First of all, let me apologise for the very long delay since my last blog post. As you all know, the world is going through a lot of turmoil right now. I was also busy and travelling a lot and so I’ve had neither time nor the energy to blog. But anyway, I’m back and have a number of posts in mind for the next few weeks.
Before I begin, let me say this: My heart goes out to the victims of the horrific terrorist attack at Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament the other day. All whose loved ones were injured or killed in this senseless act of violence are in my thoughts. I admire the efficiency and bravery of the emergency services and the bystanders who rushed to help. There is never an excuse to commit such vile crimes in the pursuit of some political goal. In the case of this brand of Islamic terrorism (if this is indeed confirmed to be the case), the actual political goal is also pretty obscure. Either way, it is a meaningless and evil act. We should stand united in the face of such evil. Don’t be cowed into giving up liberty and justice and never give in to hate and fear.
Having said this, let me get to the point. For several years now Facebook has had this feature where people “mark themselves safe” when a terror attack strikes. I presume it may also be used for natural disasters but if so I haven’t seen that yet. From the first time I saw this, during the terror attack in Paris, I found this rather tasteless and also far from helpful.
Back then, many people criticised Facebook as the feature was heavily biased towards white, western countries. Around the same time of the Paris attacks there were several other attacks in Turkey and the Middle East. Nobody got to “mark themselves safe” during those attacks. And in certain parts of the world terror attacks are a weekly occurrence. So the outrage over Facebook starting this feature for attacks in Europe is understandable. But I think it is misplaced: Facebook has always rolled out their new features in a geographically limited way and they typically start in the western world where they are based. There is also a related discussion to be had about in-groups and out-groups. And about our habituation to bad news: sad as it may be, even after this string of terror attacks in European cities they remain more newsworthy than those in Baghdad or Kabul where this seems to happen all the time. Since then, Facebook have expanded their use of this feature to non-western countries. Whether this was because of people’s complaints or they always planned this I do not know. But either way, it is no longer limited to the West.
What annoys me about this Facebook feature is something else however. To me it seems demeaning and callous. I don’t think the emotional engagement we should have with such events and the concern we should feel for our fellow human beings should be condensed down to a button press and notification on social media. Perhaps I’m just an old fart who doesn’t comprehend the way the modern world works. I certainly don’t really understand dating via Tinder and a lot of the social media communication millennials get up to these days (snapstagram or chat roulette or whatever they’re called). And don’t get me started on the excessive hash tagging.
But there is a big difference: most of those other things are trivial or affectations. I have no problem with people looking for casual sex or even seeking a life partner via modern social media if this is what works for them. I may not understand the excessive selfie craze and glammed up pictures some people post of themselves emulating the growing ranks of celebrities who are only famous for being famous. But I don’t have a problem with that. It’s up to each and everyone how they want to spend their spare time and what they do in the pursuit of happiness. And of course I use social media too. I like using Facebook actually and use it often (some of my friends probably think too often, although they vastly overestimate how much time it actually takes from my life). Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family. I even got back in touch with some really old friends who I would not otherwise have any contact with now. So I don’t even feel that all of our social media contact is trivial. I have some very meaningful human contact that way and rekindled old friendships.
In contrast, this marking safe business seems deeply inappropriate to me. It trivialises the gravity of the situations. In my view, our emotional reaction to a situation like this should go beyond an emoji or clicking a “sad” button. You might say, to each their own. You don’t have to use this thing and can turn off notifications about this. But it’s not that simple. That’s not how social media work. The whole feature is designed around the idea that people mark themselves safe, thus spreading the word, and also ask their friends if they are safe. It creates a kind of peer pressure that coerces people into marking themselves “safe” causing a chain reaction that makes the whole thing spiral out of control.
You might also say, that is is a good and social thing to get in touch with your friends and loved ones. As I said, I use social media too. I am not Susan Greenfield, or any one of those people who think that staring into your phone or having social contact via the internet withers away our interhuman contact. Quite to the contrary in fact. I remember seeing this excellent cartoon about how smart phones are all about interhuman contact but sadly my google skills are too poor to find it. I most certainly disagree with this article – it is nonsense in so many ways.
But again, there is a difference: getting in touch with your loved ones is not the same as seeing a notification (or even requesting) that they “mark themselves safe”. It seems so cold, so removed from humanity. Of course, you worry about your loved ones. The clue why is in the word. You see on the news that some tragedy occurred and you want to know your friends and family are all right. Well then, pick up that smart phone of yours and send them a message or give them a call! The best way to find out if they are okay and letting them know you care about them is to speak to them. Several friends and family got in touch with me via phone or email or instant message asking if we are okay. And I certainly did the same. I have friends and family in Paris and in Berlin and I contacted them when the terror attacks there happened. On the day of the 7/7 bombings I contacted all of my London friends at the time. Even though I realise that the odds of any of them being caught up in these events are low, you also want them to know you think of them, find out how they feel, and give them some consolation and support. By all means, use social media for that purpose – it’s very good for that. But to me, reducing this down to one tap of your finger on the phone is sorely insufficient. I hardly says “I care” and in some ways it even seems to disrespect the victims and the plight of those people who actually grieve for their loved ones.
And then there is the practical side of this. The blunt nature of the algorithms behind this feature and the fact that people (quite rightly) don’t actually share all the details of their lives on Facebook causes some really stupid artifacts. Not only is Egham (home of Royal Holloway “University of London”) really, really safe, my department in actual London was also pretty safe from this terror attack (ironically enough, my department is right next to several of the sites of the 7/7 bombings, in particular the bus bombing at Tavistock Square). While I have walked across Westminster Bridge and past Parliament many times, believe me, it’s not where I spend most of my work days. And while of course it was possible that the terrorist didn’t act alone and other attacks might be happening (a common feature to IS and Al-Qaeda attacks), there were no reports of anything else happening at the time. But what if there had been other attacks? What if your friend marks themselves “safe” of the first one and then gets caught up in the second? Is there a way to “unmark” yourself again? And would that really be your first priority in that situation?
The even more bizarre artifacts of Facebook’s indiscriminate scatter approach are of course that it not only wants us to make sure people in Egham are okay but also those in galaxies far, far away. On the mark yourself safe page I saw several people who haven’t lived in London for years but are in the United States and other places thousands of miles away. Not everyone changes their personal details every time they move because that really isn’t always the most important thing in their lives. And of course, some people may have been in London at the time even though according to their “official Facebook records” they live somewhere else. They will fall through the cracks completely.
A much more severe side effect, however, is the distorted picture of reality this sort of thing produces. The tweet by Hanna Isotalus I already mentioned starts a thread elaborating on this problem. This whole business of marking yourself safe actually has the consequence of making everyone feel less safe than they are. While of course horrible and tragic for everyone who was involved, as I already said this attack was a pretty isolated event. By drawing this much attention to it by frantically requesting everyone who has anything to do with London mark themselves “safe” we actually vastly exaggerate its effects. The same can probably also be said about the intense news coverage of such events.
The casualties of terrorism in the western world have clearly declined considerably over the past decades. Admittedly, there are some spikes in recent years and most of those are related to jihadist terrorism. However, the actual reach of these attacks in Europe or the US is very small compared to the extent of fear-mongering and political agonising it causes. Also, not that it should matter but a very large proportion of Islamist terror happens in predominantly Muslim countries and most certainly a large proportion of the victims are Muslims.
This stands in stark contrast to the number of people injured and killed all the time by car accidents or – in the US anyways – by guns. It stands in contrast to the risks we are subjected to every day. Nobody seems to think to mark themselves safe every time they take a car or cross a road as if they’d unlocked some achievement in a computer game. I have yet to see a notification on Facebook from one of my many daredevil colleagues telling me “I rode my bike to work and managed to survive for yet another day”.
So as Hanna points out, you are safe. Marking yourself safe doesn’t make you safe. Take a step back (but omit the deep breaths – in London that is actually dangerous). Think about what this really achieves. By all means, contact your loved ones to let them know you care. While statistically they are not at risk, there is one distinct difference between accidents and terrorism. An accident happens by misfortune or neglect. Crime and terrorism are deliberate acts of evil. Talking to your friends and family who happen to be close to such things shows your support. And of course, please pay your respects to the victims, console the ones close to them, and honour the heroes who saved people’s lives and bring the perpetrators to justice.
But don’t buy into this callous scheme of “marking yourself safe”. You’re just playing into the terrorists’ hands. You just spread the fear they want to cause, the hatred and divisions they want to incite, and it contributes to the continued erosion of our liberties and way of life. It strengthens the forces who want to undermine our freedom and respect for one another. All those far-right politicians may not know it but they are bedfellows of these Islamist murderers. Sorry for the cliche but it’s true: If we buy into this crap, the terrorists win.