By John Lee
With just one visit to a news website, it is easy to see what kind of stories dominate our lives: plane crashes, political scandals, shootings. When human lives are at stake, others enjoy the privilege of sitting in front of their computer screens or televisions, perhaps genuinely horrified but also, in a sad way, entertained.
Sensationalism isn’t entirely the fault of news companies. In fact, it’s more of a reflection of an uncomfortable truth about humanity. These companies need to make money somehow. They might have a mission to keep the world informed and to represent people’s opinions, but at the very least, they’re businesses. And unfortunately, if these businesses want to stay at the top of the news industry, they need to show what viewers want to see.
However, this isn’t only an issue with public broadcasting. This superficiality extends into our private lives, specifically what we like or share on Facebook. Social media has made it so easy to be a part of viral trends that we now “like” posts that actually only mildly interest us. We share only what we feel is relevant and will get the most attention. We change our profile pictures because we do have a genuine concern for world events, but also because we are afraid of what others might think if we do nothing.
On the extreme side of this phenomenon, we fall into false dichotomies that command individuals to share a post if they truly care, or to like a post to send a certain amount of prayers, an action that many would be fine without doing, if it isn’t for the guilt-tripping threats that ignoring the post somehow equates to being an ignorant advocate of evil.
Everyone’s a critic. Everyone’s an opinionated member of some community. Everyone’s entitled to be represented equally and share their opinions. The problem isn’t that this wildfire of social media brings light to the wrong things. These stories are still true occurrences, and to disregard the significance of human lives simply because too many people talked about them would be horrendous. (Although, sometimes the wrong things are highlighted, particularly when it comes to celebrity gossip.) Instead, the real problem is that it seems like all the “activists” out there go into hibernation until the next big thing arrives.
There are times when an issue’s popularity through the mass media has inspired change. The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) ice bucket challenge is a well-known example. Millions of people around the world posted videos of themselves being drenched in ice-cold water and challenged their friends, or even celebrities, to do the same. If the individuals called out did not follow through, they had to donate money to the ALS Association. In only a month, the organization received almost $1 billion in donations.
Clearly, there’s no arguing that the viral phenomenon did not make a difference. Of course, we don’t know how many of the millions of participants actually knew that the challenge involved ice water because the body’s reaction mimicked the symptoms of ALS. Neither do we know how many participated simply because they didn’t want to donate money, or because they were afraid of any backlash that result from backing out. In the end, the challenge did raise huge awareness for ALS, bringing the issue to people who were able to donate.
We shouldn’t try to escape what’s viral (if that’s even possible). Instead, we must be unafraid to not only be a part of these more well-known issues but to also be spokespeople for whatever else we may believe. Post, share, like, and comment, but remember to ultimately be an individual, whether others “like” it or not.