I’ve been reconsidering my formerly relaxed attitude towards social media recently which some folks might call shutting the gate two years after my donkey bolted, but I would refer to instead as an extended and insightful love affair now turning a little sour.
I am starting to resent the amount of time it devours and its psychological effects with regards to particular news events. And I’m not even going to begin to detail how much tapping away at a keyboard is messing with my RSI and encouraging posture more akin to Rumpelstiltskin.
There’s one particular event which has really given me pause and that’s the influence that social media exerts over the investigation into the disappearance of Corrie McKeague.
Here we see social media at its very best and worst. This is a perplexing case which has broken new ground in terms of its relationship with the public and one which I believe will form an intriguing point of study for many years.
The Corrie McKeague case is probably the first one where a social media model has been useful across a wide demographic of heavily-engaged people both locally and further afield with countless sites devoted to sleuthing and a form of colloquial, pastoral support.
A complex relationship has developed where Corrie, his family and the invested public, along with the official police investigation, are bound together in a relationship enabled by social media which has appeared distinctly uneasy at times.
The Facebook campaign seemed to reach a tipping point just before Christmas and from then on it took on a life of its own. Nowadays, managing the Find Corrie Facebook page must be like herding cats and it’s no wonder the family have had to disable the comment function under so many posts.
At the heart of the case is the last CCTV footage of this young lad which is so very poignant in hindsight of what happened next; his apparent vanishing into thin air on a warm September night from a relatively quiet country town and I can’t see how anyone could not feel compassion for Martin McKeague and Nicola Urquhart and their wider family. It would dement me if one of our children disappeared and then had their personal life dissected in public, and the family’s ability to marshal themselves in the face of such trauma is terribly moving.
Alongside the positives of this huge campaign, we see an odd, vigilante mentality emerging across some platforms. This small group of people seem exhilarated by the twists and turns of the case; use sycophancy (trollings equal and opposite) to aggressively police and quell open discussion; threaten vigilante action of their own, presenting it as help and support; they display competitive compassion and then delight in accusing locals of involvement, often deliberately identifying those whom they deem as suspicious. People have allegedly driven Suffolk Police to distraction with obsessional phone calls, adding to the workload of an underfunded force. Despite warnings from more responsible group members, these accusations persist and those responsible for them seem to think that withholding the actual names of the people they are defaming, whilst identifying them via initials, or place of work and other demographics, will protect them from libel laws. Well it will not and what their actions might also do is potentially impair the Crown’s ability to hold a fair trial of people who are, under our laws, innocent until proven guilty. It would be absolutely tragic if there was maleficence involved in Corrie’s disappearance and the actions of a few prevented his family and Corrie himself benefiting from the justice they so deserve.
A former employer of mine used to advise staff ‘to not give away any more of oneself than one can afford to lose’ and this advice holds extra weight with social media.
Corrie’s parents have given much in trying to discover what has happened to their son but there are always people for whom this will never be enough: social media herd mentality is a ravenous beast.
Some group members have started to display feelings of entitlement and possessiveness about the family and should they be unable to fulfil their ever-increasing psychological needs or no longer conform to the narrative these people have constructed around them, it’s possible their more ardent supporters will turn on Corrie and his family.
What we are seeing is a specific social media demographic where some people behave more like idolising fans and this kind of behaviour could severely infiltrate the proper, lawful investigation and cause huge damage later on, not least to a family who, one day, will be in need of privacy.
-- Nicola Miller is author of The Millers Tale blog. Follow her on Twitter: @nicmillerstale