The Debate Over Hashtags Says A Lot About Our Priorities

January 26th 2015

Isabel Evans

The old saying in media was that "if it bleeds, it leads." On social media, where explosions of empathy evaporate just as quickly as they begin, it only leads if it bleeds a lot.

Everyone talked about the first missing Malaysian airline flight (yes, especially you, CNN) but we glossed over the horrific downing of the second in Ukraine and the other AirAsia flight that went missing until it was discovered in December.

We all remember the name James Foley, the first hostage that the Islamic State executed in cold blood. But how many of us know the names of Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig, and now Haruna Yukawa, the other men since brutally and openly executed? I for one had to Google to remember. It’s also quite blatant and embarrassing how much more attention we give to Western stories versus “other” ones. This summer, as western Africa was under siege from Ebola, all you could see on Facebook was tan bros doing the #icebucketchallenge (Yes, ALS is a worthy cause bla bla bla, raising social awareness bla bla bla, I GET IT). To be fair, people did post about Ebola for a hot minute or so...when it hit Texas.

And most recently, we have the world looking to Paris for #jesuischarlie, a despicable act of bloody terrorism. But as we turned in one direction, we ignored another. Boko Haram massacred who knows how many in Nigeria recently, mostly women, children, and the elderly, and yet it failed to #trend.

Charlie Hebdo Rally

There’s no question that most stories of injustice and terror around the world will continue to be ignored while a select few are blasted across the social hemisphere for everyone to gape over. But while we can’t control what gets attention in the media, we can be better about our collective memory loss and selective vision. 

If we feel strongly about an issue when it was first a hot topic, we should go back to it again when it’s cold, and no one’s talking about it anymore. We should be self-critical about how much more attention we pay to things that hit close to home. And for every Tweet or “like,” we can also push ourselves to get engaged in a more substantial way: sign a petition, lobby a member of Congress, attend a protest IRL. I often feel a sense of misplaced smugness when I write a vehement comment or share an article on my Facebook. Although I feel that I’ve contributed in some way, I’ve actually done nothing whatsoever.

In short, I think if we are so insistent on “spreading awareness,” (which sort of makes awareness sound like an infectious disease), we need to be a little more self-aware. And, even more so, we need to be self-critical about how we consume and share news.