The cruelty and kindness of social media in the midst of a disaster

I saw it on Instagram.
I saw it on Instagram.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Over the weekend, I watched my hometown burn. Because I live 5,000 miles away, I watched this from my flat in London, mostly via Instagram.

That I could anxiously spend a weekend in this manner is a testament to the strange discordance of social media. In the space of a few seconds, it’s possible to scroll past an aspirational vacation snapshot right onto a mass shooting tribute, followed by a thirsty selfie and a political meme. We scarcely pause to register the jumble of emotions we’re taking in. However, when disaster hits close to home—and, by extension, begins to fill up our feeds—the cruelty and kindness of social media comes into focus in a way that’s normally overlooked.

Of course, at any given moment, for any one of the earth’s billions of social media users, there is always a disaster occurring close to home, or in a community you once called home. Typhoons, floods, massive fires, gun violence, terrorist attacks—you name it. (In the last seven days, the area I grew up in experienced two of those, with the mass shooting at Borderline, in Thousand Oaks, which killed 12 people). These terrible things comprise the world we live in, as much as everything else that we post online.

But if, like me and many others, you are a person who calls multiple places or communities home, these disasters can unfold in your feed while your daily physical surroundings remain unchanged. Conversely, your current city or community may be reeling while half your feed seems to be posting pictures of açaí bowls in Tulum. It’s a situation that’s hard not to find deeply emotionally jarring. And yet, it’s not a bug of the system, it’s a feature. Social media promises to connect us to the people—and the crises they are experiencing—in places we aren’t.

And so social media can be a cruel place when you’re dealing with devastation. The algorithm, after all, isn’t sensitive enough to know that I don’t want to see a bikini selfie or an influencer telling me how to manifest my deepest desire in between posts from childhood friends whose houses had burned down. It doesn’t care that each time I search the hashtag #Malibu, I recoil at the unrelated, bot-like posts that are using the trending topic as a growth hack to post pictures of luxury cars or lingerie models. It doesn’t punish people who steal harrowing videos from other accounts—posting them as if they filmed them—in a brazen and utterly tasteless quest for likes. It doesn’t know that being served ads for home renovations before you even know whether you have a home to go back to (as my father was over the weekend) is the kind of thing that can make a person want to punch a wall.

But then there’s the kindness of online communities. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit once wrote that contrary to the popular belief that human nature is selfish, self-interested, and monstrous, times of disaster repeatedly show us that civilization is not a “brittle facade.” Rather, people “want lives of meaningful engagement, of membership in civil society, and how much societal effort goes into keeping us away from these fullest, most powerful selves.” She adds: “People return to those selves, those ways of self-organizing, as if by instinct when the situation demands it.”

I saw that exact thing happen, again via Instagram, in the past few days. Clothing donations were organized online; GoFundMe accounts were set up for families who lost everything and shared widely. People coordinated supply drops for west Malibu’s vigilante firefighters; strangers offered their houses and spare rooms to those in need. Locals started an Instagram account to centralize all the efforts. The people who live in Malibu did this, as Solnit writes, “as if by instinct.” They also did this with their phones.

There was a time, long before social media was blamed for many of the world’s biggest problems, that digital communities were posited as the utopian replacement to the small-mindedness of staying close to home, close to what we know. Of course, that didn’t turn out so well. We know now that compassion, empathy, and community can’t be provided by a large tech company with a clear profit motive for winning our attention. In times of disaster as well as in times of normalcy, that part is up to us.