It has often been commented that social media bring out the worst in people. Certainly, they give one a stark insight in some of the worst aspects of human beings. They allow people to respond directly to terrible things and sometimes they do so in horrible ways.
The same is true of the recent tragedy in Istanbul. One of the victims was a Belgian citizen, Kerim Akyil. A story by the The Young Turks (De Jonge Turken), titled “Social media drowned in hateful comments about death of Belgian Turkish victim“. On closer inspection, The Young Turks were able to identify a total of six native Belgians who, indeed, stated things like “One less brownie“, “Over there, it should be happening every day“, “Young cockroaches, 39 fewer to worry about“, “100 too few” and “A Belgian…? Whatever, one down. Good!”
Shortly after, the story was picked up by other media. “Never before has there been so much hate on social media,” reported the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. Belgium’s minister of Internal Affairs, Jan Jambon, even expressed his disgust: “One can only condemn this. After attacks like this there’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’. The line does not run between Muslim and non-Muslim, but between those who despise the values of our society, and those that respect them.”
However, while such racist comments should indeed by condemned in the harshest of terms, six of such comments hardly qualify as “social media drowning in hateful comments“.
When de De Standaard finally examined the case more closely, they couldn’t find the supposed torrent of hate speech. They just weren’t able to account for the alleged volume, even going so far as to inquire after possible removed posts. Those egregious posts that were found, were few in number and directed, mostly, to a restricted, not a public audience. In fact, one of the reasons they were hard to find, was because the hateful messages were completely obscured by “the hundreds, if not thousands, of sympathetic messages for the family.”
It lead De Standaard’s Editor in Chief Karel Verhoeven to conclude in his Commentary that the uproar was the “perfect post-factual little media storm,” caused by “a politically motivated weblog,” writing an indignant post which got picked up by social media. What worries Verhoeven is that blowing up incidences of racism in this way poisons society. Yes, racist utterances should be condemned, even persecuted. But exclusively focusing on what is essentially a marginal problem is “toxic.” He states: “It’s not that we should be blind for hate speech. … It’s about a sense of reality. A marginal occurrence should be seen as such, not take centre stage. The criterion remains the real world. In a fake world, we fight fake battles that make us susceptible to fake politics.”
Meanwhile, the massacre in Istanbul is causing an outcry in The Netherlands as well. It isn’t native Dutch, however, but young Muslims who are responding to the horrors of the terrorist attack by viciously condemning the victims. According to them, the victims shouldn’t have been in a club, celebrating a non-Islamic (kefar) feast in the first place. “Muslims shouldn’t be there,” and “wrong place, wrong time. No sympathy,” are among the messages. One of the messages argues that although he “[doesn’t] condone the terrorist action, but if you go to the house of the devil [discotheque] you can expect these things to happen one day.“