Tuesday 07 December 2021

Social media doesn’t make people callous, it just gives callous people a wider audience

This column first appeared in Malta Today

How can you taunt and jeer at a man who is suicidal, urging him to “go ahead and jump” because you want to get to work?

Apparently, some can and did, on Friday morning as a desperate man climbed on to the bastions at City Gate, Valletta before he was talked down by police officers.

I watched the video, like so many others did, with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and tried to fathom how the handful of people making callous comments could be treating it as some form of reality show for their own personal entertainment. They nonchalantly discussed the probability of the man smashing into the ground below and speculated about whether, after all, it was just a prank because if he wanted to jump “he would have done so by now”. A few were gleefully filming the scene and it was probably being shared in real time so that they could get views and likes.

While I am as shocked as everyone else at what I saw and heard, before making sweeping generalisations, I do believe that it all needs to be put into context and several caveats need to be made. For example, rather than saying that these heartless comments represent the “kind of nation that we’ve become”, I couldn’t help but notice that these onlookers were probably all under the age of 30. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

Obviously, the 7 or 8 people I counted are hardly representative of a whole generation, as that would be an equally inaccurate generalisation on my part.  But we cannot deny that a segment of this demographic which is cruel and unfeeling does exist, not only in Malta but worldwide. Just look at the hate speech on Twitter which is often directed at celebrities for no reason at all. Look at the relentless online bullying which goes on against teenagers and children, often driving them to self-harm. This is the generation which has grown up with social media where everything is seen through a phone’s camera and the minutiae of their lives are posted on Instagram for validation and instant gratification.  The flip side of this is the ease with which virtual (anonymous) mobs targeting others can be created with just a tap on your phone.  There have always been ‘mean girls’ but now rather than just making you miserable in the school cafeteria, they have another more public platform to be mean. 

It is also why I do not subscribe to the blanket statements that, ‘Malta is finished’, ‘an island full of savages’ and that, ‘our society is sick’. Yes, there are some pockets of society which are beyond redemption and savage behaviour exists. In fact, we could all be kinder to others in real life and we could use a detox from what we read online…but throwing the whole country in the same basket is not fair either.

I believe that, irrespective of age and the easy accessibility provided by smartphones, those who resort to this type of thing have to be inclined to do so by their very nature, either due to a dysfunctional upbringing or events in their lives which have turned them into cold-hearted and soulless beings. Social media has not turned them into what they are, social media has just made it easier for them to be this way and has unfortunately given them a wider audience in the process. What is the most worrying is that I doubt they even realise that their behaviour is not acceptable. There were several macabre wisecracks made, which were audible in the video for the benefit of their impromptu audience, and which were rewarded by cackling laughter in appreciation of this ‘humour’. But I am sure if I had to tell any of them that their commentary was inappropriate and below the belt they would tell me, “oh come on, don’t be so uptight, it was just a joke”.

Another issue is that anyone with a phone these days thinks they are a journalist or a presenter, and is ready to film and comment on anything they see happening without permission, without any ethical boundaries and without a second’s thought. The people who mocked the man on the bastions clearly have no filters (except for the filters they use to make themselves look ‘perfect’) and empathy is too difficult a concept for them to grasp because no one has ever taught them to be compassionate. If, God forbid, the man had actually jumped, those filming would have probably boasted at being the first to capture the moment themselves, like one of those episodes in Black Mirror where the extent of people’s desensitisation to tragedy and violence has pushed them over the edge.

Is it already too late for humanity to pull back from the brink of the darkness often found on social media? Some say it is. Personally I think such toxic, malicious people have always been around us, and the Internet and social media have simply amplified their existence. Is it possible to defuse what in Maltese is so well-described by the word ‘ħdura’ by refusing to give it so much attention? Perhaps that is the best option. What I often see is a multiplier effect of news portals picking up on such viral videos, turning them into stories which are then shared yet again creating a snowball effect and expanding their audience.

So what if all we stopped doing that? And, as I’m writing this, I realise that I really should start with myself because I’m as much to blame for sharing that horrible video. In retrospect, I should have listened to my own advice, and not given in to the temptation to press ‘share’, thus giving the people who behaved so appallingly, even more publicity.

But sometimes what is labelled hdura is not ħdura at all

I think we can all agree that there is too much aggro and malice being spewed on a daily basis on FB and elsewhere (although I feel the need to remind readers that this practice did not start now, but has been going on for at lest 13 years). But we also have to avoid falling into the trap of becoming too enamoured of the phrase ‘hate speech’ and throwing it around at random. Sometimes a news report is just that, a news report. However, when I saw Jason Micallef becoming so disproportionately upset over a headline and story by Malta Today, I wondered if we had read the same thing. Here is a translation from his post in Maltese, with capital letters and all:

“The disgusting behaviour and arrogance by which the local media is being managed deserves the condemnation of anyone in the country who still has a soul and a heart. Stories like the one I am reproducing is nothing but ruthless malice (ħdura)…Setting aside the situation of Konrad Mizzi in Parliament and outside it, it is not acceptable to have CRUEL, INSENSITIVE AND HEARTLESS journalists like this conceited Matthew Vella who thinks he is a fake imitation of the BBC’s Stephen Sackur. Konrad Mizzi has a family, children and parents. Peritonitis is a very serious condition which, if not treated, can even lead to death in some cases. This is not journalism, but malice from a cruel, heartless pen.”

I hurried to read what the “arrogant and malicious” Matthew Vella had written only to find this factual headline: “Mizzi misses PAC grilling after hospital admission on peritonitis diagnosis.” The story itself then explained what peritonitis means and how it is caused which, given the fact it is not a medical term one hears every day, and considering Konrad’s high profile, was reasonable information to add to the story. There was nothing in that story which was heartless and there was definitely no ħdura.

I really don’t understand what Jason Micallef read in this story which was so unacceptable and which caused him to go berserk, but his vitriolic post only served to spur some other hot-heads to make the usual disparaging remarks about journalists in general, which is the last thing we need.

There have been times in the past when very tasteless, almost gloating remarks were made about a politician’s ill health and to which the term ħdura could have been applied. But this was definitely not one of them and there is absolutely no comparison.

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