By Alissa Fleck
It’s well-known news by now — the New York-based political advisor who spread false rumors about storm-related damage throughout Hurricane Sandy’s rampage. The fallout resulted in calls by some officials for legal action.
Yet a similar, albeit less threatening, trend related to social media and natural disaster extends much further. All over the Northeast, users took to Twitter — and other social media — the Monday evening of Hurricane Sandy’s East Coast landfall to lament what a “disappointment” Sandy had turned out to be.
By 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office had announced five hurricane-related fatalities in New York, raising the overall death toll to more than 70 in a storm far from finished wreaking havoc, yet some individuals were notably dismayed. They had not even lost power.
Thousands of homes up and down the coast were underwater and millions more were without electricity. For days and possibly even weeks to come, some would be unable to make it to jobs upon which they depended to eke out a living, yet people took to very public forums that Monday night to call Sandy nothing more than a “joke.”
They claimed all the hype had set them up for disappointment. Others pointed to Hurricane Irene which hit the East Coast earlier in the year and had similarly failed to live up to their expectations. Some talked about how the media had glorified Hurricane Sandy, how surely live news crews would be disheartened if the storm didn’t meet its predicted level of terror.
And while media coverage focused heavily on officials’ remarks to evacuate in a timely fashion or stay indoors, decrying the selfishness of those who put first responders at risk, they also took the time to interview the man risking life and limb jet-skiing in the Hudson River, and children in flooded New Jersey streets playing with downed street signs.
They reported from the edge of whipping, white-capped waters, breaking in and out with added effect, as reporters are wont to do. This sort of coverage is a trademark of contemporary news media, but are reporters under pressure to find the big, hard-hitting story at the risk of magnifying — or skewing — disaster? In the case of Sandy, no, we understand with the advantage of hindsight.
It’s true some people will say anything for a moment in the spotlight and perhaps we should not judge them too harshly for the seemingly cruel nonchalance flooding social networking platforms, but we do have to wonder about the origin of this larger instinct rampant in so many of us. Why do we pore over the news coverage, glued to the next apocalyptic event, seemingly continually (perhaps quietly) let down? Why are we almost sadistically drawn to disaster? Is this the very epitome of schadenfreude?
And what exactly would it take for Sandy not to disappoint some of us — how much destruction? How many brutal, graphic deaths? How close to home?
It seems there is something about the chaos and utter lack of control that thrills us humans — all the excitement of a disaster movie, enhanced, so long as it does not impact us too directly. Surely, if asked, most of these Tweeters would agree they do not explicitly want to see others suffer. Maybe they’d even be ashamed to concede to the thrill they register.
And, in the end, can we blame them for their honesty? Are the rest of us just holding back what we all collectively feel? Stuart Fischoff of the “Journal of Media Psychology” once explained many humans need a certain safe amount of terror for stimulation and excitement in otherwise typically calm lifestyles. This — in the form of horror movies and haunted houses, and potentially devastating natural disasters — provides a safe, electrifying break from the mundane, before we are permitted to scurry back. To run for the emergency exit, to push the stop button, to yell the safe word.
It seems safe to say our fascination is not only mildly sadistic then, but a touch masochistic as well.
Possibly it’s not excitement we feel in our traditional understanding of the word, but excitement more as a fight-or-flight type response, a defense mechanism, the difficult-to-pinpoint emotion that manifests when our nervous systems are in overdrive. Maybe it’s misguided pride or denial in the face of nature’s fearful omnipotence. Perhaps it’s just the I survived factor.
Then there is the well-tread territory of disaster fatigue — with the media playing an integral role — wherein we can only feel so bad for so long, before we are emotionally drained and must defend ourselves. Maybe we are more careless than ever and, given the outlet, more quick to express this carelessness (this, its own form of denial).
Maybe the reaction witnessed here is in part the simple ignorance of youth, the utterances of those unable to see too far behind their own narrow contexts.
Or, perhaps some element of the human psyche is bound up in something slightly more sinister, something we may not want to address, something just beyond our reach, something lurking even between the lines of that Tweeter’s false rumors. Most likely, it’s a little bit of all of it.