Editorial: We need to be wary of what we post during world crises

Insensitivity is never the answer

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Elle Horst

While Ukraine has been attacked by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his army, numerous insensitive memes, TikToks, and tweets have surfaced. Image Credit: A Ukrainian Army […] during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM / LCPL Andrew Williams, USMC / National Archives Catalog / Public Domain

The eyes of the world are on Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an attack on the nation. People are constantly glued to their news feeds and TV screens, watching for updates as missiles rain down upon numerous Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, the nation’s capital. 

According to Reuters, Ukraine’s health ministry has recorded over 350 civilian deaths, including 14 children. News organizations worldwide have covered the situation, pumping out hundreds of articles and television segments depicting the attacks and the potential consequences. 

But as the headlines flood feeds and papers, so do the social media posts. Even at the beginning of the conflict, as people were injured, killed, and separated from their families, TikToks joking about World War III began to pour into “For You” feeds. While Ukrainians and Russians around the globe worried for the safety of their loved ones and protested the violence, American teenagers with no connection to the conflict posted numerous memes that contained crude jokes about the tragedy.

The creation of crass memes, Tiktoks, and tweets about traumatic world events is both deeply insensitive and self-serving. Posts with this kind of content should not be used in response to these circumstances, as they minimize the pain and fear that those affected are suffering from and use tragedy as an opportunity to gain media attention, a greater following, and higher levels of engagement online.

The social media response to the situation in Ukraine is only one of many instances when online humor goes too far concerning traumatizing world events and delicate topics, taking advantage of calamity for comedy. Memes, tweets, and Tiktoks with similar levels of insensitivity have been made throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Like the response to Ukraine, posts full of insensitive content relating to the pandemic spread rapidly, serving as constant triggers to those affected while, at the same time, minimizing their pain. The “Coronavirus Challenge,” for example, became a viral trend on TikTok, with users posting videos of themselves licking potentially infectious and heavily touched objects like toilets, doorknobs, and shopping carts to catch or spread the virus. 

But while people were pulling insensitive stunts like these for online attention, millions were becoming ill and dying, unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, and spending their final days struggling to breathe and attached to a ventilator. Nurses and first responders exposed to constant tragedy and loss of life throughout the nation were becoming severely depressed and begging for people to follow health guidelines. Their pain became a source of humor.

That’s not to say that people cannot use humor and witty posts as a response to some troubling situations. A study conducted by a masters student at Lesley University has shown that taking a comedic approach to trauma can help lessen anxiety and depression, making it easier to work through difficult periods in their lives. At times, memes and social media posts can be a source of fun and entertainment that helps to uplift and improve mood

However, there is a balance between making a heavy event feel more lighthearted and disrespecting those deeply affected, and many posts concerning crises cross this line. For example, after Putin launched his attack on Ukraine, tweets surfaced with images showing explosions from missiles complementing the “beauty” of the “apocalypse vibes” they created. Others began to fixate on the looks of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a man risking his life and fighting desperately to keep his country united. These kinds of posts should never see the light of day. 

We must be more mindful of the content we produce surrounding traumatic world events. Insensitive material on social media is constantly pushed out into the world, with the desire for likes and attention outweighing any empathetic feelings for those with close ties to these situations. We have to realize that the content pushed out on social media can be seen by anyone and everyone and can cause deep offense and pain. Insensitive and inappropriate posts are never an adequate response to suffering. 

*This editorial reflects the views of the Scot Scoop editorial board and was written by Elle Horst.