It happened again.
The other day a horrible mass murder took place in Quebec City. Six people were killed. After some confusion with the initial reporting that said there were two suspects, one suspect was eventually arrested and charged with six counts of first-degree murder.
People leave a mosque after a shooting in Quebec City, Canada, Jan. 29, 2017. (Photo: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)
But by that time it was too late. Hell, with social media it is always too late, or too early, no matter what happened. This time the name of the man who called 911 was released, and everyone's predispositions about Muslims took over from there. The man's name, which I won't do the disservice of repeating here, contained the name Mohamed and therefore he was the guilty party who carried out this heinous crime. Easy peasy, right?
Things move at such a drunken, furious pace in the social media world that Trump's own press secretary cited this tragedy as proof that a ban on Muslim countries was sensible. Of course, this was still when Mohammed was being reported as the suspect. And by "suspect" I mean "guilty terrorist," naturally.
Only, in reality, he was the hero who called law enforcement. It's an unfortunate distinction for those of you who enjoy being the first to post BREAKING NEWS as your statuses, I know. But here we are, post tragedy and trying to sort out the fallout of yet another senseless act of violence. And because human beings are human beings, Mohamed got to feel what it is like to be viewed as a mass killer. Lucky Mohammed, eh?
How effective are we at this game of citizen reporting via Facebook and Twitter? I would submit that we are not just incompetent, but wholly dangerous as well. We speak to our ingrained prejudices on social media. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, which should be the truth but ends up being the vile undercurrents we have about people who are different from us.
If polarization is the landscape that we navigate digitally, then righteousness is the underpinning that makes it all normalized.
The Paris massacre was probably the first time when I noticed a tragedy turning into a strange ideological segregation of the masses. Many people changed their profile pictures to a filter featuring the French flag, while some openly used racially repugnant language to describe Muslims. Lines were drawn, arguments ensued, but there was no moment of clarity for individuals who attempted to heal once the dust settled. Instead our divisions deepened, and we retreated to our comfort zones, abetted by a subconscious acceptance of living in a polarized world.
If Paris was the first, heavily punctuated example of how polarization impacts the way we communicate on social media, then the 2016 election forever cemented our divisions. It became socially acceptable to openly disparage different races. It became almost dutiful to toss hatred towards a person just because they voted for a certain candidate. And make no mistake; both sides were guilty of typical forms of harassment and abuse.
If you voted for Hillary Clinton you were propping up corruption, and if you voted for Donald Trump you hated women and Mexicans. That was the playing field, and that type of playing field existed long before the election happened and exists to this day.
If polarization is the landscape that we navigate digitally, then righteousness is the underpinning that makes it all normalized. Trump voters believed they cared deeper for their country than Clinton voters. They felt they were more patriotic, more committed to keeping America safe. Clinton voters believed they were the guardians of decency and tolerance, the bastions of civilized behaviour. Once you feel you have a stranglehold on the truth, anything goes. Unfortunately the first victim in the social media landscape is often the truth.
People tend to view social media in the same way they view Google. They feel like it is merely a tool they use to navigate their digital selves. And while that's somewhat accurate, there is a more sinister facet lurking on the threads of our online conversations.
We are all bullies and spectators now, lecturing and rubbernecking our way from one tragedy to the next, typing out zingers and posting clever memes that help reveal how hilarious we can be. We feign offence at those we disagree with, then we clobber them as if they were not even human. I mean, how could they be? They voted for the wrong candidate and deserve to be treated like criminals, right?
We are living in the age of pitchforks and torches, where people are routinely bullied by the mob or found guilty just for being accused of a crime. The Internet is littered with countless examples of this phenomenon. In Toronto, two men were accused of assaulting a woman after hours at the bar owned by one of the men, and the next day social media convicted the men of rape, organized a protest in front of the bar which negatively impacted several businesses, and no doubt destroyed both their reputations and probably their lives forever, all before a trial date was even set.
That isn't justice, that's fanaticism. It's a dangerous game drenched in mob mentality and propped up by a false sense of decency. The irony here is that there is nothing more indecent than destroying another human being without any evidence that the individual is guilty of a horrible crime. Social media gives us permission to bypass actual justice, a power-by-numbers seduction where digitally lynching people has become a sport we play between yoga class and lunch.
But then one day, when we log in to our Facebook app after lunch, maybe we will finally realize what all this is doing to us. We are pointing our pitchforks, lighting our torches, until we come to that harsh realization nobody wants to talk about; that in the end, all of us are Mohamed, and none of us are safe from ourselves.
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