Everyone grieves differently, and that’s as true on social media as it is offline. But in the aftermath of a death of a well-known public figure, we’re reminded once again that social media makes grief more public than ever before. Social media’s ability to help us share in communal mourning is worthwhile and valuable, but it also means that it’s easy to post something that may offend or hurt others. Twitter has become the best source for news in the moments after a public figure’s death, and one of the best places to mourn as a community, but it also encourages some of the worst reactions.
You don’t want to end up the subject of a micro-scandal because of insensitive or inappropriate tweets. Below, a few guidelines on expressing your grief on Twitter.
1.) First, make sure the person is actually dead.
RIP Lou Bega. Your version of Mambo No 5 helped shape my adolescence.— Adam Tsai (@adamtsai) October 27, 2013
This may seem obvious, but even journalists are sometimes tricked. Trace a report back to its source. Make sure it’s a reliable media outlet or an official, verified representative for the deceased. If you don’t recognize the source, wait until you see the news from somewhere you do.
And while you should be wary of the earliest reports of a death, you should be extra wary of other reports in coming hours and days. Deaths tend to beget death hoaxes, in droves. In the immediate aftermath of Lou Reed’s death, Twitter trolls passed off a hoax that Lou Bega had died. After Philip Seymour Hoffman died, a hoax quickly circulated that Jim Carrey had died, too, and yet another hoax followed just a few days later. Deaths don’t necessarily come in threes, but death hoaxes often do.
2.) You don’t have to tweet.
Hey Paul Walker, click it or ticket!— Hayden Henderson (@hhenderson94) December 1, 2013
If you don’t have anything interesting to say about Paul Walker’s death, it’s totally fine not to say anything at all. One of the most common ways people end up tweeting something they later regret is thinking, “This is a major figure—I need to say something!” You don’t.
3.) If your tweet is really about yourself, reconsider it.
A time of tragedy is not a time for self-promotion. You’ll only promote the fact that you’re self-indulgent.
4.) Do not try to outdo the sadness of others.
I'm sadder about James Gandolfini than everyone else.— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) June 20, 2013
What can appear most distasteful about Twitter grief is how it often seems performative, with people competing to prove they loved/appreciated/understood the departed the best. But grief is not a contest—and anyway, if it was, you’d lose just by tweeting. As Dylan Byers writes over at Politico, “You have to imagine that the people who are truly grieving over said individual’s death do not, in those first minutes, think to take to their Twitter accounts.”
5.) If you want to tweet a quote, check the attribution first.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." - Nelson Mandela” 👍👌🙏💯”— Madeline Howard (@madelinebhoward) December 6, 2013
In mourning, it can be comforting to turn to the words of those we respect, or even the words of the deceased. Unfortunately, this often leads to people memorializing the dead by misquoting them. After Nelson Mandela died, countless peopled tweeted a fake Mandela quote that actually came from self-help author Marianne Williamson. Others tweeted fake quotes attributed to Kanye West. After Osama Bin Laden was killed, a fake Martin Luther King Jr. quote went viral. After Lou Reed died, many remembered him by endlessly misquoting Brian Eno.
This is easy to avoid: Just use Google. If the quote only appears on social media, or on sites like brainyquote.com, it’s probably fake.
6.) Deaths don’t come in threes—be careful about comparing tragedies.
Why is it that when famous people die, they all die in threes? We lost Brian Griffin (yes he's famous), Paul Walker and Nelson Mandela— ℓкяgιяℓ (@LKRGIRL) December 7, 2013
Every death is a tragedy, but people should think twice before mourning a major global figure in the same breath as a minor one—or even a fictional one. These kinds of comparisons can trivialize the importance of more historic figures—or the grief others feel at their passing.
7.) Business can wait.
Robin Williams' 'Mrs. Doubtfire' Sequel Likely Cancelled http://t.co/pYBqGl7s0N— Variety (@Variety) August 12, 2014
Everyone sees a tragedy from a different angle, but you’ll seem crass if you talk business while the body is still warm. After Robin Williams’ death, Variety was criticized for the tweet above. The ensuing backlash was predictable—and reminiscent of Nikki Finke’s notorious tweet after Nelson Mandela’s death:
R.I.P. Nelson Mandela, subject of Weinstein Co’s Idris Elba-starrer 'Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom' which opened Nov 29 and has awards buzz.— Nikki Finke (@NikkiFinke) December 5, 2013
8.) If your whole feed is in mourning, don’t try to change the subject.
Mourning on Twitter is communal, and you don’t want to be the lone voice breaking in with your contribution to #1stdraftmovielines. Respect others’ mourning. If you automate or schedule tweets, unschedule them. The above tweet was perfectly suitable when it was scheduled—but then it ran just minutes after the Boston Marathon bombings.
9.) If the death is a suicide, please be very careful how you treat it.
All the other guidelines on this list are trivial compared with this one, because it’s the only one that can affect whether people choose to end their own lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “risk of additional suicides increases when [a report] explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”
Influencers on social media could have a similar effect. After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent out the tweet above—which has since been retweeted more than 280,000 times—at least one mental health expert has pointed out that it might send an irresponsible message about suicide. If you feel you must discuss the suicide, consider linking to resources where people can get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK.
10.) Don’t waste your time policing others’ grief.
Write down your sensibilities about mourning. Now, find people with different ones and correct them. Repeat for everything!— pourmecoffee (@pourmecoffee) August 12, 2014
This may seem ironic coming at the end of this article, but sometimes the only thing worse than tweeting dumb things about a death is scolding others for tweeting dumb things about a death. Respect others who mourn differently than you. Realize that when you focus on how everyone else is tweeting, you yourself are often distracting from the important news at hand. Recognize that we all make mistakes, especially those of us on Twitter. Deaths give us perspective, including the realization that no matter how egregious someone’s tweet—or your own tweet!—is it will soon creep down the timelines of your followers and drift out of view.