an article or a video. Facebook or Twitter use information as currency, and whether we like it or not, both channels grow and develop along with the society in which we live. Television is either forced to evolve or continues to decline as one of the public’s options.
According to the two-step flow of communication, formulated by Paul Lazafeld in the 40s, there is great power of communication and influence in social groups. A message received from a trusted communicator (a personality followed by the subject or someone close) will be passed on to people in the subject’s social circle much more easily than a message received from outside sources. That is why it is important—especially when it comes to hot topics like the terrorist attacks—to be careful which communicators we choose to believe and whose point of view we choose to share. There is a risk of adopting harmful ideas and hurting the feelings of those around us.
I am not saying that we should ignore the reasons for concern, but I am saying that we should remain aware of how difficult it can be to strike a balance, especially when we are talking about acts of terrorism. Balance and moderation mean that in times of tragedy, when we’re confused about the big picture anyway, our first online “footprint” should be a human one, as some netizens have thankfully chosen to do after the attacks in Paris.
Dozens of people used the hashtags #PorteOuverte and #PrayforParis in an attempt to help and empathise with those who had the misfortune of being involved, against their will, in a fight that was not theirs. When it comes to deciphering reality, moderation also remains the key. The careful filtering of facts and information contributes decisively to the creation of a correct overall picture.
The year 2015 was dominated by armed conflict, misunderstandings between the world’s great powers, and terrorist attacks, and all these cause concern. In trying to decide how to relate to these events, we can end up trapped in intentional or unintentional manipulation, hatred, and ignorance, or we can remain balanced. It is good to be concerned and to form and express an opinion, but instead of letting yourself be gripped by fear, it is more important to look for solutions in a tolerant and informed spirit. Serious information requires accessing several sources, comparing them, and critically filtering the available data. A multitude of likes is not the best clue in the search for truth.