Social media’s serious news problem

Terrorist attacks have been in the news ever since I remember news. If it wasn’t one group, it was another. Someone has bombed three of the cities I have lived in. I have visited a couple of disaster sites. But it was hearing about the Paris attacks on November 13th which delivered the biggest initial impact. It was more like the incongruity of coming upon a man lying on the grass in the sunshine outside my local supermarket and finding he had multiple stab wounds.

The greater fear response in this case is worth thinking about, not because it is significant in itself, but because it is terrorists’ goal to sow fear. It is in the interest of those who oppose them, therefore, to find ways to frustrate them. This can be partly achieved by taking a more disciplined approach to receiving news, which may also pay off even when events are less grim.

The Paris attacks were particularly vile and look likely to mark a historic turning point. But that came after. In the first instant the difference was the off-hand way I heard about what had happened. Like many millions I was casually thumbing through Facebook when, amid the unruly jumble, a post with a venomous sting. It drifted past like a careless aside, “Oh, yes, by the way, something utterly appalling is happening.”

I heard of earlier terrorist outrages through TV, radio or a phone call. Perhaps more recent ones I learned about directly from a news site. All these allow you to be at least partially ready to hear of something significant, perhaps grisly. Social media streams, however, offer no such hint of what might be to come. What will pop up next is anyone’s guess. Skateboarding dog, holiday snaps or gut-wrenching horror? There is no knowing.

There is nothing wrong with springing well-judged surprises. The ability to catch people off-guard is part of what makes social media so compelling and so suited to humour, which hinges on the unexpected. Facebook’s cosy premise of being among friends means users are open to it. But this openness also means it is perfectly suited to delivering the occasional sucker-punch, intentionally or otherwise. A reader cannot be both open and guarded at the same time.

Resolving this problem is not simply a matter of taste. Being given disturbing news when you are unready is liable to cause genuine shock, like that of a hapless bystander. This unsettling biological response does not bring enlightenment or empowering insight, quite the reverse. Shock typically makes people feel at the mercy of events and inflates immediate concerns about safety.

News needs not only to reach audiences, but needs to reach them prepared to receive it. Otherwise it is likely to have unfortunate wider consequences in shaping peoples behavour and decisions. Well-informed observers form the backbone of a reasoned debate, while decent people who feel caught in the headlights find it hard to think clearly.

The Paris attacks were an extreme and mercifully rare type of occurrence, impossible to report without spreading significant alarm. But it highlighted the inherent problem of putting all content into one undifferentiated stream, mixing the serious with the frivolous. Simply separating these two would significantly reduce the chance of nasty surprises and grotesque juxtapositions.

Human editors are rightly expected to show consideration for their readers and take great pains to deliver content in a thoughtful way. Social media, however, seems to thrive on the opposite. But this carelessness is not without cost. Users now need to be given ways to safeguard their mental resources as well as open up. ■