The Sickness of Social Media

This morning, as I do most mornings, I was checking out my Twitter feed as I munched on my cornflakes.

It was the usual mixture of seemingly innocuous rubbish that you tend to find on social media these days – cute animals, second-hand advertising, and endless self-promotion. The competitive mourning, the “ooh, look what I’m eating/drinking”, the cod philosophy, the vapid self-help “inspirational” quotes and videos, and the seemingly never-ending selfies. Not to mention those utterly pointless “Which colour/fairy-tale princess/meat-based product/cocktail/brain-dead invertebrate are you?” quizzes.

Then there’s the political hot-potato/social injustice of the day, where people post and re-post endlessly about how rotten the country is, that the world is doomed, and how we’re basically all going to hell in a hand-basket, but we can all be saved if we just simply re-post other people’s second-hand thoughts instead of actually getting up off our arses and doing something to make a difference.

Now I’m no social media saint – I’ve certainly been guilty of some of these transgressions myself – but, generally, I’ve always tried to use social media as a place to express my own thoughts and ideas. I’ve mostly shied away from the politico-social stuff, although I did get involved in the Scottish Independence debate, but at least I posted my own writings, rather than simply re-posting the thoughts of others.

The Scotland debate and the subsequent UK General Election showed many of my Facebook “friends” in a new, and slightly sinister light. As a result of discussing my, to my mind, liberal and progressive views on both Scottish and British affairs, I found myself variously accused of being a traitor, an idiot, and even, on several occasions, a Nazi. By people on both sides of the debate.

With this in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that I decided to leave Facebook. After all, what’s the point of reading such vile, mindless drivel? Life’s too short to be irritated by such things. Twitter, I told myself, is better anyway. People are generally more relaxed there. The tone tends to be lighter and more humorous, and, besides, what damage can people do in 140 characters?

Rather a lot, it would seem.

Today my Twitter feed presented me with a photograph of a drowned child’s corpse lying on a beach. Not a link. A photograph. Right there on my screen, where, had I been in a cafe or on the bus or train, any child who happened to look over my shoulder would have seen it.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed many horrors crop up on social media feeds, posted by, no doubt, well-meaning people genuinely seeking to inspire some sort of social change in our modern world.

The first example was the execution of Saddam Hussein. I was stunned by how many links appeared on my feeds that would allow me to watch, unedited, footage of a man being put to death. I never clicked one of them. A tyrant and monster he most certainly was, but I felt that if I chose to watch his execution, then I would become complicit in it, and a little part of myself would die that day too.

In more recent years, there have been many filmed beheadings in the Middle East, all there on my social media feeds, just a single click away. Again, for the same reasons, I demurred, and refused to watch.

One day last year, however, social media sites redefined the boundaries of taste and censorship by allowing video links to play automatically on people’s feeds. So it was that, completely unaware of this update, I scrolled down my feed and was horrified to see a video, already playing, of a bound man being thrown to his death from a high building as punishment for being gay.

Today’s photo of that poor child, was in the same vein. Of course it is horrible, and the tragedy that befell that child is too awful to contemplate. How could any adult human being fail to be moved by such an image? But equally, how could any human child fail to be disturbed by that image? And thanks to endless re-posts and shares, there is a very strong chance that many children are going see it. Surely, nobody can think that is a good thing?

Social media has become a dangerous place. The person who posted this image of the drowned child did so to score political points against the Prime Minister, as his tweet makes abundantly clear. Thousands of people then saw that image, and, sickened by what they saw, and moved by compassion and indignation, instantly re-tweeted and shared it with all their friends and followers. In a matter of minutes, this image was all over the Internet, where young children could easily see it.

What does it say about us as human beings when with one simple click we give our tacit approval to the use of photos of dead children to further our political beliefs?

The use of graphic images of death as a means of achieving political change is abhorrent. It desensitises and dehumanises us. Social media makes it seem righteous. But it’s not. It’s cancerous and dangerous.

Such is the truly insidious nature of what social media has become. It is changing the way society thinks, yes, but not for the better.


  1. I agree Iain. We’ve got caught up in a social media spin & constantly check updates & statuses. It’s like a drug. When I have time away from it, I feel better for it but there’s a little niggle in the back of my mind, telling me I’m missing out on everyone’s thoughts & opinions! Why should I care so much? Before Twitter & Facebook, I was still a soppy git, who liked to mother & care for people. I am an inquisative human, who loves to know that everyone is having a good time. I have been shocked & upset by the images & instant videos of bullying, murdering, torturing etc. it is not a world I want shoved in my face all day. It affects my stae of mood for the rest of the day & I am SURE it’s not just me feeling this way. What is the answer? How can we as a collective, regain social media & change for the fun & light-hearted side? After all, it’s a little bit of fantasy & fairytale to take you away from the drudge of every day living. Where do we go from here?

  2. Thank you Iain for this sobering post, full of a rare kind of common sense and decency. I completely agree with what you have to say.

    1. Iain, thank you for your comments, with which I completely agree. I was shocked – physically shaken – by that photograph, which suddenly appeared without warning. I was so upset I wept for that poor little boy. I too never click on any of those prurient images and video clips if I can avoid them, and I don’t understand why people do.

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