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When Social Media fails to reflect valuable offline social norms.

July 19, 2011

I follow a lot of local news sources on Twitter. These often link through to stories and, inevitably, some of them are about accidental deaths – not least on the roads.

Online news stories often have the facility for readers to comment. So I may continue scrolling down and reading – partly as a ‘local’ and partly as a social media professional. Online comments, by the way, are a good example of why the facile identification of ‘social media’ only with Facebook, Twitter + 2-3 other platforms is just plain wrong.

What I have noticed is that in the great majority of cases (really!) the conversation takes the following course – with what I am starting to regard as saddening inevitability.

  1. It’s  fresh news story. So a commenter will speculate about the nature of the collision, or claim to know something from an eye-witness etc.
  2. This often takes the form of blame assignment – the dead driver/pedestrian is at fault, the other party is at fault, the layout is at fault
  3. This may involve taking sides, stereotyping, and thus blaming an entire category of people – ‘lorry drivers’, ‘bikers’ etc.
  4. Other people get involved, possibly close to the dead person, and make angry or grief-stricken rebuttals.
  5. Argument and recrimination builds and the level of emotion escalates.
  6. Other people try to make peace, make more generic observations, sympathise to offset the accusation… and so on.
  7. All too often the core of this includes an assertion that it was, in some way, the dead person’s own fault… and the defending response comes from someone very close to that dead person – a parent, a sibling, or a close friend.
  8. All of this happens within hours of the incident, and before there are full details or an official analysis of what has happened… the whole thing resting on a foundation of speculation.

Whatever turn out to be the rights and wrongs in a particular case, this is the last thing that somebody needs when they have just (literally just) lost someone close to them. They are dealing with shock, grief, anger, lack of a full story…  Of course they are likely to look at the article, to find out more, to seek some solace, to see what other people are being told. And now there’s a high risk that they will find a raging debate around the circumstances of their loved one’s death.


Like those who get sucked into the argument itself – I find myself looking around for someone to blame for the fact that this spectacle is happening at all. It’s tempting to single out the individual(s) who made the baseless, or tasteless, comment in the first place. But we know these people are around. Offline – when someone we know suffers a bereavement we observe all sorts of norms – including what people used to call ‘a decent period of mourning’. This mutual respect has evolved over many generations. It is appropriate. We don’t go round their house, that day, and start a debate about road safety, or ask them if they think it was the victim’s own fault. But it’s a characteristic of social media that problems arise when the central characters are strangers, short-term ‘celebrities’ almost, and as a result some people lose the inhibitions that many (I hope) would still have in a face to face situation with ordinary people.

So I turn my thoughts to the online publishers who are providing the space in which the comments are happening. They’ve been doing this long enough to observe, just as I have, how some people will behave. Until more people have learned to apply offline standards of behaviour to social media, why don’t the media managers simply turn off the comments facility beneath stories which are reporting a very recent accidental death? This could be done for a set period of time – to spare the families this extra trauma at the worst possible moment – or until some trigger event – such as a public statement by the authorities about the circumstances of the accident. There may, at some point, be a legitimate case for a platform supporting public debate about the road layout, planning decisions etc that were relevant. But that’s not served by kicking this off within hours, and when there are only sketchy details. Nor can the media argue that the offsetting benefit of allowing some readers to post tributes, is worth the risk of instant mob inquests.

That’s the challenge to online editors of publications, large and small. Please suppress comments on items reporting recent accidental death? At least for a decent period of time? Why wouldn’t you?

UPDATE: I just revisited the most recent example which, yesterday, prompted me to write this post. It’s gratifying to see that the comments have now been suppressed. So for some editors my question is now   ‘… immediately, as a matter of automatic policy. Not once you see what is written, and the harm that has already been done?’

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