11/1/2016 Editor’s repost note:
For today’s repost, we’re sharing Joshua Baerwald’s piece from last year on the mob mentality that can result from the rise of social justice through online media. We share this piece because in recent days there has been a viral post encouraging Facebook location sharing to aid protesters at the Dakota Access Pipeline, and even though there are tangible effects as a result of the post (increased awareness can result in more direct monetary donations), the fact remains that both Standing Rock Camp and the police force involved have confirmed that Facebook location tagging is not inhibiting police response to the protests. We are in no way denigrating the actions of the protestors, nor are we claiming that the increased awareness generated by the post shares is inherently harmful; instead, we are encouraging our readers to be more analytical of the sources they find information from online.
THE ILLUSIVE SPRING
Information and fallacy have always been doppelgangers. The only difference between a hundred years ago and now is that both are far more easily accessible. Recent generations feed off an illusive spring built by the media (both social and corporate alike), which spews misinformation in all directions. By propagating the lines between fact, emotion, and accessibility, many modern media forums have facilitated a complete degradation of reliable information consumption.
Shortly after the tragic San Bernardino shooting, the media was eager for answers. In an attempt to figure out who these people were, their motives, and the lives they led, news outlets went into the shooter’s house, sans government permission or a warrant. To make matters worse, the self-appointed investigators ransacked a fair amount of the house, recording their progress. At one point, a reporter picked up a photo depicting the shooters and several of their acquaintances; however, these people likely had little to do with the shooting itself. After the clear mistakes made in handling evidence in the infamous O.J. Simpson case, one would think the tampering of these two criminals’ possessions would be expressly prohibited. However, such was clearly not the case, and this oversight was never acknowledged by the reporters involved.
For those of you who have watched the popular Netflix show Making A Murderer, you might have noticed a similar invasion of privacy. About halfway into the series, Steven Avery was accused of murder. Shortly after, his family was surrounded by reporters, asking the family how they felt about the fact that the aforementioned accusation might be true. Instead of substantive inquiry, the interviewers probed for any sort of reaction that could boost their ratings. These interactions weren’t about gaining insight on how the family was impacted, or providing equal representation of contrasting narratives; these actions were motivated solely by personal and corporate gain.
What’s worse is that established news stations frequently introduce false narratives, intentionally or otherwise, when they are rushed to report a story. In the well-known Michael Brown case, media would try to update viewers on a day-to-day basis, interviewing so-called witnesses and pushing stories that were never really confirmed. The “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative was soon discovered to be a misconception, and varying testimonies led to confusion about what was true and what wasn’t. As these perspectives spread into the minds of media consumers, people were quick to state their opinions on the matter. Statements and witness accounts became increasingly vague as quotations moved from source to source, snowballing into a mass of misconceptions and delusion.
So why are these reporters so incessant in their search for finding dramatic footage? It is readily apparent that the emotional rhetoric, which has been ever- prevalent in today’s media, has led people to confuse passion and drama for intelligence and reliability. We have trouble believing that various news stations might report on a story regardless of accuracy simply for ratings. News outlets report stories based on a heavily pathos argument, and it ramps up ratings, leading to a cyclical motion where they justify the ratings to continue their reports in such a way. This is no speculation; in 2007, two reporters from ABC news admitted to such scare tactics, stating “We at ABC are as guilty as any other media outlet of rushing out to cover every new threat that arises. And the reason we scare people is simple: ‘Fear gets your eyeballs.’” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of “Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition” and founder of the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Massachussets. “For broadcast media, eyeballs equal ratings. For politicians, eyeballs equal votes. For activists, eyeballs equal support for their causes. For corporations, eyeballs equal sales. The bottom line: Worry and fear sell.”
Just over a month ago, the CEO of CBS further proved the previously made point, acknowledging the correlation between emotional exchanges on the campaign trail and news ratings. The ambiguity that has developed between passion and intelligence, as well as the news outlets’ attention towards emotional rhetoric, could help explain the surge of Donald Trump. A lot of people would be unable to tell you anything about his actual proposals, seeing as most of them are vague and lack concrete details, but they could certainly tell you that he says it with vigor and passion. They defend his support by saying that he “tells it like it is.” What’s clear, however, is that he only tells certain groups what they want to hear. Little of it is accurate, but regardless, it encourages the confirmation bias of an (apparently) large group of people, and is said with such rigor that people fear disputing it. We have trouble believing that someone would get so up-in-arms about an issue that, in reality, is either dramatically exaggerated, or doesn’t really exist.
As we have shifted more towards emotion, various groups have not only grown to prefer this style of argument, but to dislike factual argument. In one of the February GOP debates, the initial topic was Supreme Court nominations, seeing as Justice Antonin Scalia had just passed away just a few days prior. CBS moderator John Dickerson asked whether Obama should be able to nominate someone to fill Scalia’s seat. Senator Ted Cruz answered with a firm no, stating that there has been “Eighty years of not confirming. For example, LBJ nominated Abe Fortas. Fortas did not get confirmed. He was defeated.” There became a slight debacle as Dickerson corrected Cruz, citing Reagan’s nomination of Kennedy in 1988, disregarding the other 16 Justices who were confirmed by the Senate during election year. After correcting Cruz, Dickerson stated that he just wanted to ensure that he got the facts straight for the audience. In response to Dickerson’s correction, the audience booed him. We have reached a point where a debate moderator is chastised for fact-checking a candidate, giving us a glimpse into what extent modern-day media tactics impact our culture.
PATIENT ZERO: HOW MEDIA TACTICS INFLUENCE U.S. CULTURE
By now, it should be apparent that the degradation of reliable reporting is real and prominent in today’s various media forums (particularly social and corporate). Due to the fact that tens of millions of Americans obtain their information through these mediums, the issues behind these media manipulations translate into how American culture develops.
The societal impact of prevailing fallacious information is further exacerbated once the internet becomes involved. We each have an opportunity to build an online persona different from our real selves. It used to be that we would pretend to be taller, use the one picture that made us look really good, and focus on the physical appearance properties to mask our flaws. Physical statistics such as lower weight, younger age, and an exaggeration of height (particularly for males) frequently occupied Myspace profiles years ago. Recently, however, this has been taken a step further, and people try to appear as intellectuals, informed about politics and world issues, by simply sharing articles. Not only have many contemporary media forums developed into modern-day yellow journalism, feasting off the fears of the public, but the everyday internet user has been sucked in as well. Many of us contribute to the resurgence of emotional – and often factually incorrect – journalism, when we share the articles that perpetuate it, or post a status based solely on the information we gathered from those same articles. NPR pulled an April Fools’ day prank last year to prove the extent to which people will go to appear well-read through their social profiles. They titled an article “Why America Doesn’t Read Anymore.” Had you clicked on the article, you would realize that it was a prank, and the article had literally nothing of substance, except to say that it was a joke used to prove that people would share articles just by reading the title. The results were not disappointing, as Facebook flooded with users accusing NPR of buying into the narrative that Americans no longer read as they once did The inhabitants of the online frontier quickly offered miniature novels on their rebuttals or support of the argument that, in fact, had no supporting details and was completely made up. Ignoring the comments and shares directly from the website, the Facebook post alone had nearly ten thousand shares and almost two thousand comments. This only enforced the idea that people will try to appear smart by sharing or discussing articles and exuberating faux-passion in order to seem well-informed and intelligent.
This tactic of sharing articles based solely on an interpretation of the title could be seen as an evolution from an earlier problem. A few years ago, we faced a dilemma where people would frequently share photos asking users to “share if they thought cancer was bad,” and the stereotypical photo of a starving African child with the caption “like if you want to end world poverty.” While these certainly float around the internet every so often even today, I think it’s safe to say the trend has faded. Sure, the distant aunt who means well will share something declaring her love for Jesus, or a picture equating a “like” to an extra day to live, but the frequency has drastically decreased. People would frequently interact with these posts as a form of altruistic reinforcement, trying to show that they cared about the world and it’s issues. However, instead of liking a post to show your volunteer/selfless side, we have begun to share articles, regardless of reliability. We feel that the click of a button somehow validates and confirms that we are caring and generous people, even though our actions often stop there.
Upon reading the previous paragraph, slacktivism may come to some readers minds. Originally used with a positive connotation, this term has come to reference people who satisfy their good-natured, loving souls simply by clicking a share button on Facebook. One of the first examples to truly show the danger of this term was Kony 2012. For those of you who remember, this “movement” turned out to be a large-scale hoax, as the filmmakers who started the campaign ended up pocketing most of the donations instead of contributing it towards the issue they were addressing.
This emergence of slacktivism and ease of sharing articles leads to a widespread groupthink mentality. Various sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, allow us to choose which sources to digest in order to reinforce our confirmation biases. Because corporate media networks have established particular biases (such as NBC leaning left, and Fox News leaning right), we can focus on particular networks to fuel our arguments, without being exposed to opposing (and sometimes valid) arguments. By avoiding the arguments that counter our own, we radicalize our views and prevent any opportunity to gain an opposing (and sometimes valid) perspective.
Between the increase in slacktivism, as well as the establishment of an online persona that portrays and educated and passionate user, the cultural impacts should become increasingly clear. These changes in American habits and behaviors, however, can be analyzed a step further, as we discuss how it has encouraged new actions and decisions we make, particularly online.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA CRUSADES
Should you stumble upon the Yelp page of Walter Palmer, a small-business dentist, you will find an abundance of exceedingly negative reviews. While few of us enjoy going to the dentist, it’s evident that his ability as a dentist is not the only thing at play here. Most of the reviews you initially see are one star, and have nothing to do with his business, but rather his encounter with Cecil The Lion. One reviewer went to the extent of saying, “Deliver him a pizza and you’ve got Cecil’s cold blood on your hands.” For those of you who might be unfamiliar, Walter Palmer is the man who got a lot of attention by the media for killing the famous lion, Cecil, while on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe. When Palmer was cleared of any charges for what many felt to be one of the cruelest acts of mankind, the Internet took the justice system into their own hands. In the previous article of this series, I discussed a broader overview of media’s impact on society. When looking at cases such as Palmer’s, there becomes a clear connection between media culture, and what has become the Social Media Crusades, as online users attempt to take justice matters into their own hands.
It should be noted that this is by no means an attempt to argue for, or against, Palmer. Rather, this is an attempt to address the pervasive actions committed by social media users who seek justice when they believe the established system has failed in doing so.
Within months of returning to the U.S. from his trip to Zimbabwe, Palmer felt the wrath of these vigilante online profiles, seeking retribution wherever they deemed necessary. Although Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment found Palmer innocent, the American Internet was not as merciful. While the online harassment was certainly tumultuous and prevalent, it extended beyond the web. After his Florida home was vandalized (which, ironically, included the dumping of pigs feet in his front yard), Palmer began paying for armed protection, and installed security cameras on his property. Palmer soon removed all social media presence as well, after receiving numerous threats across various networking sites. To make matters worse, his family was attacked as well, as people went out to protest his daughter’s dancing studio. One man went to such measures of writing an article which attacked the personal lifestyle choice of whom she married.
While we may be quick to question the drastic measures gone to host a social media trial, so to speak, it’s important to note the significance of the Internet’s inherent dehumanizing nature. By replacing a human being with a photo on a screen, whether it be a TV or a computer, we distance ourselves from the humanity of the person we see in pixels. There’s something almost objectifying about online profiles, removing the significant attributes of human life that prevent us from committing cruel acts towards one another.
Legality also plays a role, as the law of the web is hard to define. The rapid growth of the internet has far outpaced the growth of sound and logical law that governs its usage. Various circumstances come into play when considering the severity of threats and cyber-bullying, making it easier to commit these acts without fear of reprimand. As shown by the disputes regarding the PATRIOT Act, SOPA, and CISA, there are a lot of differing opinions on our technology rights, solely from a privacy perspective. One of the problems with these bills is that they barely touched on the legal consequences of actions classified as cyber-bullying. There have, however, been improvements in recent years, notably Twitter’s policy changes in order to combat harassment, after a reported forty percent of female users said that they had been harassed online.
The dehumanization enforced by the internet is only pushed further towards negative consequences when we consider the faux-invincibility we feel while online. This is worsened by the fact that anonymity is easily accessible on many websites, and while few people will go to drastic measures to create a fake profile in order to condemn someone else, it’s certainly not unheard of, and the possibility is real and significant.
Psychologists frequently analyze instances in which groups of people may commit crimes that, individually, they would not commit. It’s referred to as a mob mentality: when we see a group of people engaging in a similar event, we often adopt an akin mindset. This is partially due to the growing anonymity we feel as the group we are a part of grows, which relates back to the Internet’s illusory invincibility. When there are 60,000 comments on a Facebook post, we don’t worry about whether or not people will see our comment, simply because it gets lost in the sea of misguided debate. Similarly, when everyone starts attacking a man like Palmer, an individual no longer fears the idea of adopting this attack, as they will surely be just one post in the amalgam of threats and accusations.
There is another term in psychology related to these crusades known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This effect is defined as a cognitive bias in which one suffers a false sense of superiority on a topic. The oversimplification of such extreme issues by the media has a heavy influence on this effect. In a world of listicles and videos that attempt to condense an explanation of a topic as complex as the Syrian conflict in 5 minutes, we feel as though these information miniatures saturate our knowledge on the topic. It’s understandable, seeing as we live in a culture that perpetuates a persistent and exhausting work ethic. We feel as though we can’t spend too much time looking into various issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how it’s progressed, or the impact of toy-making factories in China, and how they relate to the U.S. economy. However, the idea that we can understand such incredibly complex topics with a couple article skims and a short video here and there is wishful thinking.
This is not to say that everyone must be well-informed on every topic, providing multiple sources when in the process of developing a rational argument. Instead of having to rely on skepticism and extensive research, it would be ideal to easily find sources which were frequently reliable and informative. That being said, we should reserve judgement towards those who are misguided or under-informed on various topics (which I am often victim to as well), we should not feel obliged to be as forgiving to those who dramatically act based on a lack of information. To believe that Palmer was guilty is your right, no one can tell you whether you are allowed to have that belief or not. However, the issue arises when you act upon that belief, like those who threatened him, his family, and his property.
For me to say I had the solution to these crusades would be presumptuous and even a little arrogant. As previously stated, it’s hard to create sound policy and law with the Internet, seeing as it is still a fairly new concept, with persistent development and expansion. That said, it’s important to at least acknowledge the issue, and reflect on how these issues have impacted us.
Many of us are blind believers in what the media says and does, and that’s one of the primary problems. For us to work towards a more humane online interaction with one another, we need to first focus on how media has turned our online presences into such fierce authority. While the solution(s) to these issues is not a simple one, we could certainly start by genuinely acknowledging the rating and fear-based reporting that goes on today, and begin holding these various media forums accountable – corporate media in particular. The issue is not that we are reeled into stories which play upon our fears; that’s just due to human heuristics and cognitive thinking. With consequences such as the vicious attacks on Walter Palmer, the growing disdain for factual argument, and the degradation of reliable narratives towards important issues such as those in the Michael Brown case, it is apparent that the main issue lies in the power, influence, and most importantly, corruption, of various mediums that we are surrounded by today. Until we can recognize this, we will continue to be surrounded by sources we can’t trust, spewing messages of fear, hate, and anger to its consumers.