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Sandy Hook Tragedy Sparks Social Media Avalanche

Social media spreads outrage and fuels support and advocacy

The Sandy Hook tragedy has created an avalanche of response across social media.   The senseless violence has so outraged and shocked people that is has turned observers into advocates and supporters.  Whether it’s showing support, lobbying for gun control, promoting mental health  initiatives or calling for school lockdowns, people who don’t normally speak up are taking a stand.  Why?

Social technologies have lowered the hurdle for public expression of all kinds.  But more than that, social media and the fluidity of content across media channels amplifies messages that have impact and meaning.   What used to be filtered by a small number of media producers, is now open to every voice.  People across all demographics are not only becoming increasingly comfortable with social media as a forum for public expression, but they have begun to expect it as a normal way to follow, understand and share events.  People actively look to see what others are experiencing through words and images in real time.

Now, with the horrendous loss of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many who might normally remain silent are feeling compelled to speak up.  Many others are turning up their volume. The wide range of responses on different social media channels gives us a glimpse of the magnitude of the impact.  The responses came from across the country in every medium, such as a moment of silence on NFL’s Monday Night football with Titan’s running back Chris Johnson’s wearing the names of all the victims on his game shoes, a moving rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ on NBC’s The Voice  as well as dedicated Facebook and Pinterest pages where people are sharing messages and pictures of themselves wearing Sandy Hook’s green and white colors (see article on ABCnews.com) 

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Messages of support and sympathy for the victims and their families are crisscrossing their way across cyberspace.  Others are using these forums to mount an increasing voice of frustration with public policy surrounding guns and mental health.  The few thoughtless displays of bad taste, false information and fake Twitter accounts have increasingly little resonance. 

The social media responses and conversations show us how people individually and collectively process traumatic events and loss.  With emotions and comments unedited and unfiltered on social media, it feels more direct and personal.  The outpouring of many voices fuels a sense of collective agency that motivates continued participation.  The immediacy of social media creates a greater sense of presence and with that has come an outpouring of empathy for those who are suffering—much more so than ever before in pre-Internet days when we relied on our car radio or the Nightly News.  In the common expression across social media, we are able to find a place to express and validate our anger and alarm, and try to make sense of the senseless. 

Public discussion is helpful.  It allows people to feel heard, to have their experiences and emotions, such as anger, fear and anxiety, normalized.  The wide and immediate spread of information allows others to share the victims' pain, to reach out to them and to affirm their outrage at such senseless violence.  It also provides a broader platform so that the families and friends of the victims can get some comfort in knowing that many, many people all across the country care about what happened and will join them in seeking answers to keep such violence from occurring again.  And even those who used social media to spread false information or thoughtless jokes may be using this as a misguided coping mechanism to feel some sort of power or agency in the face of the powerlessness we all feel.

Humans hate uncertainty; events like that at Sandy Hook are doubly terrifying because, beyond the horror of the senseless murder of children and teachers, there is no easy explanation or 'reason why.’   We want to know why so we can fix what’s wrong and be reassured it won’t happen again.  When the world is irrational and unexplainable, we experience extreme cognitive discomfort and fear because we feel so unprotected and vulnerable.  This is an unconscious, primitive response that is hardwired into every human being.  Fear is an innate emotion critical to our survival.  It is triggered unconsciously when our environment feels potentially threatening or harmful.  Fear is a biochemical reaction, not a product of rational, logical thought.  Thanks to social technologies, the whole world feels like our proximal environment now.  

When horrible things happen, people are eager to find someone or something to blame in order to both make sense out of something that makes no sense and also to restore a feeling of order to the world.  It makes people quick to jump to ‘answers'-- even finding and blaming the wrong person feels like progress toward something. 

The danger in the aftermath of these events is that we quickly look for Band-Aid solutions to systemic problems.  The media often is the scapegoat in these events, as we saw with the so-called “Batman” killings.  Media censorship, tweaking the gun laws, requiring mental health screening, or putting locked gates on the school yards are technical, Band-Aid solutions.  Strict gun laws didn’t protect the citizens of Finland from a similar act of violence.  Mental health screening is akin to social profiling, but, civil rights issues notwithstanding, it also won’t give us the solutions we seek.  It is a placebo at best as it is beset with problems of false positives and will not distinguish between thoughts and the actions that results in such evil. The real problems are much more challenging—they require looking at fundamental cultural and social issues around guns, violence, and mental health.

The technical solutions—new regulations or new padlocks— may make people feel better because we seem to be taking action, but we aren’t addressing the more fundamental problems that need to be addressed and changed.  We need leaders capable of proposing adaptive solutions.  Adaptive solutions require us to change the system.  Changing a system is hard. It often takes a crisis to sufficiently shift perspectives and rearrange the priorities of the many stakeholders in the existing system.  On both sides of every issue, there are always people, organizations and institutions who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  As long as we can say it's the other guy's fault, we are not achieving real change.  Society is a system just like any other organism.  Technical solutions ‘solve’ problems without changing any of the fundamentals that will impact how the system works.  For real change, we all have to shift.  Let’s hope that what happened in Newtown is  enough of a crises to start asking hard questions about the system--the assumptions that drive our society and the role each of us plays--and that we are not seduced by superficial solutions that don’t require real change.

Photo Sources:  AP Photo/Newton Bee/Shannon Hicks

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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