Viral News Stories: Bandaids for Bigger Issues?

Did your heart melt when you saw the video of a firefighter resuscitating a kitten trapped in a smoky home? Did you shed a few tears as you watched dogs rejoicing at their owners returning from war? Or did you go the full shabang and finish off a box of tissues after seeing Tasia, an American Walmart cashier, give a woman in a wheelchair a manicure after she was turned away from a nail bar?

This general heightened emotional response to the viral phenomenon of the ’emotional’ news story, may or may not be the common response from yours truly; however I feel no shame. As the wise philosopher Sam Smith once said, ‘I know I’m not the only one’.

And it’s these sort of ‘feel-good’ news stories that now span headlines across news pages or claim #1 in Twitters most trending, and they prove to be on the rise.

In my opinion, it’s a bloody breath of fresh air. In a world filled with multi-level ironic and fake news around every other corner, it comes as no shock that the average consumer has developed a hungry appetite for more “pure” content – and so the internet serves up our demands – as always, instantly and on a silver platter. However, there is danger lurking in the shadows of this current social obsession.

There’s no denying these stories feel pretty damn inspiring at first. I mean, to see a human (or even a dog/cat as the internet favourably mentions) overcome an extraordinary odd or extend a random act of kindness onto another is one of the most reassuring and enjoyable experiences found on the web.

For instance, there’s our girl Tasia, the Walmart employee whose story tugged on the heart strings of many around the world this year.  Using her lunch break to play the role of the good Samaritan, the cashier was able to restore Angela’s – a woman bound to a wheelchair due to severe cerebral palsy, dignity through the simple act of a manicure.


Image: Tasia giving Angela a manicure, alongside the employees Facebook rant.

This act of unsolicited kindness has people like myself saying ‘aw’ out loud on the bus and sharing such content within a matter of seconds to my (very limited) friends list. While my status may have only generated 3 likes and a comment from my mum, it joined the likes of tens of thousands of others also sharing it to their social circles. It starts to add up.

However, what no one really acknowledges is that this act was performed only AFTER Angela was refused service at the local nail salon as her ‘hands moved too much’. Alas, at the crux of this sweet sincerity is a major social injustice – that details a world where the segregation and dehumanisation against handicapped people like Angela are commonplace.

The new and populous genre of viral news stories has created a social problem where we see an issue, and have it resolved in front of our very own eyes – within seconds.

However such temporary fixes are all at a surface level – sort of like when we were little kids and would get jabbed with the flu needle at the doctors. In one swift movement, the doctor would have a lollipop in our hands, and the pain along with the crying would take an intermission. It wasn’t the most admirable way to deal with it and it definitely didn’t make us stronger beings, but hell – for a brief moment that sugary goodness sure did melt away any other concern about our physical wellbeing.

So yes, this particular scenario of Tasia and Angela is heart-warming, amazing and makes us forget about the real problem at hand temporarily. But what about the vast majority of other disabled people? What happens to the rest of them? The ones we don’t see in the news, and probably never will?

For now, we don’t ask the questions, our mouths are too busy savouring that sweet sweet lollipop. And this my friends – is where the issue lies.

Another prime example that perpetuates this trend is the renowned video of the Alabama teacher who cried tears of joy when she was gifted a car by the mother of one of her students – after years of a long public transport journey to work. Firstly, before I commend that mother’s insane generosity – she has also just #lowkey hustled every other parent by setting the world’s most unobtainable standard for an end of year teacher gift…kind of rude?

Joking! I’m not saying to lower your pom poms for this legend of a parent – in fact I’m sure every teacher at that school is fighting over who gets to teach the student in question next semester.

However, once again, the motivation behind this gesture is merely spawn from the sheer economic desperation of a grossly underpaid career. If the system wasn’t broken – we wouldn’t see these like-minded stories in our news feed every other day.

Even more so, this trend has made it insanely hard to weed out the genuinely important news stories of today as well. The #1 trending story is no longer the most recent update in the Syrian war, more likely standing in its place is one of these essentially insignificant, band-aid issued stories. But even with this knowledge, WHY can’t I (someone who retains the knowledge as to why they shouldn’t be sucked in) stop watching?

The answer lies within…… THE GROUNDS OF HUMAN NATURE – with a dash of scientific findings. Duh duh DUHHHHHHH.

Professors , Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania have found that  stories stimulating positive emotions are more widely shared than those eliciting negative feelings, and content that produces greater emotional arousal (making your heart race) is more likely to go viral.

This means that content that makes readers or viewers feel a positive emotion like awe or wonder is more likely to take off online than content that makes people feel sad or angry.

So it makes sense when Esquire’s Joanna Rothkopf says we love these viral moments because “they’re rare stories of compassion—because we see someone crying with joy, for once, and we cry, too”.

“They’re inherently stories of how we – as a society, neglect, and then happily weep when that neglect is temporarily sated.”

When a media outlet catches wind of a noble oppressed person being rewarded for their hardship, it will likely skew the story in the manner most likely to evoke an emotional response and therefore make it more shareable. I am genuinely concerned that the popularity of these poverty-related stories (which have been repackaged as fluffy human-interest pieces) is damaging our collective ability to discern propaganda from real news in our feeds.

Every time an ordinary person goes above and beyond to help somebody else, it is worth commending. But they shouldn’t have to. We can’t rely on chance encounters or altruistic co-workers to help us work around fundamental institutional problems. Bandaids over scars won’t do the job for much longer, it’s time to get #woke.

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