Almost a week ago now, a former student took an AR-15 assault rifle to a school in Parkland, Florida and ended the lives of 17 people before he snuck out of the school and was arrested by police officers away from the school.
I made a concerted effort to stay off of social media most of this past weekend because I was already a bit exhausted at a lot of the response I was seeing to the tragedy last Wednesday.
All of us process tragedy and grief and frustration in different ways. I understand that. In the not-so-distant past, I aired all of my grievances on Twitter for everyone to see, just so they knew how righteous I was. I try not to do that much anymore.
This is not to say that anyone who expresses concern or frustration on social media is prideful. That’s just where I was and I knew I needed to stop, or at least pull back as much as I could.
Anyway, as I was reading through tweets responding to the shooting in Parkland this past week, before I got fed up and had to stop, I noticed a few trends that were particularly concerning.
I should say before I continue, what follows are my opinions. These suggestions are not stone-cold social media sins. So, take them as you will.
Here are three ways NOT to use social media immediately following a tragedy:
1. Focusing on the criminal.
One of the news-focused YouTubers I watch on a regular basis does a really good job of this with his content. Unless the terrorist/shooter is on the run and the authorities need help catching the criminal, the YouTuber does not say the name or show the picture of the perpetrator. This is wise.
Don’t give attention and fame to the criminal. It doesn’t help and only stokes the desire of fame and notoriety of other, hopeful killers.
2. Using the tragedy to forward your own agenda.
This is probably the most controversial of the three points, but it is the one about which I am most passionate.
Following a shooting, bombing, or other tragic event, it is so, so tempting to use the situation to promote our own agendas. This can be problematic no matter how noble our motivations and agendas may be.
After mass shootings, the gun debate always gets cranking again. Those who think gun regulations should be increased point to the kind of gun that was used and the manner in which it was acquired. Those who think gun regulations are already too restrictive find aspects of the criminal that would have led him/her to commit the crime, whether the gun was available or not.
I don’t have a strong opinion about gun control. I think there are good arguments on both sides of the issue. Regardless, it doesn’t seem to me that immediately following a tragedy is the best time to debate this issue on social media. Tempers are hot and emotions are high, and trying to have constructive discussions in such an atmosphere is usually impossible.
To be fair, I don’t know that debates serious issues like gun control, immigration reform, or otherwise should ever take place on social media. I simply don’t think the medium was built to handle such burdens, but that’s just the Neil Postman in me.
I do think this social media “rule,” if you will, could be relaxed if the victims of the tragedy are taking the steps to talk about the choice agenda on social media. Like in the case of the Parkland tragedy, many of the student victims have been very vocal about gun control regulation online. If the victims are leading the way, I think talking about the issue at hand can be appropriate (though I maintain my normal qualms with discussing weighty matters of legislation on social media as mentioned above in italics).
3. Criticizing the people involved.
Following the tragic school shooting in Parkland last week, I saw a number of parties involved on the receiving end of a lot of criticism.
The FBI supposedly didn’t act on intel it had on the shooter in 2017.
YouTube played host to a comment from the shooter in which he said he wanted to be a professional school shooter.
Others criticized the school for not doing enough to prevent the shooter from being able to cause havoc in the first place.
Are there parties involved that could have maybe done a better job at preventing or more quickly stopping the shooting? Perhaps. I simply don’t think it is constructive to take to social media as armchair critics and slam people in the wake of tragedy. I think it lacks compassion and the ability to “read a room” so-to-speak online.
A Few Ways to Respond
As followers of Jesus, I don’t think it’s trite to offer prayers on social media for the communities involved in tragic events. Of course, offering prayers don’t “fix” what has happened, but I still think it is more constructive than spitting fire at any- and everyone you think is at fault in the situation.
Point people to Jesus following tragedies like this. Even if you aren’t connected to communities involved, point your followers to Jesus and remind them of the peace that surpasses all understanding or the hope we have in the promises of God.
We would be wrong to think pointing people to Jesus or offering prayers will erase the grief others feel or fix the root problems that cause our tragedies. But that doesn’t mean these encouraging actions are void.
We must use social media with eternity in mind. Focusing on the criminal, pushing our personal agendas, and criticizing others involved tend to distract from this goal.