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Commentary: As those aboard the Titan submersible suffer, social media laughs

A submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP)

A frantic international search is still underway for the missing Titan submersible, yet there’s already a documentary about the tragedy set to air on U.K. broadcaster Channel 5 at 7 p.m. local time Thursday. This would be mere hours after the clock stops on the available oxygen inside the vessel, which vanished Sunday near the wreckage of the Titanic, and the five people inside — including a father and his 19-year-old son — will have slowly suffocated.

It is looking increasingly likely that even if the Titan is located, a rescue might not be technologically feasible. The unimaginable tragedy has attracted the bizarre media feeding frenzy that we have become accustomed to in the 21st century — a minute-by-minute accounting of the claustrophobia, freezing limbs, confusion and mood swings that might be taking place inside the Titan — a sardine can the size of a minivan, with one small porthole.

Read more: 5 aboard missing Titanic tourist sub are dead, officials said

The exploitative coverage of the death and terror unfolding in real time has only been compounded by the public’s reaction on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram. Gleeful best describes the tenor of many posts — which include making fun of the video game controller used to pilot the Titan, laughing at the billionaires inside the submersible, jokes about the effects of lack of oxygen on the human psyche or substituting fart sounds for the knocking sounds that rescuers apparently heard underwater.

Let’s not forget the unsettling digital trail of missing passenger Hamish Harding’s stepson, Brian Szasz, who attended a Blink-182 concert during the search and posted about how the music helps him through hard times. Rapper Cardi B criticized him, he shot back and an extremely unhelpful online beef went viral, with countless strangers piling on for all the wrong reasons.

Like a digital Tower of Babel, social media is evolving into an increasingly ugly and chaotic space — a real-time repository for our worst impulses, uninspired musings, scatalogical humor and ill-formed thoughts that should be kept to ourselves. It is an online Mall of America: vast, vacuous, relentlessly commercial and soul-sucking. And in a time of immense crisis — political, ecological, social — it has become a garbage dump of vile commentary publicly aired because that’s just what we do now.

Read more: Editorial: Congress is scapegoating TikTok. It’s no worse than other social media platforms

There is much to unpack about this particular incident with the Titan, including the fact that five days before the submersible vanished in the Atlantic, a boat carrying 750 migrants capsized off the coast of Greece. Only 104 passengers survived. That horrific accident has not received anything close to the round-the-clock obsessive media coverage as the Titan.

There is also the unfortunate name of the company that built the Titan submersible: OceanGate, which thanks to its suffix, intrinsically smacks of scandal. The Titan is piloted by that company’s CEO and founder, Stockton Rush, who allegedly glazed over potentially hazardous conditions onboard in favor of the bottom line. Tickets for the eight-hour voyage cost $250,000 each.

Finally, there’s the allure, mystery and legend of the Titanic itself. An ill-fated ship synonymous with hubris and known for exposing the basest impulses of the uber-wealthy who fled the sinking steamliner in life rafts while leaving sequestered third-class passengers to die. That disaster occurred in 1912 — the same year that America’s presidential election pivoted on the issue of economic inequality, which peaked in 1929 just before the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

Income inequality today is even worse. According to the 2022 World Inequality Report, the world’s nearly 3,000 billionaires have more wealth than half the population. It’s little wonder that regular folks on social media are cheering on the orcas attacking luxury yachts. There is real anger at the wealthy and at the ways they squander their money on vanity projects — like commercial rockets to the moon — while the planet literally burns.

Read more: ‘Catastrophic’ safety concerns raised about sub long before ill-fated Titanic voyage

Nonetheless, as one sane commentator posted on Twitter, it is possible to hold space for both the drowned migrants and the missing billionaires. In fact, to maintain a shred of our human decency, it’s necessary to honor all levels of human suffering and death.

And social media can be harnessed for good, when we try. Some users are tracking marine traffic in the area via satellite and posting their findings. Others are actively trying to combat the rampant misinformation surrounding the Titan’s disappearance.

Imagine for a moment that there was a camera inside of the Titan and we could watch the mounting desperation in its hull. If we had to actually look at the pain in the dying men’s eyes, would we still joke about it?

I hope not. But I wonder, as the gap between our brains and our online avatars becomes perilously porous, we seem to have lost contact with the flesh-and-blood-filled vessels that contain our hearts.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.