Tragedy will bring out the best and worst in media. While some would try get to the core of the story, others will tug at the heart strings, over and over again
Tragedies can be kaleidoscopic moments. They provide those instances that cut through imposed façades. An unobtrusive cutaway view in a moment of tragic truth.
The latest such tragedy in Kandy where three innocent lives were lost was such a moment. To me, looking at it from afar, it provided that moment where I could see the integral role social media plays in Sri Lanka right now.
I have written and spoken at length on the impact of social media in the electoral process. The ingrained influences are such because without social media, Sri Lanka society probably might not function the way it does now.
First the incident and the larger role of media decency. Tragedy will bring out the best and worst in media. While some would try getting to the core of the story, others will tug at the heart strings, over and over again.
Mike carrying dimwits would jab cameras at people who have suffered unimaginable horrors, like a building collapsing on them, and ask them to describe what transpired. And in this case also we saw tearful images played over and over again.
If that were not enough, the same type will look for intimate details like family pictures. This is where social media comes into play.
The two adult victims both had active social media presence on Facebook. Media began using images taken from these profiles without any sense of respect for the privacy of the victims.
The pages were accessible even two days after the passing away of the owners. Their close relatives had not informed the platform of the demise and neither had Facebook Sri Lanka office thought it fit to act despite the high-profile nature of the event and the use of the images.
Their pages had also become public memorials with hundreds of users posting messages.
But without social media, the country would not know half of what it knows of the tragedy as well. While legacy media was slow to pick up on the story and dig into details like who owned the collapsed building, the first details came through social media.
Users began posting stories of how the occupants had left the five storied building during the wee hours of the morning. These were then picked up by gossip sites which in turn makes them viral in Sri Lanka.
There was also comments and details on the owners of the building. Most of this was the usual innuendo. However, innuendo does play a role in Sri Lanka’s self-censoring media atmosphere.
The rumours made it impossible for authorities and those responsible to spin the story and hide details. They also made sure that given public anger over the incident, now it is up to the authorities to dispel the rumours or confirm otherwise.
Legacy media also found it hard to ignore them.
My gut feeling is that it was the social media blow back that forced the owners of the building to address the rumours and vilifications a day after the tragedy. Given that they were nowhere to be seen soon after the building collapsed or during those initial hours.
There was a second wave of information flow after the owners went public. On Monday social media posts spoke of building permits that had been contravened. As is the case with most of these posts, it was innuendo without any kind of proof. But then that is what you expect from social media.
If there was a feisty, investigative media culture, journalists would take this bit of rumour and check. That is a probably a bit too much to ask.
What can be expected is that these rumours on building permits will now be addressed or forced to be addressed.
We tend to vilify the dangers of social media and rightly so.
On most occasions the criticisms are well deserved. In this case however, the dynamics are a bit more complicated.
The double edged sword is scything a path for justice for a young family cut down mercilessly because someone wanted a mighty big house on an acute slope.
The writer is a Post-grad Researcher at CQUniversity, Melbourne focusing on online journalism and trauma
Twitter - @amanthap