In the span of three short months at the end of 2017, I experienced the ravaging of my hometown, Santa Rosa, by the Tubbs Fire and the destruction of my college town, Santa Barbara, by the Thomas Fire. I did that thing where I checked in on Facebook as “safe”. Ping. Comment. Ping. Comment, and all of a sudden I was barraged with well-wishes and prayers and questions and sympathy. All of a sudden, my friends didn’t have homes. All of a sudden, my dad was driving toward the flames to see if his business was still standing. All of a sudden, there were thousands of videos on Snapchat of people documenting the disaster. I was tagged in a handful of Instagram posts in which people were mourning for lost property and more heartbreakingly, lost loved-ones.
We’ve all seen those posts: My heart goes out to all those affected by [insert tragedy here].
Am I the only one that feels funky about the slew of social media messages that inevitably follow a natural disaster or tragedy?
We all know that social media is a tricky tool to navigate. It’s all about connection and the exchange of ideas. In and of itself, it is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad in the same way that a spark can either light your new candle or aid in arson. It’s all in the way we use it.
So what are we supposed to do with this kind of content? It seems like it only takes seconds after a disaster occurs that individuals and brands take to their keyboards and post. Is it naive of me to find refuge in their support? Is it nihilistic of me to distrust their sympathy? How do we, as people who seek to use social media as a good tool, strike a balance within a world where we’ve all seen digital interconnectedness used for harm?
I do the social media thing for my day-job, and one of the keywords that always crops up in strategy meetings is “timely”. I’ll give an example: One day, the cast of the Handmaid’s Tale was filming on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I reposted a photo to our feed, and we ended up tallying a 12% engagement rate on that post. (We typically sit at a 1.5% rate, btw.) This is what I’ll call the “timely effect”. It’s an addicting spike in attention. It’s why we post photos of our mothers on Mother’s Day. It’s why we came up with hashtags like #WCW and #TBT. We love that feeling we get when we’re caught up in a moment with others. But sometimes the timely effect comes at great personal cost to others.
Last year, I heard news of the senseless and tragic Wednesday night shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. I’d gone to their college nights once or twice, and I felt compelled to post out of genuine sympathy for the affected group. It very well could’ve been me.
When drafting my post, I did that thing where I write a sentence and delete it all. Write, delete, rinse, repeat. I didn’t want to make the post about me. I mean, I wasn’t directly affected. I had already moved to the East Coast and was literally thousands of miles away from the disaster. But I felt this inexplicable call to add my voice to the thread. When we, as individuals and brands, find ourselves in these kinds of situations, we should ask ourselves these four questions:
What is the motivation at the root of this post?
If the answer to this question is a higher engagement rate — Delete. That. Post. Like, right now. Using others’ trauma as a means to an end is diametrically opposed to using social media as a tool for good.
What are the possible outcomes of this post?
(Alternatively, do the good things outweigh the bad things?) I’ve created two quick lists of the possible “goods” and “bads” of disaster posts:
“Goods”: Victims feeling supported, brings an important issue to the public’s attention, alerts authorities to developments, alerts family members to developments, captures valuable video or photos, aids in investigations.
“Bads”: The disaster itself is misrepresented or minimized, the victims feel misrepresented, the victims feel a lack of privacy, the victims feel a lack of authenticity, spreads a feeling of panic, unnecessarily involves of yourself or your brand for self-promoting reasons.
We should be making lists like these every time we feel called to post. Having the good outweigh the bad should always be the goal.
If I was a victim, would I want strangers to be posting their thoughts on my situation?
And here’s the heart of the thing: If you’re exercising true empathy on social media, you should be asking yourself this question with every message — not just disaster posts. Like our mothers or mother-like figures in our lives always told us, spend a day in another’s shoes, and only then will you know if you or your brand should post about a natural disaster. The answer to the social media question is empathy in all things and especially disaster posts.
We have to be really honest with ourselves and create mechanisms for rooting out posts that lack empathy or warp it in any way.
So, I decided to post. What do I say?
Refer back to your list of “good things”, and identify the space where you can achieve the most good. If you’re posting on behalf of a large brand, you could detail the kinds of resources that you’ve set aside to give back to the hurting community. If you’re an individual, you can add that donate button to benefit a related charity. You can work hard to remove any thrill you might receive from the “timely effect” of your post, because you’ll probably still receive that spike in engagement due to the entrenched behaviors of people on social media. It’s what you do with that attention that counts.