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Why the proliferation of social media means we must do better when reacting to senseless tragedies in the news

Posted at 11:29 AM, Jun 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-28 14:34:58-04

I publish the “What Happened Now?” newsletter for News 5. It’s a Monday through Friday roundup of the biggest and most interesting local news of the day. In a recent newsletter, I wrote about how some folks on social media were reacting to a horrific killing down in Akron. One of my followers on social media asked me to expand on those thoughts, and here we are.

Many of you are aware of this story. Down in Akron, a 17-year-old high school student was beaten to death at a basketball court. This story attracted a lot of local attention, as it should have, because it was a senseless and horrible killing that affected a family, a high school and a community. Akron’s chief of police offered some detail on what led to the student’s death on the night he was driving around with his friends.

"Shortly after their arrival, they got out of the vehicle, and at least two members of occupants of the vehicle started discharging what we know now to be a SPLATRBALL Water Bead Blaster gel gun.”

I’m going to stop here in case you have never seen one. It’s a toy. Getting hit with one of these things feels like getting hit by a rubber band, and you also get wet.

OK, here’s the chief again:

“They started discharging it at the direction of four individuals who were playing basketball on the basketball court. The four individuals on the basketball court started running away, and it appears that two of the occupants of the vehicle started running in their direction. Moments later, two occupants of the vehicle are seeing trotting back to their vehicle. The four people who had been on the basketball court are also seen running in the direction of the vehicle in the parking lot. A confrontation occurs. (The student) is assaulted, and a fight ensues. At the conclusion of it, (the student) is dead.”

Here's how an empathetic person would react to that: “That’s horrible. I feel awful for the family. I hope they catch the bad guys.”

But, well, you’ve been on the internet. You can probably guess how some people reacted. They said, “Well, that’s what you get for messing around like that.”

Let’s stop there. That’s an absolutely insane thought. Just because some guys shot a glorified squirt gun at strangers – that means their friend deserved to be beaten to death? No. Wrong. Absolutely not. That is not what you get for your friends being jackasses. If that was the case, half of us wouldn’t have made it to adulthood. You don’t get beaten to death over a dumb prank. It’s crazy that this needs to be said, but death is not a proportional response.

Why on Earth would anyone say that? What would compel someone to believe this 17-year-old kid deserved to be beaten to death in retaliation? What is the point in not only thinking that’s true but also telling everyone on social media you believe that’s true?

I’ll offer a theory.

In response to almost any senseless tragedy, I’ve noticed that some people feel compelled to make sense of it. They so do with a frequency that’s predictable. It’s predictable because I think it’s sort of baked into the human condition. These people who seek to make sense of the senseless are adherents of the unconscious bias called the “just universe fallacy.”

The just universe fallacy is the belief that “people get what they deserve.” Something extremely bad happens. Well, there must be a reason it happened, right? If that dead person did something different, they’d be alive, but they made a choice, and now they’re dead. This, I think, is a more comforting thought to cling to than the terrifying truth: that some people die for absolutely no good reason at all.

And that is the truth.

I can tell you that as someone who works in a newsroom that has — among many other stories — covered death, destruction and crime in 17 counties, a whole lot of people do not get what they deserve. People die for no reason. It happens. Innocent kids sitting in cars get shot to death. Pedestrians are run over. Wrong-way accidents occur. To think those people deserved to die, and then to assign blame, is to engage in delusion. You can be sitting in your own home and get shot by someone shooting at someone else. That’s a story we’ve covered.

Now you might say, the problem isn’t unconscious bias, the problem is delusion. I think it’s only part of it. Delusion, like so much of what makes us human, can be good or bad. Anyone who sees themselves as a success without having ever yet achieved success is slightly delusional, but that delusion illuminates their efforts. That’s a harmless delusion. It affects no one. It might even do good. But not all delusions are positive or benign. Some delusions carry a cost, particularly when they affect others. (I’ll refrain from extending this thought into the world of politics and stick strictly to this one story. You’re welcome.)

A delusion expressed publicly involving someone else carries a potential external cost because of the times we live in right now. In a world with social media, where the family of a high school student who’s been beaten to death can see others victim-blaming, it may compound their grief to hear someone say their son in some way deserved to be killed. In this case, the delusion is hurtful. Family and friends can read those words blaming their deceased loved ones for the actions of those who are monstrously guilty.

The just universe fallacy is obviously a coping mechanism for living in what can feel like an insane world. Unknowingly, though, those who engage in it are contributing to the feeling of insanity. Selfishly. Out of fear. Because none of us wants to fully comprehend that we live in a world where there is some small chance you can be whisked from existence for no reason at all.

Humans have always coped with the senseless. What’s different about this moment in time – and why we must behave better – is that 20 years ago someone would have seen this story on the TV news, and they would have expressed their delusion to only those in their living room or at the bar. Now, with social media, one’s delusion has a potentially global audience, including people who are in extreme personal agony.

So, something to keep in mind: Next time you feel the urge to make sense of the senseless, and you are about to comment, spare a thought for the loved ones left behind. Remain open to the idea that sometimes terrible, awful, horrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it. Don't participate in the irony that compounding someone else’s intense grief makes the universe a less just place to be.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5. Sign up for the "What Happened Now?" newsletter here. Email: joe.donatelli@wews.com.