I have always heard of ‘being tried/judged by the court of public opinion’ but what I saw on social media yesterday was quite disturbing. Over the past couple of days the 14 year old Ahmed Mohammed has been at the centre of an Islamophobia storm in Irving Texas after being handcuffed and arrested in his school for building a digital clock and bring it to school, upon showing his teacher she thought it was a bomb.
Yes people, the world has come to this, people don’t even wait till these kids have gotten their driver’s license before they are profiled as extremist or not. Truth is Irving Texas has been famous for quite some time now. The Mayor is widely popular for holding anti-Islamist views apparently and it is no surprise this reflects on the mindset of its other public servants a few rungs down the pyramid structure of governance.
What makes me dwell on this case two days after it initially happened is what I found myself spending the better part of my day on social media doing yesterday. There is no debate about whether the school authorities and police force of Irving Texas got it wrong because it is clear they could have handled the situation way better than they did despite all the excuses about school shootings and terrorist threats. What shocked me yesterday morning was the seeming attack and castigation of the boy when pictures of the said clock surfaced on the internet.
You see, someone had taken the effort to take a somewhat crude picture of the said clock and put it on the web in a manner that was altogether misleading. The picture being circulated on social media depicted something that looked like an open suitcase judging by its chrome like metal frame and dark felt inside, inside the case were a couple of wires, a red bar at the top half of the case (most likely the digital display), a small circuit board and a power source. Sounds rudimentary and simple, right? Well this picture covered the entire frame of the picture except for a plug which was left on the table while the picture was being taken.
I can see how easy it was for people upon first viewing the picture to draw conclusion that what they were looking at was clearly a suitcase which would have been somewhat inappropriate when making a clock hence suspicion should have been raised, but when I looked at the same picture it simply didn’t add up. Why would anyone repeatedly call a suitcase a pencil case in such a delicate matter and why would the boy’s parents allow him leave his house holding a suitcase while calling it a clock. So I decided to do a brief research on Google. I first of all read up a few accounts of the story, viewing reports I considered unbiased, then right leaning reports and reading a few blog post that I felt were opinionated and well-informed, in all of those reports and posts, none of them made any allusions or references to a suitcase. The literature was consistent that Ahmed had brought in a pencil case clock to class and shown his teacher in order to impress him. The boy was even wearing a NASA T-shirt (how nerdy can one get).
So I did a search on what the pencil-case actually looked like. Judging by the results observed it was clear I wasn’t the only one who found the picture being circulated questionable. It didn’t take me long scrolling through the images that came up to find what the pencil-case actually looked like. I quickly posted both pictures on twitter trying to start the process of dissuading people from embarrassing themselves but it seemed I was too late. Most of what I met was resistance and rebuke for being ignorant of the various ways IEDs could be presented or the harm such a small-sized explosive device could cause( I won’t get into the matter of IEDs today but some responses I got had me doubling over in laughter). At that point I knew I was fighting a losing battle but I still persisted until I could persist no more.
The experience brought into focus most of our folly while engaging or commenting on issues, how ill-informed most of us are of the context, multiple angles and perspective a developing story has but we will still choose to comment, condemn and take sides. This is the Court of Social media, one where its ease of access to a wealth of information ought to promote a more informed group of people but is still populated by those who can be emotionally manipulated or those who do not feel the need to fact check or consider multiple facts presented or easily available.
Yesterday exposed me to the ease we have chosen to quickly box ourselves in with fear and paranoia, claiming that this post 9/11 age inevitably presents a strong case for racial profiling and islamophobia. Forgetting the multi- religious society we live in I didn’t expect to hear that from a Nigerian. I was born into a Christian home and lived most of my life amongst Muslims but 9/11 didn’t make me see them differently. For a town like Irving Texas, I see the possibilities of a narrow minded group of people pronouncing judgment on the boy for bringing a clock that might or might not have looked like a bomb to school but I wouldn’t expect such from what I thought were a hand full of well travelled and read Nigerians.
For a while now I have hailed the internet and social media as a game changer for traditional media institutions, called it a new estate where truth can be sought out. But just maybe it isn’t the right place to seek or expect justice.