Public acts of violence are just that, public. They are meant to be overt demonstrations of the perpetrator’s power and purpose, offsetting feelings of alienation and powerlessness that are associated with such acts. In focusing on social media and this distribution, however, we lose sight of the contribution that mental illness plays. That’s the outlier, not the use of social media.
Social media is the new normal. It is embedded across our lives in countless ways whether we’re Facebook or Twitter users or not. Even if you never look at social media, the influence of globally networked information flows will still impact the things you hear, the stories you read in the newspapers and what your friends are talking about. The immediacy and authenticity of social media, it’s ability to capture process and emotion is unparalleled except in the best of the arts. Yet, in the aftermath of tragic events such as the Smith Mountain Lake Virginia shooting, the first question people ask is why would someone post such a heinous act on social media?
Many mass media stories focus on the posting on social media as a unique feature of this event. But it is not. It is a sign of the times that we experience the broader world up close and personal. The bad part is that it truly is horrible to see others suffer such random acts of violence. These events dominate mass media. You may think they would also dominate social media, and in a sense they do. They ‘trend’ as people like to say. They do not, however, take over. There are too many other voices, events and concerns that, except in the largest of cataclysms, rarely pause. In social media, you have to search. You see others share, of course, but it flows by like a stream. You may see it, you may not. You can, of course, find it if you search for it, but that’s by your choice. We all have infinitely more control over what we see on social media than on mass media, so this concern of social media inflicting the horribleness of any event on us is vastly overstated. And while I do, on the one hand, applaud the intentions of social media companies who are trying to respond to social outcry and monitor and curate proof of senseless social violence, we need to be careful that we don’t offload the responsibility of judgment about what we see and share for two reasons: 1) Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and 2) The essence of free speech is not allowing someone else’s values to dictate what is and isn’t okay for the public forum. We humans seem to easily forget our most embarrassing histories where we ceded our moral authority out of fear, such as McCarthyism.
The value of this type of expression is that we DO see what’s happening to others. This gives us a chance to experience empathy beyond our immediate circle and to express support and caring to others in greater magnitudes than was every possible. Across every great religion and a good deal of psychological theory, not to mention pop psych, we recognize the value of collective positive energy, love and good vibes. Experiencing such actions in a more forceful way also allows us, as a society, to think about how things go wrong and examine, rationally if possible, the complex social and personal precursors that results in someone with mental illness to reach such a state, arm himself and take action.
Our brains are hardwired to focus on the bad and dangerous, continually scanning the environment for any uncertainty that poses a threat to our survival. We instinctively try to make sense out of the unexplainable to alleviate our own fear and discomfort. But the best use of social media is to exercise our conscious cognitive control–take charge of our use and not blame the tools. This will also allow us to focus on the senseless loss of life of the victims and to celebrate the lives of Alison Parker and Adam Ward as acts of empathy and caring, not inadvertently glorifying the perpetrator. The shift in emotion from fear to empathy will help each of us, and will also spread across the social networks, changing the social pulse we’re so busy monitoring.
The following are clips from interviews with Sky News UK and Fox21News.com that show the emphasis on looking to explain the role played by social media. (Note: Sky News pulled an old bio. I am currently teaching at Fielding Graduate University and no longer teaching at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.)
Pamela Rutledge on the ethics of reporting shootings https://t.co/64Xkl7MtiK
— Sky News Tonight (@SkyNewsTonight) August 26, 2015