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Parenting, Gorillas, and the Social Media Postrage

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I’ve often had issues with social media and what I call “postrage,” where people get on some bandwagon about an issue and, as the Joker meme says, “loses their minds.” Normally, I get grumpy and ignore it, but the gorilla and child incident really bothers me.

If you don’t know, the bare facts are: parents take children to zoo. One child apparently says he wants to jump in the water of the gorilla cage. Parents tell him no, but lose track of him long enough for him to jump into the cage of his own accord. Gorilla grabs child, drags him around, and zookeepers kill gorilla to protect child. It’s a horrible incident, terrifying for child and parents and horribly sad for the zoo.

People have run with it on social media. They blame the parents. They blame the zoo. They grieve the death of a gorilla they wouldn’t have given a second thought to otherwise. I see people bemoaning how mean people are, and tying it to society, attitude, politics…. Something I’m not seeing, however, is anyone considering the role social media is playing in all this.

A decade or so ago, if this incident had happened, it would have been just as tragic. It would have made local, maybe national news. But people would have grumbled to themselves or their friends, and that would have been it. Police would have investigated the parent’s fitness if necessary, and maybe some neighbors or friends of the zoo would have given the parents a hard time, but otherwise, they would have been left alone to grieve the injuries to their son, to second guess their own roles, and eventually to move on.

Thanks to social media, everyone has an opinion. People have taken a family and local community tragedy and hijacked it for their own agendas. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have passed judgement on these parents, many with no more information than what they saw on social media as written by others who have passed judgement. If that weren’t bad enough for a mom and dad who have just lived a parent’s worst nightmare, they are also getting death threats and a petition to have the parents “be held accountable for their negligence,” as if there were no investigation going on. To add insult to injury, news sources we expect to be respectable, do research, etc. now use Twitter reactions in their stories, turning one layman’s opinion into accredited fact that is then spread across social media.

So. Worst parental nightmare ever. Child in hospital with all the pain, fears & expenses that entails. Police investigation. May have to pay fine for the lost animal. Guilt over the event. And now, potentially millions of people telling you that you are horrible parents, that you don’t deserve your child – that you don’t deserve to live! – and that the life of a gorilla is more important than the life of your child.

Once upon a time, this family would have been allowed some privacy. They’d have been free to tie themselves into knots with their own second-guessing, dealt with the authorities and the consequences of the event. If people spat in their faces, it would have been a few, and they could have talked to them or ignored them as they decided. But how do you defend yourself against millions of people publicly declaring (and re-posting declarations of others) that you are horrible people? How can you feel confident that any investigation will be impartial when the police have pressure, not just locally, but worldwide?

How easy is it to concentrate on taking care of a traumatized little boy when people are calling for your head?

Fortunately, this is already blowing over. For a little longer, these parents will be the villains of the Internet. Then something else will happen for people to get postraged over, and they will be forgotten. But the parents will never forget. Even more, it promotes a feeling of fear in other parents. How many of us have lost sight of a child for just a minute?

You know all those nostalgic memes about playing in the neighborhood unsupervised? Thanks to social media explosions like this, in 15 years, we may see the memes waxing poetic about having gone to the zoo. But then again, why bother, when you can look at a video of a gorilla online, nice and safe?

Social media has many wonderful applications, but it has also become an easy means for ganging up, passing – and passing on – snap judgments, and taking what should be a family and community tragedy and turning it into a rage circus.

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