Look out where your attention flows

In the recent days, I’ve often read lines like „I’m scared of looking at what’s trending on Twitter as it’s mostly about new attacks“ or „this feeling of fear when you see a city trending and you know immediately something bad has happened“. It’s not a Scottish phenomenon as such, but I felt like this blog is the right place to talk about it. This very morning I checked Twitter as usual, and a strange hashtag was the top trend in several countries. It was about a girl I had never heard of. She turned out to be a YouTube-blogger. One of many. Many many. Thousands. And her subject isn’t special as well: beauty, fashion, blabla. Yesterday, she already had lots of subscribers what might be owed to her pretty face, less to the content, but I’m not here to judge. She’s successful as a blogger without a doubt. Today though, the whole wide world knows her, and she’s in the news in her home country England just like in Germany, Spain, Italy and even in the far East. So what has happened?

Obviously: nothing. That girl posted a video, someone found her behaviour suspicious in the meaning of: assumed she was acting as if she was scared and in danger. It’s hard to track how exactly a world wide panic emerged from this, but supposedly this person who thought she was in danger didn’t call the police – that’s what people are meant to do if someone is in danger and there’s no traceable way to help them directly, isn’t it? -, but created a hashtag beginning with the key word „save“ followed by the name. So actually, whoever observed whatever ceded the responsibility to others. And thousands followed. Conspiracy theories followed as well. The range is (the tag is still trending, believe it or not) from „she took drugs“ or rather „she was forced to take drugs“ and „she was abused by her bf, and he took her accounts over“ to – no joke! – „she was kidnapped by ISIS and will be in the centre of an attack in London today“. Sorry: What?

I mean, I don’t want to bring this whole situation into ridicule: It’s a possible scenario that a video-blogger attracts dangerous „fans“ and could be searched for, found and threatened in one way or another, it’s even a possible scenario that someone pleas for help using the internet if there’s no other way to get in touch with people. And it’s good and right that people who notice suspicious behaviour react on it. But not by creating a hashtag and obsessing about becoming an „online detective“ by „solving“ a „strange case“ and develop conspiracy theories further and further. The only healthy reaction would be to either get there and make sure she’s fine (addressed to friends/family) or inform people who can make sure she’s fine on a professional basis, usually the police (addressed to strangers). Someone obviously was healthy enough to react like that as the British Mirror  reported that the police have visited the girl and found her safe and sound. For me, the case should have been closed with the police statement. Not for the blogger and her growing fan base though. The day went on with a live stream where she claimed again and again she’s fine, and people replying again and again that they don’t believe it. And goes on with more conspiracy theories.

As I said, that particular case is solved from my view. But the situation is not. And this crazy viral panic teaches us some things about the internet and social media we surprisingly weren’t aware of yet as it seems.

  1. Showing off in the internet and becoming a public person in one way or another is not harmless. Everyone, and young people in the first place, should first think and then post. It’s not really a big difference if you post beauty advice or saucy content, you are making you available to all people around the world with an internet access, including dangerous criminals. This is not a game. I don’t consider a bunch of follows and likes important enough to put my privacy and life in danger. If you agree, don’t chase after attention but use the possibilities of the internet with reason and responsibility. Attention can be an ego boost, but also a danger. What brings us to
  2. It’s one thing to keep yourself informed about what’s going on, it’s another thing to fall for everything you see and allow yourself to be dragged into becoming part of it without putting into question whether or not the source is reliable and the information is complete. Now, I’m a journo, and fully educated journos tend to ask and ask again before they pin something down. That’s probably „too much“ for the common crowd, but a bit of it prevents everyone from getting taken in by pranks and hoaxes. So: Checking on spectacular hashtags is okay, immediately and unreflectecly having an opinion and posting it (and, by that, forwarding false or incomplete information to spread) is not. And
  3. There’s a risk about attention, and especially too much attention. What brings us back to the beginning and the constant bad news of the past few days. People do bad things to get attention, they murder innocent people, they attack places and festivals and churches. In order to get attention. Attention for their aims. Attention is also a fundament for fear. No one is scared of things they don’t notice. Attention, seen from a psychological view (behaviourism), is also an intensifier. It acts as a positive reward and encourages people to go on with what they do and even increase the intensity. It’s hard to ignore news about terrorism etc., of course, and we should not. But the question is how we can talk about it and find solutions without giving the aggressors attention. Group dynamics on social media are sometimes indeed a strong reinforcement for unhealthy deeds and ideas. People who have a different belief system and consider the Western World to be full of dregs who are not entitled to be alive, let alone to have an opinion, don’t notice all the well-intentioned comments and think „oh, they close ranks, they pray for each other, how impressive“, they only see that they get attention and that they spread panic and distract people from their normal lifes. And this is what they want. Loyality and helpfulness are essential building bricks of a civilised society, yes, but we need to find a way to live them instead of expressing them excessively on social media which virtually helps anyone really. Neither a girl if she’d had been really kidnapped nor the victims of violent attacks.

So the lesson I have learnt from today: No support for attention seekers of all kinds, instead we need a healthy communication about how to use the internet for growing togetherness not ego on the one hand, and how to grow stronger against people who don’t want us to live our lives on the other hand.

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