Accelerating Emotional Reactions on the Social Web

As this issue of EContent went to press, American media consumers were reeling from several fairly emotional stories. The Zimmerman verdict had been handed down, the Snowden revelations still resonated, and Rolling Stone had just released a cover story featuring Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. What these three stories had in common, aside from their obvious news value, was the way the public reacted to them and the way that reaction reverberated across the social web.

People took to their social media soapbox and had their say with strong opinions on all sides of these issues. And the debate was not always terribly civil. Actually, it was often filled with uninformed, knee-jerk reactions. But given the ability to have their say, people took it, as they so often do. 

At the same time this was all happening, I saw the film Hannah Arendt. It is a biopic, meaning it might not have been completely historically accurate, but it probably got the broad picture right. It told the story of a prominent writer, philosopher, and thinker who covered the trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann in Israel in 1961 for The New Yorker.

When Arendt, a German-Jewish immigrant who herself had fled Nazi Germany, published her story in a series of articles in the magazine, and later as a book, the reaction was strong. People fixated on one part of the story just as they so often do today, and I couldn't help but notice that much like today, even without an internet megaphone, a large number of people had a similar reaction to something that they heard without bothering to read the full story or to get the facts straight.

Perhaps it's simply human nature to react to things at a visceral level and refuse to look beyond that to get at that truth (to the extent that's possible). At the very least, we need to read the article we are reacting to, but, sadly, many don't even go that far. They simply form an opinion on hearsay, a headline, or a cover, as was the case with the Rolling Stone cover.

In Arendt's view, at least according to the film, she could never understand the reaction her reporting received. She maintained that if people actually took the time to read the entire book, they would have seen her true views-but many chose to simply base their opinions on others' interpretations of what she had written. 

Sound familiar?

If I'm being honest, when I first saw the Rolling Stone cover, my first reaction was: Why put a picture on the cover that makes Tsarnaev look like a rock star? But then I actually read the story, which was a well-written, throughly researched, in-depth look at this young man accused of committing a horrific act. When I looked at the cover in the context of the story, it made much more sense. He seemed so normal-as the picture suggested-but there was a different person lurking inside that even his closest friends didn't realize was there. 

But many, many people reacted to the cover and didn't look any further-just as so many had done to Arendt. People allowed their initial reaction to be their final reaction.

In an age when everything, including the media, moved slower and people had to put their words on paper by hand, one might assume that, perhaps, people would have put more thought into their reactions. But just as they do in the age of social media, people in the 1960s seemed to react whether or not they had actually taken the time to be fully informed about the issue they were so upset about. The only difference is the time delay between when you scribbled out your opinion and when it reached the masses.

Today, with a much bigger microphone, when anyone with an internet connection and a Facebook account can express their opinions freely, we find that when given that ability, people don't often take the time to think these complex issues through. They simply react, and that's unfortunate because very often these issues demand more in-depth analysis than most of us-including the press-tend to give them.

Reading an article gives you a defensible basis for your opinion ... whatever that may be.

But when we react based on our initial, gut response, and don't take the time to learn about the issues, we are doing ourselves a disservice. The social internet is a powerful tool, but we need to reflect more before we post, or tweet, or comment, because once it's out there, it's out there, and emotion begets emotion instead of rational discussion.