Our lives are guided by social norms and etiquette, and should be no different when dealing with death on social media, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
IN the age of social media, everyone can shine the spotlight on themselves. Your account is your stage, and you are the actor, the scriptwriter and the director of the story that you share with the world.
That said, we are probably guilty of not thinking deeply enough about what we share and how it may affect other people.
When you control your own content, there’s a tendency to view things only on your own terms since that’s the only angle that matters.
Case in point: You share a group photo where you look the best, eventhough other people look less than flattering.
When we share our story, we tend to think of the positive reactions — the likes, the number of shares and impressions, upvotes and reblogs. Those who disagree are “haters”, but if you believe that any publicity is good publicity, even that is welcomed.
And why do we share? Because we want a witness to our lives, or crave an audience, eventhough that can sometimes mean stepping on the boundaries of people who have no desire for publicity.
Death is one of those circumstances. To be glib, it happens all the time, and to quote the band The Flaming Lips, “everyone you know someday will die”.
Some deaths are more tragic than others, or more consequential. Yet each death is unique, significant and deserving of respect, just as each of our lives are unique, significant and deserving of respect.
How do we respect the dead? Every community and religion has a protocol for dealing with death because it is a question humankind has dealt with since the beginning of time. But handling the dead has always been the task of a select few, and a bit of a mystery to everyone else.
People have a love for things that are strange and mysterious. Add a dash of fascination towards the morbid and curiosity for the gruesome and you get why people slow down at accident sites and share photos of dismembered limbs strewn over highways.
That is hardly respecting the dead. As an outsider looking in, oftentimes death is not our story to share. The deceased can hardly dictate what attention they will get when they’re no longer around, so we defer to those closest to them.
They are the ones most impacted by the loss, and it is their wellbeing we need to concern ourselves with now.
When Ariati Karina Khalid lost her mother over Hari Raya in 2014, it was huge shock to her and her family. It happened suddenly — her mother wasn’t ill, and she was in a daze for days amid the funeral arrangements and subsequent tahlil gatherings.
She shared the news on Facebook and Instagram. “I received condolence wishes, Al-Fatihah and words of encouragement. It comforted me eventhough it made me cry as I read them. I was very sad but I also realised that people cared about me.”
However, a cousin posted on Facebook a photo of her mother’s remains as it laid to be taken to the burial ground. There was also a shot of Ariati with her siblings and father in tears.
It made her uneasy and she felt that it was inappropriate, but with everything that was going on she wasn’t in the state of mind to speak up. But someone else did, and the photos came down.
“My father found out about it later and it upset him. I wouldn’t have minded if the photos had been kept privately. There was no need to upload them and tag me,” she adds.
Depending on the privacy setting, when you’re tagged to a photo on Facebook, your friends can see them in addition to the original poster’s friends. This is multiplied when multiple people are tagged in the same photo.
So what Ariati and her family found themselves with was an audience they never asked for, or even expected. Her mother wasn’t a public figure, and there was nothing sensational about her death. It was reasonable that they expected privacy in their most vulnerable moments.
Whatever the reason her cousin had for sharing those photos, it went against the family’s wishes.
But even if a relative can be so thoughtless over the feelings and expectations of those closest to the deceased, how do we begin to address the callousness of strangers in the face of public deaths?
SAY NOTHING AT ALL
Some deaths become public because of who the deceased was. Other deaths become newsworthy because of the way they died, which is usually tragic, bloody and unforeseen.
The deceased will be referred to as “the victim”. Online, there will be theories and opinions as to what happened. People will debate on them, believe themselves to be experts, and point fingers with extreme confidence.
“When you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all,” says Dr Haniza Rais, a counsellor educator from International Islamic University Malaysia.
“The family is going through a tough time, so don’t make statements that will hurt their feelings. These things can trigger a chain reaction — people who agree with the statement and otherwise — and that will make it worse.”
Some stories may not even be true, either in its entirety or in certain details. News that is not verified is gossip, and as the saying goes, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes”.
The underlying matter is that there are real people affected by these tragedies. They are shocked over what happened and will probably have to deal with a police investigation and a drawn-out court case. “Expert opinions” by those who know nothing of their situation is the last thing they need.
But there seems to be an empathy gap between those making the heartless comments and those experiencing the tragedy. The former seem not to be bothered about how these things will reflect on them, how it shows their own prejudice and their lack of respect for others.
“My advice to those who have lost someone in a public manner is don’t read social media,” says Dr Haniza. “The news itself may be okay, but the remarks may be hurtful.”
As one of the counsellors helping the next-of-kin of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and MH17, Dr Haniza gave them the same advice as a way of managing the stress and attention.
“It was an ambiguous loss and there were many unanswered questions. I could see their agony and it’s my job as a counsellor to acknowledge that. When you’re taking care of bereaved people and they’re angry, you shouldn’t take it to heart. It’s not you and it’s not them either. It’s the situation.”
GUIDES FOR A NEW WORLD
SOCIAL media is still new in our society and rules are being made as we go along.
Death is usually announced personally, by a family member of the deceased through phone calls to other relatives and a few close friends. But with social media, everything gets jumbled up.
Blogger Taya Dunn Johnson writes on Medium.com on the hierarchy of death after being told that her husband’s sudden death is all over Facebook before she has had the chance to tell his family members.
“Pause and consider your role and relationship to the newly deceased. Remember, hierarchy refers to your status and your relative importance to the deceased.
“If the person is married, let the spouse post first.
“If the person is ‘young’ and single, let the partner, parents or siblings post first.
“If the person is ‘old’ and single, let the children post first.
“If you can’t identify the family/inner circle of the person, you probably shouldn’t be posting at all.”
If you wish to post on the family’s behalf, get their permission. Be mindful that the family members of the deceased will be busy making arrangements or dealing with the loss. They might not have time to answer the phone and they might not be online to reply to your comments.
Says counsellor Dr Haniza Rais, “I think general pictures during the burial are okay.” “But don’t zoom in on the family members or the deceased. You’re invading their privacy and grieving is personal matter.”
For family members, if there’s something on social media that you’re not happy with, you have the right to ask the poster to remove it. For the person looking to post on social media, ask yourself if it is appropriate, respectful and timely.
“I teach the bereaved to be assertive. Even with guests, they have the right not to accept them. If we ask them what happened, they have the right not to answer. They might talk when they are ready, so give them some space in the meantime,” adds Dr Haniza.