“Starving African” Tweets: Social Comment or Sick Joke?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Are tweets, purportedly from a starving Sudanese child, a biting social commentary or just an exercise in bad taste?

    It won’t come as news that reports about Michael Jackson’s death have dominated both traditional media and social media outlets like Twitter – representing at least 30 percent of all tweets at one point, Mashable estimated.

    One Twitterer, posting under the name “starvingafricanchild,” hasn’t received anywhere near the attention of folks writing about the late King of Pop, but is relying on shock value to generate buzz. Among the tweets, purportedly direct from the Sudan: “belly. distending,” “really, really hungry,” and “could eat a horse.”

    The anonymous account holder, as noted by TechCrunch, sees the short posts as “social commentary illuminating the startling gap between the haves and the have nots.”

    But will it play as a strong commentary on our times or as just a sick joke?

    Recent events – ranging from unrest in Iran to Jackson’s death – have highlighted Twitter’s multiphrenic nature in subjects as well as its power as an all-purpose information dissemination tool, fueled by brevity and speed. We’ve also seen the pitfalls: false rumors of other celebrity deaths ran rampant through the microblogging service the day Jackson died.

    It’s heartening, in a sense, that news from Iran, driven by the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, is still among the leading points of discussion on Twitter – “trending topics” in Twitter-speak – even as the Jackson outpouring doesn’t appear to be abating much.

    Starvingafricanchild, meanwhile, has about 350 followers on Twitter as of this writing – a far cry from the more than 1.1 million commanded by online gossip columnist Perez Hilton, whose initially callous take on reports that Jackson had been rushed to the hospital spurred a Twitter-based movement to strip him of followers. Hilton briefly made big Twitter news just days before Jackson's death after tweeting reports he had been assaulted, allegedly by the manager of the Black Eyed Peas.

    In the end, it probably doesn’t matter what the intentions of the person behind starvingafricanchild are or how the tweets come off if the posts somehow help bring more attention to the horrors plaguing the Sudan – a topic, incidentally, that apparently was of interest to Jackson.

    In a memorial piece for Time magazine, spiritual guru Deepka Chopra wrote of having wide-ranging conversations with Jackson.

    “He'd ask me, Why do people go to war? Why is there genocide? What's happening in Sudan? … We talked about starving children in Mumbai, and he would start to cry,” Chopra wrote. “In his mind, the world was psychotic.”

    Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.