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What effect is social media having on the way we mourn global tragedies?

Updated Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Is the outpouring of grief we see on social media after a terrorist attack or the death of a prominent figure a sincere expression of emotion, or more to do with self-promotion?

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Social media has become an integral part of the way we process and respond to global tragedies. But the reaction to the ‘faked’ tube sign that circulated after last the terrorist attack in London in March shows that opinions are still divided about the authenticity of the emotion that’s expressed online. Can the way in which a message is expressed really invalidate what it’s saying? And are online expressions of grief any less heartfelt when they incorporate novel forms such as hashtags, memes or emoji?

It’s twenty years now since the death of the Princess of Wales led to what’s became known as the Dianafication of public mourning – the spontaneous and large-scale outpouring of grief that follows a national or international tragedy, and the way this can often seem to be as much about an individual’s self-promotion as it is about sincere emotion. 

That was in the infancy of the internet, and well before the invention of modern social media. In the last few years it’s become a standard part of the culture for mass shows of grief and solidarity to accompany global tragedies. Social media has become a first line of emotional response, to the extent that tech companies now incorporate features such as the temporary profile image to facilitate this.

Since the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris particularly, the rallying of expression around hashtags of support or condolence (e.g. #JeSuisCharlie) has become the online counterpart of the candlelit vigil, creating spontaneous global communities united in mourning. But in some quarters this ‘ecstatic sharing’ is devaluing the meaning of public grief. It’s seen as a counterpart to clicktivism and other forms of zero-effort political engagement, with the authenticity of the emotion involved being called into question.

The ‘faked’ tube sign in the aftermath of the terror attack in Westminster was an interesting case in this respect. The message read ‘All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you’. Its mixture of defiance and national stoicism resonated with many in the UK, leading to it being shared by journalists, read out in parliament, and even applauded by the prime minister. For most, the fact that it was later revealed to be a digitally-generated meme rather than a real-world artefact was of little importance. They agreed with the image’s creator that the sentiment was still valid, and that its format was simply an example of the ‘remix culture’ which is so much a part of the internet.

Yet often the question of how we express our emotions is seen as being almost as important as the message itself. Another recent trend in posts of public mourning has been the inclusion of emoji, such as the broken heart or the crying face. For some, this trend feels highly inappropriate. Emoji ‘aren’t meant to describe super serious sentiments,’ writes blogger Mehak Anwar, ‘they are, after all, silly little characters that look more or less like cartoons’.

Although the use of emoji now extends into all domains of life, from politics to education, for many they’re still associated with a type of expression which is light-hearted, even childish. And this association colours the meaning they have in all contexts. For example, when a Cincinnati news station reported a child’s suicide with an emoji of a crying face they were roundly criticised for their insensitivity. And when the singer Cher included a bomb emoji in her tweet reacting to last year’s attacks in Brussels, she was likewise met with outrage by her fans. In both cases there was clearly no intention to offend, but the means of expression overshadowed the sentiment. And whereas hashtags such as #JeSuisCharlie are now mostly accepted as part of the repertoire for expressing solidarity, it seems that the use of emoji still provokes censure from the grief police.

Practices are, however, changing, and there are different expectations in different contexts. For example, this type of controversy doesn’t exist for the use of the sad-face reaction that’s available on Facebook for responding to posts about tragic events. In fact, this option was specifically added following a request from users, who felt that the all-purpose Like button wasn’t able to express the full range of sentiments they often had. In this instance then, an emoji is seen as perfectly acceptable for reacting to traumatic news.

Still, we seem to be a long way from accepting the full range of resources for online expression when it comes to serious contexts such as grieving. But this is perhaps as much to do with our perceptions of what counts as an appropriate reaction to death more generally, rather than anything specific about social media. We’re still unsure whether it’s best to conceal our reactions to death and cope with them privately, away from everyday activities. Or whether to make them visible, to share our emotional responses and incorporate the fact of death and grieving as a part of everyday life. 

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