Social media has changed the world.
This is a phrase we have all engaged with. Start typing “social media…” into the search bar and google will offer up the rest (albeit, editorialized). No podcast or youtube channel or TED talk goes without paying homage to this Truth. Columnists pick it up again and again like Hollywood picks up WWII movies.
It’s true. Granted, if we are to be facetious, everything, no matter how small, changes the world. But the fact remains that social media and its enabling technology has drastically changed the way we communicate and live our lives.
Let’s take yesterday’s events in Ottawa, Canada, as a case study.
Yesterday, at 10am, a soldier at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa was shot. A few minutes later, on Parliament Hill (geographically two/three walking minutes away from the War Memorial), shots were fired in the Centre Block lobby, where party caucus meetings were underway. MPs tweeted their thanks to Sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers for shooting an assailant on the Hill. It was not until 8:30pm that law enforcement lifted the security perimeter around the downtown area.
When we look at how the population of Ottawa came to be aware of the events, there are three distinct groups.
The first comprises of those people who were there; the direct witnesses of the event. These people saw the soldier get shot, hear the gunshots, rushed to help. We’re also talking about law enforcement, military personnel, medical response teams, and journalists. These people are the epicenter of the news. They are the ones that tweet, that post, that alert the radio, that take the videos and frame the events.
The second group ropes in all the people who are made aware of the events through directions by a higher power. At 11am, all government buildings, schools, universities were placed in lockdown. They are not direct witnesses of the event. Their understanding of the events is limited to what they are told: “we’re in lockdown”, “there are shooters on Parliament Hill”, “a soldier is dead”. Here, we have the institution of a State of Emergency. Within this group, colleagues provide solidarity in the belief and reinforce the existence of the Reality.
Then there is the third group – those who are working at home, who are geographically further from the events, who have holed up in the library for the day. In a world without voluminous and instantaneous media, this last group of people would probably not have come aware of the events unless they became part of Group 1 or Group 2.
Enter social media. Let’s take Student Alpha. Student Alpha has no class today, an assignment due tomorrow, and is studying away at home. Student Alpha would have remained in a cloud of innocence but for their subscription to CBC’s and their university’s twitter accounts. At 11am, tweet: CBC warns safety and precaution, #OttawaShooting. Shortly after, Student Alpha receives an Emergency Lockdown tweet from the university: “stop all activities, if possible, close and lock the door and turn off the lights. Silence cell phones. Keep away from doors and windows. Take cover and remain quiet until authorities instruct otherwise.”
Student Alpha, Group 3, is now part of the State of Emergency. It’s an odd in-between; Student Alpha has nothing to fear, despite being in Ottawa. But…they are in Ottawa, are they not? So Student Alpha locks up.
The third group’s awareness of the news is dangerous. Their understanding of the situation is not firsthand like Group 1, not carefully overviewed by authorities for factual correctness like Group 2. Their understanding comes solely from word of mouth (which, to use as a meter for probity, is, as hearsay, rarely accepted in a court of law).
The danger is in the sources. Student Alpha heard through CBC and the university. But what about Self-Employed Worker Gamma? Self-Employed Worker Gamma may have heard only through facebook posts and personal twitters – completely editorialized. Self-Employed Worker Gamma has been made part of the events, feels part of the events, but might have a completely different understanding of those fears that make them a part of the State of Emergency.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is yes, if you are subscribed to the twitter account belong to the tree next to it.
Because of social media, states of emergency do not only belong to those in proximity to the danger. A state of emergency belongs to everyone who chooses to be made part of it. It raises a question for another day: we say that social media isolates us (and the world will end in ice, from Robert Frost’s great apocalyptic poem), but after events like this, can the argument not be made that social media allows us to belong, by choice, to something greater than our immediate social reality?
keywords: social media, hearsay, emergency response, Ottawa Shooting 2014, communication, social reality
Genes^(patent power) | №7
Say Yes, Say No | №9