New Zealand is apparently a nation of armchair volcanologists — who knew?

As soon as news of the Whakaari/White Island eruption broke, social media did what it usually does and reared its ugly head.

If there's anything I've learned from social media is that some people will hear about a tragedy and rather than sympathy or heartbreak, their first reaction is to place blame. It took seconds for the first comments to come in with victim-blaming.


To another side, there was criticism of experts and authorities on the ground, who were doing the best they could to save lives and prevent the loss of any more lives. People who had to make desperate, heartbreaking calls, subjected to the callous judgment of a bunch of Karens whose only qualification in the matter is… I don't know, a Facebook account?

"Why didn't they go back to the island?"

"How could they not go back to check on the others?"

"Some regular folk went back so how come police didn't?"

I read numerous comments like this on social media and, every time, my heart sank a little.

When did we stop trusting experts to do their job?

Rescuers land on White Island following the eruption. Photo / Michael Schade
Rescuers land on White Island following the eruption. Photo / Michael Schade

Police explained very clearly why they couldn't possibly go back, why there was grave danger in doing so.

We don't know - and so we must trust the ones who do.


Police and first responders absolutely know better and they made a very difficult call, in extremely difficult circumstances.

In a piece for the NZ Herald the day after the eruption, Heather du Plessis-Allan wrote that "…we're going to have to make a decision as a country about what we want our first responders to do".

No, we're not. As a country, we need to know when to step back and let experts do their job.

What a dangerous path to go down of putting it up to the public to decide how an expert should do their job. What an extremely dangerous precedent to set.

More than that, it's also disrespectful. Especially in the face of such raw tragedy.

The decision to not return to the island can't have been an easy one to make - but it was the decision made by people with skills, training and qualifications to make such decisions.

There will be a time to debate what the correct response to these things should be - and it's a valid discussion worth having. There could be lessons to learn from tragedy. Just not now.

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Just because, in the age of social media, everyone has a platform to voice an opinion, it doesn't mean we should listen (and yes, I realise that includes me, and I'm not suggesting you listen to me either). You are entitled to your opinion, but it can never weigh more than an expert's position, and be aware that it could make you come across as ignorant and insensitive.

Authorities and rescue teams are doing the absolute best job they can in incredibly difficult circumstances. The absolute least they can expect from us is trust and respect while they do their job.

If you think a first responder should go into a situation that could put their own lives at risk, you probably wouldn't be a very good first responder.

If, in the face of tragedy, your immediate reaction is to find fault and blame, maybe revert to the innocuous "thoughts and prayers". It might be meaningless but at least it's also harmless.