Coping with Clickbait

Call me naïve (“You’re naïve!” “Thank you.”), but I believe that most people want to be good.

That doesn’t mean that all people want to be good, or that most people are good all the time. Obviously, they’re not.

But most people want to believe that they do what’s right or at least what’s allowed.

If they do something they know is wrong, they try to convince themselves that they had no other choice. Circumstances forced them to do it, so it’s not really their fault.

Of course, the most effective way to avoid feelings of guilt is not to think at all. Just react emotionally.

Welcome to Twitter and the internet.

A big problem today is that emotional outrage sells. It’s profitable. It gets clicks.

The internet is incredibly efficient at spreading outrage. Thinking takes effort, and outrage is easy. Outrage also makes it harder to think clearly.

Consider this week’s earth-shaking outrage. Some high school kids were standing face to face with a man who was banging a drum at one of them. Apparently, neither the kids nor the man said anything obscene or hit anyone. They all just stood there. People took photos and made videos of it.

And suddenly, half the people on the internet were screaming hysterically at the other half. The boy’s smile was called a “smirk,” and the man was said to be an activist who’d staged similar encounters in the past. Many people read their worst fantasies and personal histories into the situation. A writer for Gizmodo said the boys reminded her of boys who were mean to her in high school. A professor deduced that they were worse than the bullies in his high school. Both of them clearly redirected their anger at past high school antagonists to a contemporary boy they saw in a photo, a boy who they never met.

High school, high school, high school. Are we ever going to stop settling scores from high school? We’re adults now, at least in theory. We can vote, buy liquor, and do our work in office cubicles that adjusted for body size would be considered inhumane for lab rats.

Please. Stop. And. Think.

And then ask yourself: Has everyone gone nuts?

How is this event even newsworthy at all, let alone enough to cause a nation-wide nervous breakdown with florid psychotic fantasies? Nobody was hurt, no laws were broken, and none of the principals on either side did anything worse than act obnoxiously — if they even did that.

If you want to be good — and as I said, I believe in you — then don’t let the outrage machine manipulate you. Stop and think. When you hear an outrageous story or see a video clip, ask yourself:

  • Does this story make sense?
  • Who is telling the story? Do they have an agenda?
  • Is the evidence really sufficient to prove the conclusion?
  • Am I getting only one side of the story? Only part of it? From only one source?
  • Am I stereotyping the people involved, based on my own prejudices or personal history?
  • Am I biased in favor of believing the story? If so, be extra careful about believing too easily.
  • Am I biased against believing the story? If so, be extra careful about rejecting beliefs too easily.

There’s an old joke that says, “If you can’t be good, be careful.”

However, in emotionally-charged disputes, the best way to be good is to be careful.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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