Compassion in the Attention Economy

Not sure how you guys can joke around when there’s like 1,000 kids stuck in a well probably.
~some guy on Twitter

That quip encapsulates a phenomenon that one often sees on social media. There does seem to be like 1,000 kids stuck in wells all over the world. There are pleas made to give attention to each one of their situations. There are also allegedly children who will get free heart transplants if a certain message is forwarded 10,000 times, animal shelters that will be able to expand if just 500 people like a particular status, marines who will receive care packages abroad if you retweet a message and illiterate women who will be taught to read if you can just get 10 of your friends to join a certain group. Really? How plausible does any of that sound? Has any of that kind of activity actually gotten results in your neighborhood? Did your local school get a new playground because someone sat around counting retweets? Has your local clinic gotten new diagnostic equipment because of random email forwarding to strangers?

These pleas are often accompanied by photos of the alleged recipients along with personalized stories about their plights. It’s pretty emotionally compelling stuff.

Some of these are quite tricky. I’ve been fooled by them upon occasion and thankfully associates pointed that out so I could correct my viewpoint and not waste other people’s bandwidth. I am in the habit of pointing these hoaxes out as well, to the chagrin of some. People don’t like to feel they are wrong, but often we are wrong. When we accept the possibility and examine the reasons why we fell for the hoax in the first place it builds up something of an immunity to being fooled by others, and by ourselves. Seeing clearly is a far more effective position than flailing about in the fog of our own wishes, beliefs and delusions.

Donna Freedman wrote an interesting post recently entitled Before you Forward that E-mail? Think about NOT Forwarding that E-mail. In that post she outlined some important points about these kinds of messages. On the particular case she uses for an example she writes:

The e-mail has been circulating for more than a year. How many readers has it reached? How much has it added to our collective burden of pain, anger and mistrust?

She also included some recommendations on what to do before forwarding this kind of information. Go and read her post. I’ll wait.

The emotional impact of these situations is important. People only have so much tolerance before compassion fatigue sets in and they stop listening. If they spend half of that on 5 year old hoaxes, then it’s energy and attention wasted that could be better used to actually make a difference.

One of the issues with forwarding every sob-story and heart-wrenching photo unchecked is that it serves to obfuscate real issues that are happening right now.

There are all kinds of hoaxes and obfuscation happening, not just on the Internet. Fact checking is something much of the media and many politicians don’t even bother with any more. Hence fact bureaus have sprung up and John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and other late night comedians have a lot of new material to work with on a daily basis.

In the political realm it is easy to understand why this happens. People want to get elected. They want the power to move society in the direction they think is best or which will benefit them the most personally. Some will go to any lengths, including hoaxing or even outrightly lying to the public. The notion of the politician as a public servant is pretty much on its last legs in many countries.

It is much more difficult to understand why people would put together a charity hoax. In some cases individuals have claimed they or their children have cancer or other diseases in order to make money. These frauds are usually exposed and they are criminally charged.

Internet charity hoaxes are engineered for numerous reasons. Not all the reasons are necessarily malicious.

In some cases money is involved, or may have been involved at one time. There may have been a short lived website set up to collect donations and once people started to question its validity it could have been taken down while the information attached to it, via email or social media continues to circulate in various forms.

Some will concoct these stories as an extension of themselves, just to see how far they will spread or to see how much upset they can cause. This attention by proxy is a tactic children often employ in order to test their own sense of power and control. Some adults also have not developed adequate coping skills to deal with satisfying their emotional needs in a more constructive manner hence the phenomenon of Internet trolls, and in this case it is trolling, comes about. This is a side effect of the attention economy. We are deluged with an onslaught of attention seeking material from media, ads, our workplaces, our environment. It takes a certain amount of skill to stand out from that cacophony. This is the congratulations that the attention seeking poster craves. Until the person who would make such stories up has learned more socially and personally fulfilling methods to deal with their emotional needs they will continue, as it is often one of the few areas in which satisfaction of needs are somehow met albeit temporarily.

In other cases there may have originally been a story in a newspaper or elsewhere that someone took note of and wrote about to their group of acquaintances. Like the game of telephone each subsequent sender then appended their own interpretations, additional information and opinions until it morphed into something quite different than the original. This is the path that gossip often takes until the bubble is burst with the truth. Unfortunately sometimes even the truth isn’t enough to reverse the situation. There are also some people who don’t care about the truth.

I remember one episode on Facebook wherein a poster passed on the well known hoax about the baby’s free heart transplant. Their friends were quick to point them to Snopes.com and other sites debunking the story. The original poster wrote, and I paraphrase:

“I don’t care if it’s not true. It would be nice if it was.”

That’s a kind of delusional optimism combined with confirmation bias that underlies much of the hoaxing material in circulation. It’s the reason why these things also tend to persist.

Many people want to believe that:

  • the world is always a good place, (overgeneralization)
  • all people are trustworthy, (overgeneralization)
  • others are always profoundly generous, (overgeneralization)
  • when bad things happen some good will come of it, (wishful thinking, false conclusion)
  • thought equals action, (false correlation)
  • because I care about this so does everyone else, (mind projection)
  • sacrifice or suffering will never be in vain. (fallacy of fairness)
  • we get what we deserve and of those that don’t seem to, people want to help them, (Heaven’s Reward fallacy)
  • everything happens for a reason I can immediately understand,
  • my moral compass is correct, well founded and applies to all, (filtering, overgeneralization)
  • doing something…anything, no matter how irrational or ineffective, equals making a difference,
  • the general public cares as much as I do, about specific instances of suffering, (mind reading)
  • corporations care about suffering beyond what good public relations appearances dictate, (mind reading, wishful thinking)
  • etc…

Much on the list is the result of the solipsist viewpoint and a lot of cognitive fallacies some of which I’ve indicated in brackets. Attempts to illustrate detriments of embracing false causes generally end with a thought terminating cliché or some kind of emotional blackmail a la, “If you cared about the world you’d pass this on.” (magnification, appeal to consequences, appeal to emotion, appeal to motive, straw man, false dilemma as well—pull all those out next time someone tries emotional blackmail on you.)

These kinds of stories, even if they are not true, confirm many people’s delusional views. There is ample evidence to belie everything on that list but many people don’t want to know about that. It is profoundly easier to live in a confirmation bubble with all the cognitive dissonance involved, than to confront the fact that much of what we believe about ourselves, our communities and countries, our ways of life and our actions is bogus.

Delusional thinking doesn’t help anything and only perpetuates suffering because one has to be able to see a situation clearly in order to feel compassion and contribute appropriate action to alleviate suffering. Anything else is co-dependence, self-indulgence or idiot compassion. 

A reality check is a good thing in pretty much every circumstance.

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By NellaLou

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