Watching the Boston bombings on Facebook and Twitter plays tricks on us

Non-stop news and social-media coverage plays into the hands of those behind such attacks

People gather with candles during a vigil for eight-year-old Martin Richard, from Dorchester, who was killed by an explosion near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Photograph: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

People gather with candles during a vigil for eight-year-old Martin Richard, from Dorchester, who was killed by an explosion near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Photograph: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 17, 2013, 08:04

By now, it is a sickeningly familiar cycle. A word on Twitter catches your eye. “Explosion.” You see something on a friend’s Facebook page about the Boston marathon. Or you flick on the news and see that everything has been turned upside down.

Runners who should be sprinting to the finish line are instead collapsing on the ground, their legs toppling like matchsticks under them. A plume of white smoke is rising up; flags are on the ground; a pair of yellow balloons drift off into the bright blue sky. Images are rendered instantly iconic through the prism of social media.

In the aftermath of a horrifying event such as this one, the world seems to have become a scarier place. It happened in Boston, the closest thing to Ireland not actually on Irish soil. You watched it unfold in real time, on your phone, your iPad or on television – or on all three. You saw images you probably shouldn’t have seen because someone was unwise enough to share them, and you were unwise enough not to take the graphic-content warning seriously.

The rolling news cycle – particularly the rolling news cycle in the age of social media – plays tricks on us. It makes us feel involved (when we are not). It brings remote events closer. It makes everything faster, more graphic, more laden with meaning.

The explosions had barely happened on Monday – wheelchairs were still transporting bloodied runners away from the scene live on television – and already people on Twitter were grappling for themes and context.

It was as though we’d moved on from just watching world events; now we wanted to watch ourselves watching them, too. For every tweet containing a graphic image, there were dozens more complaining about people sharing graphic images. For every retweet of speculation about whether this was a bomb and, if so, who might have planted it, there were several advising others not to rush to judgment. For every tweet simply sharing a link to a news story, there were many more complaining about how badly everyone else was behaving. And so on.

In itself, none of this is harmful. It might even be healthy, part of the process of social media regulating itself, just as long-time users – including me – always argued that it would.

But participating in this process also makes it more difficult to put the events in Boston into context. It is difficult enough to keep a grip on the context, even if all you do is sit on your sofa and watch it unfold on television. It’s harder when you’ve seen images of maimed victims on your phone, even before their family, thousands of miles away, know they’ve been hurt.

Too much news
In an essay on his website, Rolf Dobelli, the author of new book The Art of Thinking Clearly , writes that consuming too much news can give us a misleading “risk map”. In other words, it makes us overestimate the risk of terrorism and Lehman Brothers, and underestimate the effects of chronic stress, say, or fiscal irresponsibility.

Dobelli goes further: he believes news is actually harmful, as toxic and addictive as sugar. In the essay, he lists 15 ways in which news is bad for us. These include: keeping us in a constant state of low-level anxiety; gnawing away at our concentration spans; and eating up our free time.

I don’t agree with all of this – but then I would say that. I’m a news junkie who also happens to be a journalist. More pertinently, I’m a news junkie who happens to be a journalist who happens to need her job. But I think he’s right about the harmful effects of rolling news, and the way it distorts our perceptions.

Exaggerating threats
Studies have shown that our brains are already wired to exaggerate threats that are rare, spectacular, immediate, random, beyond our control, widely talked about, and outside of our immediate context.

Meanwhile, we downplay risks that are more common, more pedestrian – and more likely to happen to us. Humans, in other words, are unique in the animal kingdom in that we are not very good at calculating risk.

The nature of news – its accessibility; its emphasis on firsthand witness accounts and spectacular images – distorts our impression of events like the one in Boston.

By way of example, on Monday, three people died in the immediate aftermath of the two Boston explosions, and more than 140 were injured, many of them critically. In Iraq, 37 people died in more than 20 explosions on the same day and 140 were injured. Only one of these stories became major international news.

I’m not saying you’re callous if you tweeted or updated your Facebook about Boston but not about Iraq – on the contrary, that’s just human nature. The awful events in Boston this week are newsworthy because they were unusual and rare.

However, it’s helpful – to ourselves and the wider conversation – to keep it in perspective, especially in the next few days as news coverage will reach saturation point. Some news commentary has been describing this as “an attack on all of us” – this is a questionable assertion.

Looking at graphic photos on your iPhone and rereading upsetting eyewitness accounts raises your cortisol levels and makes you see the world through a twisted lens.

Also, by giving this event global attention, by allowing this one tragedy to dominate social and traditional media, by – in effect – making it our own, we are playing directly into the hands of whomever was behind it.

Him? He’s only a divil
A new study by the University of Connecticut reveals significant variations in the language used by parents in different parts of the world when bragging about their children.

Spaniards and Italians, for example, are most likely to describe their offspring in terms of their manageability, using words such as “easy”, “difficult”, “well-balanced” and “even-tempered”.

The two words most often used by Dutch parents are “happy” and “attention-seeking”.

Americans, meanwhile, tend to boast about their children’s intellectual abilities, using words such as “intelligent”, “cognitively advanced” and “asks questions”.

Sadly, Irish parents weren’t included in the study. But if they were asked, what culturally specific praise might they have heaped on their little treasures?

“An absolute dote” (well-mannered); “a hardy little divil” (resilient); “an awful chancer” (witty); or even “you couldn’t keep him in school trousers” (tall), perhaps?

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