August 1, 2014 2:45 pm

A feeding frenzy on Facebook

One of the key lessons of recent years is that the power of social media is reduced if everyone is talking and no one is listening

The Facebook feed has been filling with rage about Gaza. Well, my wife’s Facebook feed, to be precise. I long ago culled anyone who would use the site to bother me with their entirely predictable opinions on the Middle East. Among the many rules I applied when purging my feed was that Facebook friends had to be people I would want to go for a drink with. Anyone who might bombard me with ludicrously one-sided views on Israel/Palestine is probably a drinking buddy I’d forsake for a pressing subsequent engagement.

My wife, however, has always been more generous in her friendships. Both sides of the Gaza conflict are represented in her feed, both furiously posting pieces which support their point of view. All are posting but no one is talking. Some of her “friends” are bad enough; but some of their friends are intolerable. At night as she scrolls through the feed, occasionally beckoning me over, we have found ourselves wishing Facebook had the online equivalent of Israel’s Iron Dome shooting down all incoming fusillades before they strike civilisation.

I imagine our experience is shared by those who know Ukrainians and Russians; rightwing Republicans in the US; Syrians and even Scots as the independence campaign moves towards its climax. One experiences the same thing on Twitter; but Twitter at least is a broadcast medium and posts there do not feel personally intrusive in the way they do on Facebook.

An illustration depicting extreme advocacy on Facebook©Lucas Varela

I recognise that people feel the need to “do something” but the dissemination of content on Facebook seems more akin to that of an information quartermaster, arming allies with arguments they can use in daily life. “Now then, troops, you are heading out into the debating zone; make sure you are all equipped with reasons why Hamas started it.” Perhaps this is inevitable but one of the key lessons of recent years is that the power of social media is reduced if everyone is talking and no one is listening.

The extreme advocacy is an inevitable consequence of an extreme event but it is also part of a mythology of the power of social media. Where once we believed social media would change the world, increasingly we can see its limitations as the world simply adapts to it. It may work well in calling out an individual but as organisations and states devote more resources to managing their social media profile, the truth it once illuminated is now more easily obscured.

A similar, though more benign, example of fallibility can be seen in what might be called hashtag compassion. This phenomenon sees worldwide campaigns for normally good causes tweeted out with a common call to action – a slogan preceded by a hashtag. Underpinning this is a frankly unproven belief in the power of collective action. It is rather like a protest rally but without all that tedious standing around. The most notable recent example has been the #bringbackourgirls campaign over the kidnapped Nigerians. Other equally well-meaning efforts include #standwithsnowden, #endpoverty and Domino’s Pizza’s #letsdolunch.

In recent weeks it has become common to deride hashtag compassion as useless egotism, a virtual wristband designed more as a statement about the person posting it than in the belief that it will actually help. Crueller souls have observed that even the support of Michelle Obama and the widespread appeal of the #bringbackourgirls campaign has not melted the hard hearts of the Boko Haram kidnappers. Don’t they understand anything about social media? This is bloody Twitter demanding you back down. Defying Twitter is just not done, old boy. Who do they think they are – the Daily Mail?

And yet, as the bile and fury of the Gaza partisans rained down on the world’s Facebook feeds, I have found myself warming to what once seemed the facile hashtag sympathy. It may achieve little; it may puff up the ego of the person posting it; but amid an ever-more shrill and snarling web, it does at least represent a belief in humanity and a call for a kinder world.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

Illustration by Lucas Varela

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE