The 6 Stupidest Internet Reactions To Shocking News Stories
Back in the old days, any shocking news stories would hit the public's consciousness first when a paperboy would shout the lurid headlines at them as they walked to work or tried to get their shoes shined, if old gangster movies are accurate documentaries of early 20th century life.
Nowadays they hit the Internet first, and the Internet reacts, as you might expect, stupidly. Here are a few of the most predictable and annoying reactions you'll get on any big story.
"I Don't Understand Why You're All So Shocked By This."
"This is just another case of ____. Why is this even news?" Sound familiar?
Fill in the blank with "someone from X group doing Y stereotypical behavior." Like "a right wing nutjob saying something crazy" or "a liberal protesting about something for attention."
Sure, sometimes stories are obviously slow news day stories that deserve the "Why is this news?" treatment, but I'm talking about obviously relevant stories that would naturally shock the average reader.
Sometimes this comes from well-intentioned people who aren't observant enough to notice what's unusual about the story. "So some rich lady fell down some stairs in her one-story house somehow and her gambling-addicted nephew inherits all her money. So basically, somebody died. Big deal. People die every day! There was a story just yesterday about a guy who had a heart attack during the Super Bowl. There's nothing new under the sun, folks. Death happens! I don't know why you're so shocked!"
That might be a bit extreme, but a lot of simple people can oversimplify a story so that in summary, of course it sounds like a cliche. A story about Gaddafi's excesses? "Oh, boy, a dictator being eccentric and insane, like we haven't heard that before." Only when he's actually in the process of being overthrown, and these things are directly fueling the anger of the people overthrowing him, it seems kind of relevant what specific things are riling them up.
Like this stupid couch he bought for his daughter.
But worse than the well-intentioned people are the people who think that posting news stories is some kind of contest where you try to shock other people, and the least shocked person is the "winner." They see being shocked or disturbed or surprised as an admission of weakness, and will respond to an Internet snuff film by saying, "Well, that's not nearly as bad as that chainsaw one. You mean you guys have never heard of it?"
Shock hipsters are the worst hipsters.
Compulsion To Identify the Good Guy and Bad Guy
I think it's a bit hypocritical to jump on people for "judging" since we all make some level of judgment if the story is shocking enough. The kind of "judging" that bothers me is when the person literally acts like a judge that has been given this case and everything depends on them making a ruling.
You know what I mean, when a person starts out saying, "Well, it's hard to make a call here, and we really don't have all the facts, but ..." and goes on to list the pros and cons, and draw a conclusion about who the guilty party is. If it's hard to make a call, you don't have to make a call. Of course everybody's entitled to their opinion, but these people aren't acting like they are letting their natural reactions out, they're acting like they really don't want to judge, but someone has begged them to do it and they must heed the call. The Internet needs them, and they can't let it down.
"It's my CIVIC DUTY!"
If you are that kind of person, then as a member of the Internet, I officially inform you that the Internet Court relieves you of your duties. You are now free to act on your own. Next time you run into a news story that's hard to judge, feel free to say, "Well, it's hard to make a call here, and we really don't have the facts," and then stop. You are freed from your judicial obligations and can go spend more time arguing about video games or something.
The worst thing is that when drawing the good guy/bad guy lines, it always seems to be a zero-sum game. One side has to be good and one side has to be bad, so you can take sides! Make posters! Chant slogans! Make pithy sarcastic quips! If both sides are morally flawed, but one side bears more liability than the other, it's hard to really sum that up on a bumper sticker or scathing signature.
This mentality really shows whenever you bring up flaws in one party's actions, like "The kid shouldn't have been putting ice cream down people's pants in the first place." Then some people will jump up and say, "Oh, so you're saying he deserved to get beaten up? You're saying the bullies were saints? You're saying they did the world a favor? THE KID IS IN THE HOSPITAL AND YOU ARE CONDONING THIS?" I mean, come on. If one side is shown to be more wrong than you thought, it doesn't automatically make the other side less wrong. You don't have to subtract the wrongness from the other column, it's not a fucking math problem.
Some people just want any controversial story to fit into the pattern of villain vs. saint, so if you're finding any flaws in one party, you must be trying to turn them into the villain, and logically, turning the other side into the saint. But so many stories are two "villains" trying to screw each other over, or a bunch of bumbling "saints" coming to blows because of a pile of misunderstandings.
Self-Righteousness Bandwagons and Revenge Fantasies
Sometimes there's a story about some person doing something absolutely unspeakable, like harming children or animals, or wearing socks with sandals. Most of us go, "This is awful! This person is a monster!"
Only one person can post first, though, so once someone has said, "This is awful! This person is a monster!" I guess no one else can say it again, it's like wearing the same dress to a party as another guest. Even if you say, "This is terrible! This person is inhuman!" it just looks like a cheap knockoff, like you're barely worked up about the victim.
It's like the "Pmua" of outrage.
No, to really prove you are a guy that disapproves of child molesters, you must up the ante.
"I hope the guards look the other way in jail and this person is dismembered by the other inmates!" That's the kind of thing that shows that child molestation really upsets you and you are not a lukewarm sissypants who just calls him a "monster" and goes off about your daily business. Someone who would do that does not really care about crimes against children, like you do.
Likewise, the next person can't just go, "Yeah, dismemberment, I'm good with that," lest they sound complacent. "No, that's too good for him!" they'll say. "I hope he's skinned alive and rolled around in some gravel and run over by a truck, and then they revive him with cutting edge medical advances so that he can have his intestines force fed to him after they are set on fire."
I understand people have to express some kind of strong emotional response to horrible crimes, but I think there's a difference between your actual feelings and the feelings you come up with after you see where other people's feelings are setting the bar. If you're telling other people that their revenge fantasies aren't good enough and one-upping them with your own, you may have crossed that line.
Sometimes the same thing happens without the violence, where people compete with each other to come up with the most derisive jokes. Like if there's a story about a stupid politician saying something stupid, people might just constantly one-up each other with generic "stupid" jokes, like, "He's so stupid it takes him an hour to make minute rice," or "He's so stupid he got run over by a parked car!" And while he is stupid, nobody ends up talking about the stupid thing he said, or what its effect is going to be, because they're too busy showing each other that they're much smarter than that stupid politician.
Creatively Filling In Details
A lot of stories hit the press with very few details at first. Say a cop tazes a student at X University. It happened near the cafe. That's all we know. The rather irresponsible student paper publishes it immediately. Soon it's on blogs all over the country.
One group of people will imagine this poor student just having a cup of coffee at the cafe when the cop came by and tazed him because he "looked at him funny," while another group of people will imagine the student walking around stone-faced, throwing grenades left and right until the cop heroically stopped him by nonlethal means. Then they'll jump straight into arguing.
To lighten the mood, imagine him launching the grenades from this old-fashioned contraption.
"So you're saying it's OK for a cop to taze someone sitting peacefully at a cafe just because he's nearsighted?" "So YOU'RE saying the cop should have just lay down and let him grenade the whole campus, so he wouldn't hurt his feelings?" "It's an outrage this cop got off scot-free!" "Scot-free!? I'm sure he was executed."
Either of those scenarios are theoretically possible given the lack of facts, but not very likely. People can be very creative on the internet, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes creepy. I think the imaginative details are filled in from two sources. One is fiction -- movies, books, TV, etc. People might explain how this person can't be convicted because of such-and-such law, and then if you ask them if they saw that on Law & Order they will cough a lot or whatever the Internet equivalent is.
The other source is their personal experiences. A setup for a news story might perfectly mirror some experience the reader had, like a bicyclist getting hit by a car might remind them of when they were run over by a road-raging maniac. Their first inclination isn't to ask if the bicyclist ran a red light or if the driver saw them, because their intuition will tell them this is another one of those maniacs. If it was a really personal experience, they might see any doubts about the victim as attacks on themselves.
Even if you're not that emotionally involved, there are all kinds of assumptions about people who live in certain areas or dress a certain way or own certain things that lead you to assume more facts than the story contains. "Well, this took place in a trailer park, so I really doubt he bothered to wrap up his wiring. I'm sure the fire was his fault."
Knee-Jerk "We Have To Make A Law!"
When Casey Anthony was acquitted, people were hopping mad, because well, she probably did kill her daughter. The problem was that the prosecution couldn't prove it. Wait, no! The problem was that we didn't have enough laws.
In response, a shit ton of people are getting behind "Caylee's Laws" all over the country, laws that would totally have put Casey Anthony in jail, if we could go back in time and pass them before Caylee Anthony died.
Damn time cops, what we really need are time legislators.
But time travel hasn't been invented yet, so the new laws, which would charge parents with a felony if they failed to report a child's death after one hour or failed to report a missing child after 24 hours, would not be able to catch Casey Anthony (unless she was stupid enough to do the exact same thing again the exact same way) but would catch parents who first notice a crib death when checking in on the napping child 70 minutes after they died, or parents who spent the first 24 hours after their teenager was kidnapped assuming she was at the friend's house she said she was going to.
It's like after failing to see O.J. Simpson convicted of murder, we tried to make up for it by demanding a law that would have made it a felony to co-star in Naked Gun movies. Sure, we would have "got" O.J., but Leslie Nielsen didn't deserve to spend the rest of his life in jail.
We didn't sell out justice and common sense for emotion, and 12 years later O.J. robbed a hotel room and put himself in jail. And Leslie Nielsen died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends, and not in jail.
See, this could have imprisoned Wilford Brimley.
Sometimes the answer to a perceived injustice isn't "We need a law!" but taking some time to study and figure out what's wrong with the system and where you can work to fix it. Or just praying desperately that the acquitted criminal will rob a hotel room someday.
"This Just Shows You ..."
Like the "Why is this even news?" people, every story fits into a pattern for these people. Only for them it's not a pattern to be ignored, but a terribly important pattern that is key to What Is Wrong With Our Society.
A weird story about a child setting fire to his teacher? "How long are we going to let these crazy out of control kids continue to maim our nation's teachers until we finally do something?" A psychotic woman cuts off her husband's penis? "It's just shocking to me how women continue to get away with this, no man is safe anymore, and won't be until we fight back." A fruit vendor attacks a woman after she refuses to buy an avocado from him? "Women just aren't safe anymore! Don't trust anyone."
Some people manage to relate every news story, every discussion, every YouTube cat video, back to their pet cause. You probably won't have to look through too many failed skateboarding stunt videos to find comments about how the injured skater will be taking his chances under Obamacare.
They see their particular issue everywhere because to them, it is everywhere. Women conspiring to emasculate men, or men conspiring to crush women, or minorities overwhelming the white race -- to them, these are national, maybe even worldwide, problems. Sure is a lot more comforting to believe you're part of a big problem that's happening to everybody than to realize your hangups come from a couple of bad relationships you had, or bad bosses, or that you feel threatened by not being able to read all the signs in the new Mexican supermarket down the street.
"These potholders ... they're insulting me, aren't they?"
Seeing it in the news helps confirm the broadness of your issue. "See? It's even happening in Florida!" you can say, even if the story (Florida governor gives new cat Spanish name) is only tenuously related to your cause.
I know this is a lot of "don'ts" that make it seem like there's pretty much nothing you should say in response to a shocking news story. But there's plenty to say. Why not ask questions? Even better, why not go on a magical journey with Mr. Google and find some answers to those questions? See if anyone else has better answers? Maybe it's not all about winning or arguing or telling people things, maybe it can be about learning, and thinking.
Nah, I know, that's crazy. Go out there and win that next news story.
For more from Christina, check out A History of Pop Culture's Obsession with Human/Cat Hybrids and 6 Bizarre Ways Architecture Is Designed to Ward Off Ghosts.