Social media – the death knell of the death knock

By | April 22, 2024
Floral tributes at Bondi Junction

Two recent events in Australia have again brought to the fore the impacts social media are having on life in general and the media in particular.

In chronological order, the first was a mass stabbing of mainly women and children at a crowded shopping mall in the upscale eastern suburbs of Sydney. The second – which also began with a stabbing – demonstrated how social media could quickly magnify a relatively mundane crime into a street riot, with attacks on police and damage to dozens of emergency vehicles.

While the circumstances of both were very different, the key issues at the centre were essentially the same – how social media can take events out of the hands of people involved and make them uncontrolled public property; in the case of the second stabbing, causing a mass hysteria within minutes amongst 2000-plus otherwise ordinary people that escalated so quickly the police and emergency services were nearly overwhelmed.

The first issue first.

On a busy Saturday afternoon in April 2024, an effectively homeless man with serious mental health issues rampaged through the crowded Westfield Shopping Centre at Bondi Junction, stabbing people indiscriminately with a large knife. Six people died and many more were injured before a police officer on-hand shot him dead.

It was a sudden and unexpected tragedy in a country that has little modern experience of mass killings.[i]Radio and TV stations broke into their regular programming to report the latest facts and for several days the event was seldom off the front page. Mountains of flowers were laid at the entrance to the mall, tributes were paid, politicians promised to take action and many people mourned the loss of the dead and injured they loved, worked with or just knew.

As information became available, the media dug up more and more details about the dead, their backgrounds, their personal stories and their lives. All of this is normal when reporting on shocking news events such as this. Journalists have been doing it for decades, generally without complaints, though perhaps not without deepening the grief of the victim’s friends and loved ones.

But amongst all this fast-moving coverage and chaos, a small but significant harm was being done by the media through its use of social media to gather material for their stories.

Either through deadline pressures or carelessness, many of them downloaded information from the victims’ social media accounts, including photographs of them and, sometimes, their families. They did not ask their relatives for permission – and their arguments were that they didn’t need to seek it anyway. They chose pictures that suited their needs, perhaps without considering the effect that might have on their grieving loved ones.

The issue is well encapsulated in this article by criminologist Laura Wajnryb McDonald.

To anyone who has worked in journalism since before the online age, the issue of obtaining photos and getting permission from families to use them forms a sort of dividing line between the old world and the new.

I still remember as a young apprentice/cadet journalist in the 1970s the stomach-sinking feeling of being assigned the task of interviewing relatives of the newly-deceased and obtaining a photograph of their loved one – what was then called “the death knock”.

Unused to tragedy on such a scale, I dreaded knocking on their front door to be met with who-knows-what response from the people inside, whom I could often hear wailing with grief. With luck, a neighbour or family friend might answer and mediate my task of intruding on the worst day of their lives. I often wept with them, perhaps compounding their anguish. But most often I was met with politeness and occasionally sympathy for my own discomfort. And remarkably, on occasions I’d walk in to be asked: “Where have you been. You took your time!”

Working for a daily paper in a small town of about 150,000 people like Grimsby, we were expected to cover significant deaths, to even be a signifier that the loved one was worthy of a few column inches and a photo “in the Telegraph”.

After an often-uncomfortable interview, the time would come to ask for a photo of their loved one. I’d let them choose, usually from an album, occasionally from a treasured frame on the mantle shelf. I might advise which photo might be better than others, but it was always their call, even if they couldn’t explain why one was more suitable for them. It would be offered and accepted with reverence, and I would always assure them I would take care of it and return it to them, which I mostly did.

They were simpler, different times, and the death knock was a lived example of community and humanity, journalism with a human face by people who were part of a common world.

That has been lost by being able to trawl the Internet for a photo of a murder or accident victim and download it without asking permission from their family, without them even knowing what we had done till it appears on the front page or in a TV news bulletin.

The laws are ambiguous on the legitimacy of using photos without permission – and in most countries news reporting is specifically excepted from copyright – so most journalists today simply do what is fast and convenient, especially for newsrooms that are forever under-staffed by reporters tethered to their desks electronically. They avoid having to do the death knock, to confront the grief in what they are reporting. And while something has been gained, something also has been lost.

Social media as multiplier of hysteria

The second case of abuse by social media has been common for years and will undoubtedly become more so until regulators and lawyers say enough is enough, i.e. not in the near future.

The latest furore – and conflict between Twitter/X and the Australian eSafety Commission – began inevitably on social media itself.

The putative bishop of the Assyrian Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney was YouTube live-streaming a service from his church in Wakeley when he was confronted and stabbed by a 16-year-old young man not of his religion. Bishop Mari Emmanuel had become noted for his right-wing views on matters such as COVID vaccinations, lockdowns and LGBTQ+ rights. His social media videos attacking Jews and Muslims had also spread his fame internationally as “the TikTok bishop”. So the ground on which he preached was already tinder-dry before his attacker, yelling “Alahu Akbar”, set fire to it. It then only took the winds of social media to fan an immediate inferno.

Where once news of such an attack would have taken many hours, even days, to circulate amongst his followers – time for some facts and level-headed considerations to cool the anger – now social media blew it into the homes of his adherents instantly and ill-informed.

Thousands of them, hyped by resentment, misinformation or an existing antipathy towards Muslims, flooded into the suburban streets around the church. For several hours a riot ensued, during which 51 police officers were injured, 20 police vehicles were damaged, six paramedics were trapped inside the church and several houses were broken into.

Rightly or wrongly, the NSW state government declared the stabbing a terrorist incident under Australian law and despite an interdenominational gathering of religious leaders calling for calm, the whole affair damaged Australia’s vaunted multiculturalism and unleashed aftershocks of ever-latent anti-Islamic and Antisemitic hatred.

The conflagration ignited on 15 April was not easily extinguished. The major social media platforms mostly responded positively when Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant issued legal notices to Google, Meta, Twitter/X, WhatsApp, Telegram and Reddit to report on how they were protecting Australian users from terrorist and violent extremist material on their platforms. But at the time of writing, Elon Musk-owned Twitter/X was still refusing to take down offending material, claiming it was an issue of freedom of speech and Australia didn’t have jurisdictional authority to order it.

Whatever the outcome of that particular stoush, the damage has already been done.

Social media has immeasurably changed the lives of individuals and countries around the world, sometimes for the better, sometimes to their detriment, and such incidents will doubtless continue to occur.

[i] Australia, of course, had a terrible birth, with numerous massacres of Aboriginal people in the 19th Century, but few Australians care to place them on the same timeline as modern mass murders.

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