Is social media making us crueller?

POST-IT: Filmmaker Sumner-Burstyn's Facebook post about Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker attracted a considerable amount of online rage.
POST-IT: Filmmaker Sumner-Burstyn's Facebook post about Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker attracted a considerable amount of online rage.

Is social media use making us crueller?

Dr Bruce Perry, an American neuroscientist touring New Zealand, argues that the explosive growth of communications technology is diminishing our capacity for empathy.

By undermining face-to-face relationships and weakening the intimate and ethical bonds that hold communities together, claims Perry, social media are changing the way our brains work.

A challenging thesis, but Perry's disturbing ideas received almost instant corroboration.

In an extraordinary outburst on Facebook, the New Zealand film-maker, Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, delivered the following, scathing, "testimonial" to Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, the young New Zealand soldier killed in action in Afghanistan on August 19: 'Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking - did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass. She 100 per cent does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices. We are not at war. We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that.'

It is difficult to know where to begin with this thoroughly obnoxious piece of writing.

Perhaps with Sumner-Burstyn's simple errors of fact.

Corporal Baker did not invade Afghanistan, she was posted there as a serving member of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) which was in Afghanistan at the behest of the New Zealand Government, which had agreed to supply the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan province.

The ISAF is in Afghanistan by virtue of a UN Security Council resolution authorising UN member states to aid the creation of an effective and democratic Afghan government.

Baker, far from 'killing innocent people' was a medic - duty-bound to assist all those wounded in combat or injured by enemy munitions - regardless of status or nationality.

When she was killed, Baker was escorting an injured comrade to medical assistance. It is extremely difficult to reconcile these facts with Sumner-Burstyn's charge that Baker 'had no moral compass'.

Sumner-Burstyn's final claim: 'We are helping America invade another country for their oil' is similarly false.

Afghanistan possesses no oilfields worth expending US blood and treasure to secure.

The Americans are there for only one reason. Because the Taleban Government of Afghanistan had offered safe haven to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda: the terrorists ultimately responsible for the murderous attacks of September 11, 2001.

Natural reticence, not to mention fear of instant retaliation, would almost certainly have prevented Sumner-Burstyn from uttering such false and hurtful accusations in front of people who did not share completely her opinions on the Afghanistan conflict.

The classical injunction "De mortuis nil nisi bonum - Of the dead speak only good" invokes a simpler world in which people confronted one another face-to-face.

By placing a computer screen between herself and Baker's family, friends and comrades, Sumner-Burstyn lost the inhibitive effect of close human proximity. Without its protection she had nothing to shield her from the full emotional and practical consequences of her actions.

These followed with terrifying speed and intensity.

Sumner-Burstyn's comments appeared on her Facebook page on Friday, by Saturday a new Facebook page - Sumner Burstyn Give Back Your NZ Passport! - had attracted more than 15,000 followers.

Reading the comments posted on this new page, Perry would no doubt suffer an embarrassment of evidential riches for his diminishing-empathy thesis.

If Sumner-Burstyn's comments were ignorant and insensitive, the response was nothing short of homicidal.

The reactive firestorm's flames leaped across the Pacific Ocean to Canada - where Sumner-Burstyn is working - and she hurriedly took down her Facebook page and changed her email address.

Too late.

On the internet everything is recoverable - including screen-shots of Sumner- Burstyn's original comments.

By Sunday, family members had been driven from their homes by the public fury.

Threatened with rape and murder, Sumner-Burstyn fears to return to New Zealand.

A recent photograph of Sumner-Burstyn shows a middle-aged woman posed in front of a large bookcase filled with academic literature.

Studying her face, and reading about her many awards for documentary film- making - many of them on 'progressive' themes - it is difficult to fathom how Sumner-Burstyn could be capable of such casual cruelty.

As a clearly gifted artist and feminist, it is extraordinary that she was so utterly unable to empathise with Baker - the first female member of her generation to lose her life on active service.

By the same token, it is profoundly depressing to read the spittle-flecked responses of her detractors.

Baker lost her life on a mission to rebuild and heal a damaged province in a ravaged land.

Her empathy merited a much more generous memorial.

The Press