Pressing Issues

Outrage Is Killing Context


From gun violence to the Mueller report, are knee-jerk reactions and social media #campaigns doing more harm than good?



Last month, a student was shot and killed, and eight others injured, at the K-12 STEM School Academy in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, by two students. On that same day, May 7, a Savannah State University student in Georgia was shot and wounded in a campus dorm. The tragedies occurred just seven days after an April 30 massacre in which two students were killed and four others wounded by a gunman at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

It was understandable that news viewers were frustrated with all of the recent violence. So on May 7, when a reporter for Channel 9 news in Colorado tweeted that his station confirmed that “one suspect in today’s shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch is Devon Erickson, 18,” a man responded on Twitter with a frequent social media refrain: “Why are you tweeting his name. He should remain unknown — #nonotoriety.”

The same day, in response to another news broadcast, a social media user wrote, “#9news anchor please rethink your belief that people need to know the names and faces of shooters. It is outdated thinking and practice. #nonotoriety.”

However, by repeating the “no notoriety” hashtag without any context, both Twitter users misstated what the movement is about. The #nonotoriety movement—started in 2012 by a couple whose son was killed in a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater—does not ask the media to avoid identifying a shooter initially, and has a very clear protocol on its homepage for what the media should do: “Report the facts surrounding the mindset, demographic and motivational profile, without adding complementary color, and downplay the individual’s name and likeness, unless the alleged assailant is at large. Limit the name to once per piece as a reference point, never in the headlines and no photo above the fold… after initial identification, limit the name and likeness.”

When social-media users repeat the two-word mantra #nonotoriety without context after every mass shooting—or when they parrot a frequent refrain about how mentioning killers’ names “gives them the infamy they crave”—it puts the blame for the act on the media and distracts from discussion of the root causes of mass killings. In fact, of the six major mass shootings so far in 2019—with between five and twelve deaths each—the two deadliest were workplace killings, one by a man who was reportedly slated to be fired that day.

Three of the others were domestic violence incidents; in one case, a man killed his wife, 15-month-old daughter, and his wife’s grandparents. In another, the man killed his wife, wife’s sister, wife’s sister’s fiancé, and their babysitter. In those cases, the killer wasn’t necessarily “craving infamy.” So while some mass shooters likely desire notoriety, and while the media should downplay killers’ information to prevent a well-known copycat effect, responding to mass killings by chastising media for initially identifying the perpetrator distracts from discussion of problems made clear by this year’s deadliest shootings: rampant violence toward women, mental illness, a man who (in one case) was reportedly able to obtain a stolen gun.

Repeating the phrase “infamy they crave” after every mass shooting, in other words, shifts the discussion away from other factors. It has the opposite effect from what the speaker intended—because instead of waking people up, it can shut down or oversimplify discourse.

Last month, I responded to a Twitter user who asked Channel 9 not to say the killer’s name, by pointing out that the #nonotoriety movement doesn’t suggest never identifying him. The user’s reply was, “Not here to discuss. Just don’t want the young man’s name mentioned.” While his heart was likely in the right place, Tweets like his were indicative of the problem with using 280-word social media posts to convey complex information without background or context. It’s the same problem that experts have worried about for decades when discussing TV news’ increased reliance on nine-second soundbites: Social media has reduced important arguments to a quick phrase, propaganda term, or one-size-fits-all slogan that may not apply to every situation. And in a time when information, research, and fact-checking are dismissed or termed “elitist,” people’s understanding of public policy is informed not by information but by slogans or propaganda.

A different chorus—the chorus of #nocollusion—rang out on April 18 after the U.S. government released Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The two-word slogan #nocollusion reduced 448 pages of findings to a mere schoolyard chant—when in fact there’s much in the report that’s alarming. The report’s findings should serve as a warning to any leader who turns people away from all verifiable media sources and says little about foreign operatives posing as Americans. Failing to educate Americans about outside interference in elections—and instead demonizing the domestic press—may not be collusion, but it certainly makes the country vulnerable to further manipulation during the next election. A careful reading of the report—something few have time for—sheds light on a dangerous situation in which misinformation was able to flourish via fake memes, social media posts, and foreign websites.

As noted in the Mueller report, more than a dozen foreign operatives were able to keep groups of Americans fighting during the election by spreading false information and, in some cases, creating bogus activist groups to encourage protests in real life, ramping up hatred.

The report notes, “IRA employees [foreign operatives] posted derogatory information about a number of candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential election… more commonly, the IRA created accounts in the names of fictitious U.S. organizations and grassroots groups and used these accounts to pose as anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matter protestors, and other U.S. social and political activists.” The report notes that “By February 2016, internal IRA documents referred to support for the Trump campaign and opposition to candidate Clinton… for example, directions to IRA operators: [redacted] ‘Main idea: use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest except Sanders and Trump.’ ”

Does this mean the operatives were able to change the election results? No. Does it mean that any of the candidates knew the extent of the inference? Not likely. But it compels those in charge to find ways to educate the public next time, or at least, to avoid making sweeping broadsides that delegitimize any organization publishing facts. The operatives were clever enough to know more about Americans than Americans did, which should concern us. The president has called the U.S. media “fake” or “enemies” more than 200 times but has not used similar terms to warn the public about outside websites or memes that deliver falsified information. By contrast, the country of Finland has undertaken a campaign to make its citizens, and even schoolchildren, aware that they should think critically when it comes to hoaxes. A French website notes, “Ahead of elections in Finland on Sunday, officials have launched a publicity campaign to warn against fake news and disinformation amid fears that outside bodies may try to influence how Finns vote.” In this case they are using the term “fake news” toward outside operatives, not toward their country’s own journalists. By contrast, a Knight Foundation survey in 2016 found that four out of ten American Republicans “consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be “ fake news.’” So while it should come as a relief to everyone that there’s “#nocollusion,” the other concerns in the Mueller report shouldn’t be dismissed or minimized via slogans.

A similar two-word broadside is the completely nebulous term “mainstream media” or “MSM,” which effectively delegitimizes any remaining news organization that has resources to do national investigative reporting. In January, the president tweeted, “Mainstream Media will have a very hard time restoring credibility because of the way they have treated me over the past 3 years (including the election lead-up), as highlighted by the disgraceful Buzzfeed story.” BuzzFeed, a website founded in 2006, is hardly “mainstream media,” so who does the term refer to? Social media users who complain about “mainstream media,” when asked what it applies to, will often say they mean ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC, but those same critics continue to get their news from these outlets rather than read stories with context and background. The fault, Dear Brutus, is not always in the media, but in ourselves.

Of course, presidential critics and opinion columnists may be guilty of the same sort of reductions (the president, for example, was not calling all immigrants “animals” in an out-of-context video clip that was retweeted in May). The social media user who took Trump’s remarks out of context did apologize in a subsequent tweet, something that seems rare among national politicians who misinterpret or misspeak.

“The tweet left out important context,” concluded Politifact.com, a fact-checking website that was founded by a major (and perhaps mainstream) newspaper. Politifact continues, “Trump did refer to some people as ‘animals,’ but that was during an exchange about MS-13 gang members.”

Encouraging people to spend more time researching and fact-checking, rather than just repeating phrases, may be a lost cause when those who point out the truth or who do research are called “elitist.” The way to combat doctored memes, videos, and three-word slogans may be to create equally powerful slogans. Unfortunately, to fight propaganda, you need equally powerful propaganda—but that puts those who seek honest discussion at a disadvantage. And journalists bound by libel law can’t compete with those who lie without consequence.

A Pew report in December said that one in five Americans now get their news from social media. Social media’s condensation of facts and reliance on photos makes this a concerning situation. As many as 59 percent of social media users share posts based on a headline without clicking links to see what’s beyond. “It’s not predicted by the accuracy or the quality of the content, but rather the emotional fervor of the messaging,” said a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz.

These days, when someone states a fact incorrectly or shares fake news, informing them of their error makes them feel condescended to and puts them on the defensive. Then, they double down. By the time you’ve used more than four words to argue a point, you’ve lost them. Hopefully, those who make mistakes can put a desire for truth ahead of their ego.

As it turns out, during the most recent mass shooting, law enforcement and the media finally got it right, seven years after Caren and Tom Teves founded #nonotoriety. The Virginia Beach police chief said, “We will release his name once. We’re going to mention his name once. Then he will forever be referred to as the suspect because our focus now is the dignity and respect to the victims in this case and to their families.” As a result, the media coverage focused more on the victims, taking away inspiration for copycats. Officials also provided context and tools for what happened. They talked about how the suspect was able to obtain the gun and silencer used to carry out the act, and discussed other important context that can be used to try to prevent future tragedies. Not all mass shootings are the same, and not all are driven by a craving for infamy. Out of 20 mass shootings in 2018—defined as having four or more victims—a whopping half were domestic violence shootings that apparently received a disproportionate amount of attention on the news. Those killers were likely craving something different than infamy.

Recognizing this will help lawmakers act accordingly.

It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.

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