Why Do We Endlessly Retweet Tragedy?

With the utmost respect for victims and survivors, may I question why we feel so compelled to personally spread bad news? Why with each bombing or disaster we all race to tell everyone we know what happened? We’ve realized the power of social media for distributing real-time news. It lets us express empathy, but can also spread fear and misinformation. It’s time to ask if and when we’re helping.

Spreading accurate information to those that need it is important. But how many of the retweets of a smoking fuselage or broken city street actually accomplish that?

If you’re on the scene, say what you saw. Tell friends that you’re safe and assist fact-checking news organizations to piece the real story together.

If there is still danger, those who are in danger must be informed. If a factory fire is pumping noxious fumes into the surrounding community, if a hurricane suddenly changes directions, if an armed suspect is on the loose. For those who have lots of followers in harm’s way, tweeting could get them out of it.

And everyone is entitled to their opinion to what they think is news and important to share.

But we need mindfulness.

Our brains are not wired for the modern age and the incredibly powerful tools we’ve built to transmit information. A few thousand years ago, literal word of mouth was all we had. If you heard something bad was happening, it probably directly affected you. “There’s a sabretooth tiger coming! Run!” “Don’t drink the water, it’s poisoned.”

We likely developed instincts to trumpet this information as far, wide, and fast as we could because it benefited our tribe. But without tools, that message rarely projected farther than it needed to go.

Now things are very different. The threats we face haven’t scaled as quickly as our technology. Danger to a few dozen, hundred, or thousand people instantly reaches millions. The barrier to passing along news has dropped to a single click. We may be so inclined to retweet tragedy because it’s our nature to care, feel sympathy, and wish we could help. But amplifying sad news too far too fast itself poses a risk.

Most objectively, being too quick to retweet can spread inaccurate information. Just today with with the Asiana plane crash at San Francisco airport, an eyewitness said she thought the plane rolled, which would likely have made injuries much more severe. No one can confirm that it rolled, though, and the wings remain attached, yet that info had already been retweeted hundreds or thousands of times. In Newtown, a digital lynch mob gathered around Ryan Lanza when he was mistakenly accused of being the school shooter when the culprit was his brother. And in Boston, false information ran rampant, from erroneous stories of people killed to a fake campaign tricking people into thinking a dollar would go to victims for each of their retweets.

Then there are the negative effects of fear. Commercial plane travel is actually incredibly safe. Deaths are rare, and it’s almost infinitely safer than cars, where there are 1.27 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. But each of today’s plane crash photo retweets sends a different message — that flying is dangerous. Not only could implied misinformation hurt the economy, but it could put more people on the road where they’re more likely to get hurt.

For terrorists, one of the main goals is to get attention, and social media provides that. Endlessly retweeting the destruction and heartbreak they cause may actually make their attacks more effective.

And on a more abstract level, we risk distracting each other from the present. From each other’s lives, contributions, and even ability to aid those impacted by the tragedies we talk about.

When we can use social media for good, we should. Campaign for donations to reputable relief funds and pass along information about volunteering. Make people aware of real danger when necessary. If using a one-to-many medium will spread that info too far, use private messaging. There’s no need to shove fear in everyone’s faces.

Right now, we are rubbernecking on a global level. Good news goes unheard as we fall into an eager chorus of shock and sorrow. Each of us has a choice of whether to simply parrot the problems our world inevitably faces or use our voice to try to solve them. Let’s think before we tweet.

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