One of my favourite films is ‘The Fisher King’ – one of the most haunting scenes in it is where Radio ‘Shock Jock’ Jack Lucas repeats the words ‘Forgive me’ from a TV script he is hoping to star in, whilst, unbeknown to him, thoughtless comments made by himon his radio show have driven a mentally ill caller to take a gun to an upmarket bar and open fire on people there. The next scene in the film is of him three years later in a drunken rage after his life has fallen apart in the aftermath of the shooting, with his anger being directed at the actor who DID get teh role.
A few words uttered thoughtlessly in a public arena; in the film it was talk radio, but today it’s just as likely to be Facebook or other Social Media. Of course, Social Media is a valuable tool with which to organise groups that are angry at social and political issues, for example. But there are also a number of groups that go beyond what is acceptable:
- Threats to kill President Obama (and before him George Bush) – like this story here.
- A soccer referee targetted with death threats in 2009.
- Threats to slap a school administrator – less serious but still public.
There have been similar items featured on YouTube and Twitter – and as long as there has been any sort of media – starting with the pub on a Saturday night – there have always been public threats made against people. The reach of Social Media though makes these sorts of groups and viral campaigns different in some major ways:
- Sheer numbers – let’s face it, with Facebook you have a potential audience of 400 million people for your campaign.
- Persistence and visibility – until such a group is removed it’s there all the time and can be found via search engines inside the Social Media site and indirectly form outside the sites.
- Speed of activity – something can grow rapidly – much more rapidly than any campaign arranged through traditional media.
The obvious immediate result of this sort of mobilisation is the generation of ‘flash mobs’ – often for very good causes – where groups of people assemble, do something. then disappear. This can frequently be done in the space of a few hours, rather than the days or week traditionally required to get a traditional demo together.
However, a less obvious but more sinister aspect of the use of Social Media is what’s best called ‘validation’. This is something I’ve touched on in a previous blog post here on Joe’s Jottings – ‘Gazing in to the abyss’ – and it’s possibly more dangerously relevant when we look at the role of Social Media in generating a good, old fashioned, pitch-fork and torch carrying mob.
If you’re one slightly disturbed individual who thinks that a public figure deserves death, then the chances are that until recently you’d find very few people who agreed with you – or even if they agreed with you, would be very unlikely to publicly state it. Today, the world’s a different place. Your views can find validation in a number of ways – someone may set up a ‘jokey’ ‘Let’s kill X’ group or web site; other nutters may be more serious about it; or you might see groups on the Internet who just don’t like the person. And you might see all of these people as somehow validating your point of view – a little like Jack Lucas’s deranged listener.
Let’s just hope that we don’t have too many people saying ‘Forgive me’ as a consequence.