As the bleeps of my alarm rang this morning, I rolled over in bed, rubbed my eyes and opened up Twitter and BBC News.
Most news outlets were ablaze with chatter covering the closing stages of the Sydney hostage siege, specifically how it had spawned the viral hashtag “#illridewithyou”, whereby people battle the expected surge of “Islamaphobia” by telling Muslims “I will ride with you” on public transport.
My initial reaction to this was one of heart-bursting delight, one of the sporadic moments when you are genuinely proud to be a human being. However, on reading more about this “movement” sweeping the globe I thought more about its structure…
Many news outlets suggest the root of #illridewithyou lies with Twitter user “Sir Tessa” who, at 5.28am on 15th December tweeted…
“If you reg take the #373 bus b/w Coogee/MartinPl, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule.”
However, analysing the words used by the Australian government reveals a specific approach to the Sydney situation. Despite the crisis of citizens held at gunpoint, the theme of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s response was charged with benevolence and goodwill, stating “Australia is a peaceful, open, and generous society. Nothing should ever change that”.
The New South Wales (NSW) Premiere John Baird echoed his sentiment with,
“We are in this together”.
In a time of crisis, this style of communication is arresting and it can be argued that this was the real pre-cursor to #illridewithyou; inspiration on an individual level.
In contrast, it is useful to look at the words chosen by George W Bush (& speechwriter) on September 11th 2001 following the attacks on the WTC,
“Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature… We will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbour them”.
9/11 precipitated a surge in hate crimes towards the Muslim community.
Earlier today, Twitter announced the #illridewithyou hashtag had surpassed 90,000 mentions, Al Jazeera followed 5 hours later quoting ~240,000 and I have just conducted a check using a media listening tool to find it is at ~462,000 mentions (in 23 hours).
People have attacked the movement suggesting it means well, but simply divides cultures more by suggesting that Muslims “exist in western society” not necessarily as part of society.
Personally, I feel it is necessary to critique the movement by suggesting that much of the 462,000 mentions will be acts of “impure altruism” – i.e. being seen to be good and caring rather than actually doing it, a feature inherent in social media.
But one thing is for certain – from a communications perspective, choosing words carefully can sway the sentiment of hundreds of thousands of individuals.