A few weeks ago, while I was sitting at a red light, I spotted what I perceived to be an antisocial and potentially dangerous act being perpetrated by a small group of teenage boys. What I saw and heard pissed me off, so I grabbed my phone, snapped a photo of the kids, and (once I’d parked) I wrote a short complaint note about what I’d witnessed and posted it to Faceboot, along with the photo that I took. I also shared the post to the local news group, something I’d never done before, although I’d read it frequently. (The group is mostly about car wrecks, protestors, special deals at local retail stores, politics…that type of thing.)
My intention for writing and posting was to use the “power” of social media to reach the parents of the kids, so they could explain to the kids that messing with traffic was dangerous. Within minutes, people had started commenting and sharing the post.
Now I’ve been writing, drawing, and posting junk online for years. YEARS. And if I get 10 “likes” and one share on Faceboot, I consider that a pretty good showing. However, within a few hours, my “social justice” post had already been shared over 500 times.
What I hadn’t counted on (call me naïve) was the overwhelming negativity. People said that kids today were awful and heartless, that young folks had no respect for anything. Other folks tore into the parents of the kids, who were accused of being on crack or welfare and of letting their kids run rampant and not caring about them at all. None of these accusations were made with what I would call ADEQUATE EVIDENCE.
The next horror was the numerous folks who claimed that they would have (or that I SHOULD have) gotten out of the vehicle and caused physical harm to the kids! No. That’s ridiculous. The point of my post was to make the community safer, not to incite violence, but blood was in the water, apparently, and the predators went in for the kill.
Some people said that I should have called the police, but as an aging anarcho-punk fellow, I tend to avoid the police, unless their involvement is absolutely necessary. In addition, I was a kid once, and I did naughty things—and it seemed to me that this was a PARENT issue, not a police concern. (My Mom would have beaten my ass if I’d been involved in a similar situation, and subsequently, I learned that my actions have consequences—and I’ve never been arrested for anything. I still, at 46, have that “what would Mom think of this” voice in my head that helps keep me in line.)
Another surprise to me was the number of folks who said that the REAL monster here was me. I just hate kids. I didn’t actually see them do anything but made it all up because I’m a bad person. I was just lying to get attention or to try and ruin the reputations of these fine, young boys (that I didn’t know—but hated—-for some reason…) There was one guy who kept posting comments to me on random posts that I’d upload to my personal page, for days afterwards, even after I’d removed the original complaint post, saying that I was a liar and had tried to destroy the kids’ lives and reputations for no good reason.
The morning after I published my original post, I learned that the parents of at least one of the kids had been informed of the incident, and they had gone to the police station to tell the boys’ story. What the kids said to the police did not match what I witnessed (and I admit that I did not clearly see what had happened because I was behind the boys, and their bodies were blocking my view of the incident), but the kids’ story didn’t match what the driver of the vehicle said happened either. Regardless of what actually happened (intentional or accidental), once the parents had become involved, I took my post down. I had accomplished what I set out to do. However, even with the post gone, the ANGER stayed, and the comments threads on the empty post continued to grow.
We may never know what actually happened at that intersection, but what IS clear is that folks online are a blood-thirsty lot. My attempt at using social media for positive action, though technically successful (the parents got involved), was so NEGATIVE, so mired in anger and swimming with violence, that I wish I’d never posted the original complaint. I doubt that I will ever use the platform in a similar way again.
What became obvious, within minutes of my post going up, is that people tell themselves stories, that people live WITHIN these personal narratives, and that it is through the lenses of these personal stories that they reacted to my written recollection of the event. Their conclusions to my post came from presuppositions and personal beliefs not from facts and evidence—as there were FAR TOO FEW pieces of evidence in what I posted for anyone to have reached the types of conclusions that they were reaching, and everyone seemed perfectly happy to ASSUME all kinds of horrible things about these people, even though they didn’t know them. (Probably BECAUSE they didn’t know them.)
Even I, in witnessing the event, did not see exactly what happened, and I certainly could have mis-perceived parts of the incident and then filled in the “blanks” with mistaken suppositions. Memory experts, including University of California Irvine’s Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, have demonstrated CONCLUSIVELY that people have SHIT memories and will actually recall wildly inaccurate information, even minutes after witnessing a scene.
We tell ourselves stories. We LIVE in stories. We CHANGE our memories to fit the stories that we tell ourselves, and we get angry when our stories are challenged. Thanks to confirmation bias, we learn to ignore evidence that contradicts our stories, and we hyper-focus on evidence that we believe supports our narrative (even if that evidence is far from reliable). This incident has demonstrated (to me) that ALL of the statements I’ve made in this paragraph are true. And that our brains kind of suck.
Hopefully, however, we can LEARN from a situation like this one, learn not to jump to conclusions, learn not to make unwarranted assumptions, and learn NOT TO RELY ON SOCIAL MEDIA FOR A REASONBLE AND EMPATHETIC RESPONSE to a situation. There’s too much anger out there—too many snapping jaws looking for exposed throats…
Not sure what else to say on this one.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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