Ifeanyi Adeleke’s Death and The “I Tweeted It First Syndrome”

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Before major newspapers confirmed that Davido’s three-year-old son, Ifeanyi Adeleke, had indeed died after drowning in a pool at the family’s Banana Island residence in Lagos, many people on social media dreamed up all sorts of conjecture. Some posted their RIPs. Others tweeted the perfunctory “thoughts and prayers.” One infernal class of social media users tasked itself with drawing inferences as to who should be blamed—mother, father, or domestic staff? Meanwhile, as this premature performance of solicitude, grief and pseudo-detective work droned on, neither family nor credible newspaper confirmed the toddler’s death.

Two things I found instructive in the maddening episode: 

(1) Although social media has made information easy to access and share, many of those who use it aren’t well-equipped to negotiate this new-fangled ease. Owning a Twitter account ought to be accompanied by a facility for critical thinking, a necessary skill if one expects to be deluged by information from sources of varying degrees of verity. Nigerian schools, where you’d expect to learn it, do not impart it, dogged as they are in rewarding rote memorization. But with some effort, one could acquire this faculty of critical analysis. Start by imbibing rational skepticism: be slow to believe and disbelieve, and question the things you see, hear and think, especially those with grave import. How do I know for sure that Davido’s son is dead? Isn’t it insensitive and unwise to tweet about it when the facts are barely choate? A wee moment of self-inquiry will forestall a lifetime of looking like a dolt.

(2) Social media has altered how we grieve and respond to tragedy. Two ways it has achieved that: by making tragedy profitable, and by making tragedy so commonplace it no longer elicits sane and humane reactions. I’ll start by explaining the first one. 

(2a) How has social media pimped tragedy? Consider first that many on social media aim for the vanity trophy of likes and retweets. Some get it by dint of talent or controversy; others by broadcasting their sex appeal; and there are those who get it by being conduits for tragic news—call them tragedy fetishists. This lot understand that bad news outsell the ones announcing triumphs. “Rihanna’s MET Gala dress was fire!” will not evoke half the fever as the headline that reads, “Rihanna’s dress caught fire at the MET Gala.”

These tragedy fetishists know that being the first person to tweet it—bad news in this case—scores you the most retweets. Thus, to them speed counts far more than sense and sensibility. They are afflicted with what we could call the “I Tweeted It First Syndrome.” The problem with wanting to be the first person to get the word out is it makes one more susceptible to lapses of judgement and conduct which could have been avoided if one had chosen to first research or reason through one’s assumptions. There’s a third option, mostly unused by many social media users: Shutting the hell up.

Besides spreading misinformation, or fanning hysteria, or dealing grieving family members an emotional blow, this desire to pimp tragedy may even have occasioned the loss of lives. Take, for instance, the young man who sees a bus knock down someone on the street. Rather than extend a helping hand, he extends a hand wielding a phone camera, immortalizing the bloody spectacle in pixel. The man on the pavement probably would bleed out and die, but at least the one who has video-taped his agony will upload the video online and marinate in his fifteen minutes of depraved fame. Some would say the video may help catch the errant bus driver. I say, help the dying man first and worry about the criminal next Tuesday.

It’s not only tragedy that’s pimped on social media; people likewise retail their happiness in performative ways. More often than not, these days a camera mediates sensory experience. A trip to an upmarket restaurant will produce a hundred photos of the pricey food and sparklingly Instagrammable landscape, all meant for the drooling adulation of friends and frenemies on Facebook and Instagram. Yes, a photograph is often an effective substitute for our fickle memory. But one cannot deny there are those who, rather than live in the moment, live through a camera’s lens not as a way of preserving the memory of an experience, but as a sly way of making a vanity statement: Look at me! I can afford to eat at this bougie restaurant, you sons of bitches.

This is the reality of many of us: when we are not pimping tragedy, we are advertising our happiness. We aren’t living life; we are performing our way through it, with Instagram and Twitter platforming our narcissism. What happens when one performs a role for so long? One becomes unable to feel things genuinely. One ends up unable to tell what is real and appropriate. The rumor that a child has died shouldn’t elicit performative behavior and canned responses, especially when the rumor has yet to bear the official stamp of confirmation. It should elicit genuine concern and reflection. In such an instance, perhaps silence is more moral than a tweet.

(2b) How has social media made tragedy commonplace? Well, just as you can easily find trivia on Greco-Roman architecture in a Twitter thread, so can you find the video of a fiery mob setting an alleged petty thief ablaze. Just punch in ‘ALUU Four’ in your browser’s search bar. Last year, a major Nigerian newspaper made the irresponsible choice of publishing a video in which a famous Nigerian male actor was seen fondling a minor. And with a few more clicks you would probably unearth the video of a woman who is brutally caning her housemaid. Pre-social media, such atrocities occurred but were never available for binge consumption. Times have changed: nowadays, all sorts of depravity and tragic incidents can be accessed with the ease of touching one’s elbow. So inundated are we by tragedy that we have become desensitized to it. This partly explains why we no longer know how to behave correctly on hearing a tragic news. Perhaps the most human and logical reaction to tragedy is an emotional one: crying. A performative reaction to tragedy would be to tweet about crying or upload a video of yourself crying. Just cry.  

Social media may have altered how we grieve and react to tragic news, and its gift (or curse) of democratizing information may often overwhelm our mind’s critical center; but social media is like a firearm: it has no agency and is neither moral nor immoral. It behoves the person behind a social media account to use it responsibly. Twitter isn’t the problem; those who tweet are.

Losing a loved one, young or old, is a bit like having an internal organ ripped out of you. I sincerely hope Davido and his fianceé Chioma Rowland find consolation and strength in this trying time. Too, I hope the rest of us can try to reclaim our humanity, first and foremost by re-learning how to feel things genuinely, secondly by each time asking this question: Do I really need to tweet this?