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In age of social media sharing, civil discourse is needed after tragedies

REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin
Wooden crosses memorializing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

In the age of social media, individual expression has become more visible and ubiquitous than ever before. From posted text to digitally altered images and homemade videos, we are sharing more of our feelings — and more about ourselves — than was the case even three years ago. We are living in a mobile communication environment, and wherever we are, we are sharing.

Peter Joseph Gloviczki
Peter Joseph Gloviczki

Online sharing is especially prevalent in the aftermath of major news events that strike deep emotional chords. At the click of a mouse, we might find ourselves in heated arguments, and our social media conversations can — and do, too often — devolve into name-calling and personal attacks. Last month’s horrific events have shocked and saddened us, leaving us with the challenging task of trying to make sense of the nonsensical. It is not surprising that emotions run high in the social media environment when this process has just begun.

But tragedies like the shooting at Sandy Hook can also bring us closer together. Following the  tragedy in Connecticut, many have been using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to express difficult feelings. One Facebook community, created to memorialize the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, amassed more than 250,000 “likes” in just a few days after the shootings. 

A potential to unite or divide

Social media sharing has the potential to divide or unite us. Active media users would do well to work toward respectful social media conversation in the aftermath of tragedies. Civil, focused online discourse may sometimes seem like an impossible task, but social media conversations that have unfolded in the aftermath of past tragedies suggest it is indeed possible.

I spent four years studying the 2007 Virginia Tech school shootings, in which 32 people were killed and dozens injured on the Blacksburg, Va., campus. I focused on the case of the “In Memorial: Virginia Tech” Facebook group, formed on the same day as the shootings. The group amassed 185 wall postings in its first 36 hours and featured more than 3,000 users at its peak.

Of these first 185 postings, all but one was respectful and focused on the victims in the shootings. “In Memorial: Virginia Tech” users used two key news items — the death toll on day one, and Virginia Tech professor and poet Nikki Giovanni’s convocation speech on day two — to gradually begin the process of making sense of and bringing meaning to these events.

A way to listen and learn

Sharing via social media has grown exponentially in the five years since the Virginia Tech tragedy. These online conversations are increasingly part of how we use media in our everyday lives. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, our social media conversations can encourage us to listen and learn from one another, in the spirit of civil discussion and mutual respect.

In this way, we as users can work toward a fuller understanding of the particulars of this event, while building a lasting legacy that honors the victims.

 Peter Joseph Gloviczki, Ph.D., is a media, information and communication researcher. He lives in Minneapolis. 


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