Michael Schumacher Coverage Shows Best and Worst Sides of Social Media

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2014

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates in parc ferme after winning the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

For something stereotypically used by those with more keyboard buttons than sense, social media has played quite an instrumental role since Michael Schumacher suffered a skiing accident last December.

In the four months since the seven-time world champion was admitted to hospital in Grenoble, France, the Formula One corner of Twitter has resembled a Schumi shrine.

All, from his colleagues and his rivals to his many millions of followers and fans, have used the platform to express just what Michael Schumacher means to them. Best wishes have littered cyberspace, while his supporters have recalled memories of the finest moments of the German’s 21-year F1 career, painting the picture of an enduring icon.

The high esteem in which Schumacher is held has led to campaigns such as #Red4Schumi, an initiative that encouraged the Twitterati to wear red items of clothing—in tribute to the colour scheme of Schumacher’s helmet—on the day of his 45th birthday in January, which fell only five days after the accident that left him in an induced coma.

On the very same day, Ferrari, the team with which Schumacher claimed five consecutive world championships between 2000 and 2004, encouraged the German’s pilgrims to hold a silent vigil outside the hospital.

Having quickly spread through word of retweet, the scene at Grenoble on 3 January was more reminiscent of that on race day morning at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola or the Autodromo Nazionale Monza than a French hospital.

Social media’s ability to bring people together extended into the new F1 season itself, with Mercedes planting a #KeepFightingMichael message on the headrests, which tend to be a favourable spot for sponsors, of both their W05 cars.

That Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton won each of the first four grands prix of the season between them in dominant fashion, for a team for which Schumacher provided a baseline between 2010 and 2012, was fitting.

Furthermore, it provided the most instructive lesson of this troubled time: Even when he appears beaten, fighting the most difficult battle of his life, Michael Schumacher is still a winner.

The widespread desperation to see Schumacher return to a state of health, however complete, has regrettably led to the emergence of false reports in the last few months.

The most recent of which appeared this week, with First Post reporting how a number of tweeters had become carried away with the “news” that Schumacher had finally woken from his coma and recognised Corinna, his wife of 19 years.

The uproar surrounding this development, though, was soon dampened when Bild’s Nicola Pohl revealed that she had been in contact with Sabine Kehm, Schumacher’s manager, who was forced into dismissing yet another round of lies.

That’s the problem with desperation, you know—it can cause us to do stupid things.

Even the career of Schumacher himself was partly defined by moments of desperation, such as his title-deciding lunges at Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1994 and 1997 respectively and his parking manoeuvre at Monaco’s Rascasse corner in 2006.

Rather than tarnishing his achievements, however, those incidents all helped to cement the status of the legend; someone capable of making the most basic and malicious of mistakes despite being blessed with genius.

It is those imperfections, that notion of a flawed genius, that allow us all to relate to Schumacher and makes us so anxious to receive positive news, even if it means spreading news that is completely and utterly made up by attention seekers and opportunists.

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 10:  Michael Schumacher of Germany and Ferrari celebrates his win during the Italian Grand Prix at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza on September 10, 2006, in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

And that feeling of anxiety has only increased due to the low regularity of concrete updates released by Kehm, whose loyal, noble and protective stance in attempting to provide the Schumacher family with privacy has been sadly misinterpreted as a cover-up technique, preventing the public from the true circumstances of the seven-time world champion’s condition.

You get the feeling that this suspicion has led to Schumacher’s admirers not knowing who to believe and trust, which increases the chances of them running away with the tiniest smidgen of rumour.

After all, Autosport is widely considered the go-to place when, for example, you want to find out who finished 14th in the first practice session for the Chinese Grand Prix—but is it necessarily the first port of call when you want to know about the condition of a middle-aged German man in a French hospital with a life-threatening head injury?

On March 24, Gary Hartstein, the former F1 doctor who has become a beacon of hope and information since Schumacher suffered his accident, posted a blog on his personal website which ended with the following passage:

I always knew Michael was adored. I spent years at circuits drenched in red by the Ferrari caps, flags, and shirts, and all of that for Michael. I’m still staggered by the depth and persistence of his fans’ love for him.

And whereas I worried more than a bit about what was going to happen when and if really bad news got announced, I’ve realised that perhaps the lack of status updates has given us all a chance to move on a bit, to process what’s happening, and to start to... detach. And I think this is probably one of the unexpected “benefits” to the media strategy chosen by Michael’s family.

Somehow, I get the feeling that people are going to be ok, no matter what happens, because they’ve now had the time to process this all. I just regret that to get here, you’ve all had to work through feeling abandoned. That will go away too. I hope.

It was the most pessimistic, emotive extract of any of Hartstein’s posts so far, given extra weight by his vast experience in both the motorsport and medical industries. It read like an acceptance of defeat, a loss of hope, appearing to suggest that grave news was inevitable if not imminent.

Less than two weeks later, however, came the news from Kehm—as reported by Kim Willsher of The Guardianthat Schumacher had been experiencing “moments of consciousness and awakening.”

It was by far the most encouraging development since the accident occurred, proving that Kehm, as you would expect from someone firmly within the Schumacher circle, is the principle source.

It is worth remembering, therefore, that her job is complicated when she has to waste her time and energy by issuing nothing-statements about how the latest disrespectful rumours doing the rounds on social media are nonsense.

So think twice before you hit that retweet button.  


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