Home > social computing > Should We Pay Less Social Media Attention to Violence? Lessons from WWII and Fu-Go

Should We Pay Less Social Media Attention to Violence? Lessons from WWII and Fu-Go

On September 11th, 2001, I turned the television off. I knew what was happening was historic. But I knew my family in New York City were fine. Initial details were sketchy, and lots of misinformation was being reported. I figured, why listen to the blow-by-blow—I’ll get the real story later, right? Plus I didn’t see any point in wallowing in tragedy. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of—I got back to work. I had a paper deadline for the CHI conference coming up.

If part of the point of terrorism is to draw the public’s attention, what if we all simply refused to listen? Or if the media refused to publish the story? Of course that’s a silly suggestion. People want to know. In fact, some evolutionary biologists argue that we are hard-wired to be fascinated by danger—our fascination keeps us safe. Is turning news about violent attacks off either possible or desirable?

I was struck again by this idea when I listened to the Radio Lab podcast on the Fu-Go project. During World War II, Japan sent thousands of balloons carrying bombs to the US. The intent was to terrorize the American public. To prevent that outcome, the US government suppressed stories about the bombs. No one was told about them, and the public wasn’t terrorized at all. And that mostly worked out perfectly—with one exception. A group of children out on a church picnic found one, and all gathered around to see what it was—with disastrous consequences. All the other bombs exploded harmlessly. (Though there’s a chance that some are still out there, in remote places in the Pacific Northwest. One was found in 2014.)

The tradeoffs here are headache inducing. By suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the US government prevented national panic. And caused the deaths of six people.

I would never condone government suppression of free speech. And if bombs were floating around my area, I’d definitely want to know. But I do wonder if sharing stories about such acts is causing part of the problem. What if we all stopped forwarding the link about that crazy shooter? Would that make the next person less likely to shoot people for attention? What if we all just turned this kind of news off?

I don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to do that on a large scale. But maybe, just as an experiment, we could all try not posting/forwarding/retweeting stories that draw attention to someone who did something heinous in order to get attention.

Kudos to Radio Lab for a thought provoking (though depressing) podcast.

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