Social media allows us to make judgement on an issue based on what we choose to see, but only that perpetuates a more damaging cycle.
George Gerbner coined it the “mean world syndrome.” In simple terms, it is a belief that the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is; a fear born of what we are exposed to in the mass media. It was first theorised in the wake of the Vietnam War, the first conflict to be widely televised.
Today, the mean world syndrome is more prolific than ever, in the age of instant gratification, where nearly two-thirds of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from the social media sites, respectively.
Moreover, we’re the ones that fuel it.
Violence, death and terrorism all seem to be ubiquitous across social media platforms, due in no small part to the amount of link sharing that goes on. In the space of one hour, we could well see ten variations of the same story from ten different people. Hot-button issues like so-called Islamic violence and “the ice epidemic” gather momentum and snowball, as more of the stories – stories that might have slipped by us in the past – are exposed under a burning spotlight. It ultimately leaves millions of people exasperated and asking that generations-old question, “What has become of the world?”
It is very easy these days to gauge the public mood on almost any topic just by reading through the comments in the corresponding Facebook posts. The amount of derogatory rage throughout so many comment threads seems disproportionate. Or maybe it’s just that people are more inclined to respond if they are angry, the same theory used to explain the unlikely wave of support for Donald Trump.
Amidst this deluge of negativity, rational and thoughtful remarks are, sadly, few and far between. Equally depressing is that too often I find I can predict the tone and even the wording of comments on a story before even reading through them. “And they call it a religion of peace!” seems to be the go-to sarcastic quip accompanying any report of violence involving Islamic people. Contributions such as these are cheap and easy. They require little discerning thought and serve only to feed the fear and hatred harboured by those who are less informed.
Last Tuesday afternoon, I came across the extremely disturbing story of a woman, possibly affected by drugs and almost certainly by mental illness, allegedly brandishing the severed head of a child outside a Moscow metropolitan railway station. Of the many horrendous elements to this story, three immediately stood out to me. Firstly, and most obviously, that an atrocious crime had been committed. Secondly, the image accompanying the story was of a woman wearing what was unmistakably a hijab. Thirdly, the post referred to a “woman dressed in black.”
After reading the preliminary reports of what had occurred, and the allegations that followed, with a sense of resignation I clicked the link, reading 186 comments. Predictably, the majority drew upon the factors relating to the woman’s religion. Her reported cries of “I am a terrorist” were evidence enough, for many readers, to create a relationship between Islam and the abhorrence of her behaviour that, with further examination, proves dubious at best. Few respondents to the article cared to regard either her reported mental illness or the possible influence of drugs.
I, too, am at fault here. Reflecting on the story’s reactions (my own included), I wondered why the woman’s attire had resonated so strongly out of all other details. Why did the hijab stand out to me? I considered how I might relay this story to my friends and loved ones, and I remembered the post’s text that caught my eye: “Woman dressed in black…” As one Facebook user had observed, how exactly was the colour of her attire relevant to her actions? Whatever the answer to that question, it was a strange thing to draw attention to then and there. Would I include that in my own recount of the article? On this particular post, along with other connotations, it was likely what prompted the torrent of ignorant responses that added yet another layer of discomfort to what already was a truly upsetting story.
It is a point worth considering when confronted with distressing incidents that test our prejudices and demand reasoning and discernment. How would you begin to tell the story to friends? Would you simply start with, “Did you hear about that woman in Moscow?” Or would you include the part about the black attire, and perhaps the adjectives “Islamic,” or “Muslim”? If the latter seems to be pertinent, ask yourself why. Until we know more about this woman, how can it be?
Of course, it is easy to draw a connection between the headlines and the imagery and jump to what may seem to be a logical conclusion. But before you comment, before you share the story with friends, relatives and followers, dive a little deeper – in this instance, just far enough to have read the article – and you may just find a very different, far more tragic story. George Gerbner’s theory pertained to the mass media’s reporting of violence and crime. Now, more than ever, we have a greater share in perpetuating the mean world syndrome.
It speaks to a greater freedom, but demands great responsibility.