The Power of Social Media to Heal and to Harm

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

At its best, it can save lives. Julie Fitzgerald, mom of a toddler in Rockford, Illinois, was a little worried about some spots she noticed in her son’s eye. She wasn’t sure if it was something she should worry about or not, a familiar sentiment among most parents. But then she saw a viral story on Facebook talking about how a white glow in photos could indicate cancer, and so she took a picture of her son and saw the same thing. She took him to the doctor, and he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. Seventy-five percent of his eye was covered in cancerous tumors. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, except that it was caught just in time, and while he lost the eye, they were able to stop the cancer from spreading to his brain. “Our lives went from normal to cancer to a cancer survivor in three weeks,” she told ABC News.

I am beyond lucky in that I haven’t had to deal with serious illness in my children, but I certainly remember those early days when I looked everything up, relying more on the virtual mom communities I was a part of than sites like the Mayo Clinic to tell me what was going on with my kids’ health.

The Mid’s Deborah Copaken experienced the power of this firsthand. When her son was 4, he had what seemed to be strep and then possibly scarlet fever, and she posted pictures of him on Facebook to keep friends in the loop. A former neighbor saw the post and called her with instructions to take him to the hospital immediately because she recognized the symptoms of a rare autoimmune disorder called Kawasaki disease. Another friend, a pediatrician, messaged her with the same concern. Then another. The early diagnosis saved his life.

But the power of social media goes both ways.

A dad in Melbourne, Australia, was at a mall when he spotted a cardboard cutout of Darth Vader. He thought it would be perfect material for his very first selfie, since his teenagers are big Star Wars fans. Some kids came up to him, and he told them he’d be done shortly in case they also wanted to take photos with Lord Vader.

The kids’ mom saw this taking place, and without further investigation, took a picture of the man and posted it on Facebook, saying he was a “creep” and possibly a pedophile. This is what she posted, along with his photo:

“Ok people, take a look at this creep. Today at Knox he approached my children when they were sitting at the frozen movie in the children’s clothing section, he said, “hey kids” they looked up and he took a photo, then he said Im sending this to a 16 yr old. I immediately removed the kids from that area and took them to security at the front so I then followed them and took his picture and he took off. Centre management were straight onto and so are the police, hopefully he is caught. Police said if he is a registered sex offender he will be charged, this happened at Knox, be safe with your kids.”

The post, with its photo, was shared over 20,000 times. Eventually someone who knew him recognized him, and let him know what was going on.

He went to the police to clear his name, but the damage to his reputation was done. He’s gotten death threats. And so has the woman who wrote the post, now that her mistake has been made public. She has apologized and is spreading the word that it’s the police, not the social media community, who need to be informed of possible threats. “One thousand times over I wish I could just take it back,” she told her local paper.

But she can’t.

Just like the Force, the power of social media is strong, and how we use it can determine the fate of our nearest and dearest as well as total strangers. I think Yoda’s guidelines hold up: “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

Use the Force wisely, young Padawans.

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