Saturday, July 6, 2013

Tragic Events and Social Media

Back in the old days (I say as I rock on my porch and tell those damn kids to get off my lawn), when tragedy struck, we read about it in the newspaper. Sometimes, if it was a huge enough deal, there'd be an Extra edition devoted to it. We'd also watch events unfold on the evening news, where somber-faced newscasters tried to project empathy as they reported on some disastrous plane crash, killer storm, or mass murder.

But as each day passes, the coverage lessens. There'd be follow-up stories, sure, and things like final death tolls, property damage, perhaps news of the apprehension of a guilty party. But in general, things begin to calm down, and it's not like you were being constantly bombarded by the tragic news. You could put down the paper, change the channel, get away from it for a while and process it without having it surrounding you.

These days, for better or for worse, we have the Internet, and social media. In an age where people can log into their favorite social media site and read about such minutiae as someone's kid's latest cute malapropism, or some co-worker's odd birthmark, the big stories, the really big stories, are plastered all over and you simply can't escape from them.

And since many people turn to the Internet for everything from entertainment to news to paying bills and much more, you can't help but read about  a tragedy no matter where you go. Fire up your computer and click on your browser, and you'll go to your homepage, and sure enough, there's the news. Go to your social site and what's everyone talking about? Yup.

At least from where I sit (aside from on the couch), it's occurred to me that the abundance of tragedies reported on social media runs the risk of the readers getting desensitized or, if I may be so crass, "fed up" of reading about them.

Let's take Facebook, as a for instance. You are on Facebook. You have people who post on your timeline or whatever. Even though Facebook doesn't have circles like Google+ does, you do unconsciously have your contacts grouped together in easy to categorize sections. Here's your family. Here's the friends you maintain regular contact with. Here's co-workers, old classmates, fellow enthusiasts of a hobby you all share, co-workers from your current job, co-workers from past jobs, and extended family.

Now, let's say that a bomb goes off in a public place. Destruction, death in abundance. Now, sit back and watch the news be reported by every single of your groups of contacts because, since there's little to no overlap, it's being reported for the first time among that particular circle of friends.

After a while, the bombardment of tragic news, updates, rumors, heart-felt tributes, diatribes, and sackcloth and ashes runs the risk of desensitizing us to the truly horrific nature of the tragedy, be it a natural disaster or a man-made event. And this is unfortunate, because we're talking about lives here. People are injured, dying, or homeless. People's lives, at least the ones not so hideously and tragically snuffed out, have changed irrevocably. This should upset us. We should care. And we do, at least most of us do. But after a while, and sadly sometimes not a very long while, we start getting that dangerous little thought germinating in the back of our minds that whispers "Okay, enough already..."

And depending on your friends' ability to process something and move on, you may wake up to find more news and stories relating to that particular tragedy for days, weeks, maybe even months later, and we're not talking about people who personally knew someone who was in the middle of the event, or were in it themselves. There's just that segment of the population that gets profoundly affected by the event and has difficulty letting go.

You don't want to be insensitive, and you certainly don't want to adopt a cavalier attitude towards the horrific events reported, but after a while, that little voice in your head picks up a bullhorn and starts screaming "Oh, shut up and get over it!"

Here, at the risk of coming across as too flip or taking tragedy lightly, is a timeline for disasters as reflected in social media, as I've witnessed it.

Zero Hour: Event occurs
Zero + one minute: First posts announce tragedy
Zero + 10 minutes: Posts pile on, many of them exaggerating figures
Zero +15 minutes: Prayers and good thoughts posted, as more rumors begin to filter in.
Zero + one hour: The first "Keep Calm And..." meme appears
Zero + 90 minutes: Someone has already designed a special loop ribbon custom-made for the event
Zero + two hours: Religious zealots declare that this is happening because God is mad at us for abortion/gay marriage/banning prayer in schools/Justin Beiber
Zero + two hours, 10 minutes: Strident atheists declare that the tragedy is absolute proof that there really, absolutely, positively is no God because there was no divine intervention.
Zero + two hours, 30 minutes: The followers of one political party declare that this happened because their political policies haven't been adopted.
Zero + two hours, 31 minutes: The followers of the opposing political party declare that this happened because their political policies haven't been adopted.
Zero + two hours, 32 minutes: The TinFoil Hat Brigade crawls out from under their rocks and declare the entire thing was manufactured by the gub-mint.
Zero + two hours, 45 minutes: The first annoying Willy Wonka image meme appears, refuting previous political arguments
Zero + three hours: Some inspirational message appears, usually accompanied by a baby and/or a cat
Zero + three hours, 15 minutes: Some posters start leaving comments like "This sort of incident happens all over the world every day; why aren't people equally upset about all of THOSE incidents as well? What makes a disaster in America so freaking special?"
Zero + three hours, 30 minutes: Obama gets blamed
Zero + four hours: Rainbows, flowers, bad poetry
Zero + one day: Stories begin to trickle out about brave rescue workers, survivors first-hand accounts.
Zero + one day, one hour: Some survivors' stories happen to mention that they prayed for rescue
Zero + one day, one hour, ten seconds: God-haters immediately seize upon those survivors' accounts and pick them apart, saying that God is unjust if He only saves people who pray.
Zero + one day, 2 hours: First Jean-Luc Picard meme showing him gesturing, with a caption refuting something or other about the tragedy
Zero + two days: Fund-raising drives commence for helping those affected by the tragedy
Zero + two days, 10 seconds: Heartless scumbags create fake fund-raising charities
Zero + two days, 12 hours: About this time, we start having a very clear idea of what happened, casualties, causes, etc.
Zero + two days, 13 hours: Political arguments, religious arguments, puppies, flowers, pictures of Jesus and/or angels, quotes by Neil De Grasse Tyson, acknowledgement of disaster at sports events, cats.
Zero + three days: Westboro Baptist "church" announces its intention to picket the funerals.

And so on. I wish I could say that any of the above items were exaggerations. They're not.

The Internet and social media can be a wonderful resource for information. Fear is based on ignorance, and being able to access up to the minute news is a good way of getting some answers and perhaps restoring some peace of mind. It's also a great way of finding out how we can help, directly or indirectly, to alleviate suffering and help with the healing. But more of than not, thanks to this new way of getting news, the constant exposure runs the risk of inoculating us against the gravity, the emotional impact of the situation, and thus make us care a little less, replacing concern with an exasperated desire to just stop reading about it constantly. And that in itself is its own unique tragedy.


  1. Excellent ! Your observations and insights are spot on as usual, although I think your "It's Obamas' fault" should be moved up on the list.
    I would like to add that television, cable news and also the social media that are referred to in your blog also contribute to the feeling that many have that there is murder, natural disastger and mayhem right outside your door 24 hours a day. Instead of reading about crimes a couple of states away in a Weekly, like "Time", we know about it within hours. Wars from every continent take turns on our tv and computer screens that we can barely keep track. Imminent danger seems to surround us. I hope we maintain our empathy, but also take a deep breath and understand these things are news because they are out of the norm. Calm down, folks, feek the sun shine. Starve the darkness and feed the light!

    1. Well said, Rita!!! And it's true. Oh, and I forgot one....I need to update the entry, but here it is:

      Zero Hour + Three Hours, 15 minutes: Some posters start leaving comments like "This sort of incident happens all over the world every day; why aren't people equally upset about all of THOSE incidents as well? What makes a disaster in America so freaking special?"