How Social Media Amplifies Emotion

Yes, it was Grimace Purple, and yes I loved it.

Toward the end of 2016, about two months before the presidential election, my car, a 1999 Jeep Cherokee, broke down. This wouldn’t ordinarily have been the end of the world, but I loved it very much. Oh, and there was a hurricane approaching.

I was about to finish my first year living as a civilian at the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and things had been going well. We had recently gotten broadband for the first time, and our smartphones worked, and this was a big deal because they simply had not done that before.

Not many people know this but until 2016 Gitmo operated under a pretty restrictive telecommunications infrastructure. Essentially, the 1990s, with landlines, and slow dumbphones, and a satellite dish for important or urgent communications. One day, in June of that year, a T-Mobile technician told me that the base’s switchboard was so ancient (our cellular numbers only had 5 digits) they didn’t even bother to patch it and decided to install their own in hopes of one day providing service to the whole island. Good luck, pal.

My first year at the base was mostly devoid of broadband internet. Just checking emails at home, watching the gmail page slowly resolve itself over the shared satellite connection, became an evening ritual as we watched fuzzy TV piped in through spare bandwidth on the satellite dish. It was sort of romanitc, in a way… but you also would miss having easy access to information.

Living without any broadband internet, anywhere, was hard to get used to. But it also had upsides: a huge variety people would convene at the bowling alley, or the library, or the coffeeshop, for access to a hotspot fast enough to let them Skype home – whether a Jamaican or Filipino worker, a soldier-sailor-marine, a contractor, or a family member. It created a sense of community at the base, since we had no choice but to interact face to face. This didn’t mean everything was always great (people are still people, which means they aren’t always nice), but we had few options but to interact socially. It was weird to get used to, like living in a very small town.

People on the base liked to keep in touch through some private Facebook groups, whether to chat about the eccentricities of living on a foreign base surrounded by mine fields, or to sell things before moving away, or to publicize craft fairs, scuba trips, or parties. I took up a hobby I hadn’t touched in 10 years and built myself a gaming PC to try to pass the time at night. The game I was most excited about playing, Elite: Dangerous (spaceships go pew-pew) was almost impossible to play at night, when everyone was at home using their bandwidth. I just couldn’t connect to the servers. I dragged the desktop tower to the bowling alley, where there was a wifi hotspot, to let it download gigabytes of updates.

In July of 2016, the Navy completed construction of a massive fiber optic cable, snaking under the ocean from Dania Beach, Florida, to one of the cliff faces along the southern coast of Cuba. Suddently, we all had access to broadband internet at home – a luxury! – and even 4G LTE. My iPhone suddenly worked again. We could watch Netflix again. It was a lot easier to access Facebook.

So, people spent more time on Facebook, and more time, and more time. People began to fight on Facebook in a way they hadn’t before – acrimonous, bitter fights, carrying on personal grudges that were previously buried by the requirements of politeness in public. People got petty.

Common activities dried up – before mass broaband arrived on the base, the scuba shop and club could rely on a steady influx of visiting servicemembers who wanted to engage in one of the unique and abundant hobbies available. The manager of the shop, whom I befriended and who had lived there for over 15 years, told me that too many incoming servicemembers were not engaging with base clubs anymore, since they could retire to their bunks and play Call of Duty or stream Netflix.

I fell for it, too – I stopped diving as often, and instead of reading books on my Kindle I found myself mindlessly scrolling social media.

I told myself this was good. It was much easier, all of a sudden, to communicate with my friends back in the mainland US. I could talk to my parents without fighting the mosquitos at a hotspot or filling an expensive calling card. I could download games like Firewatch. I could use Spotify again. It was remarkable.

So when Hurricane Matthew, a massive category 5 hurricane, gathered steam in the Carribbean, utterly devastated multiple island nations, and began moving directly toward the bay, the command had to make a decision. It had previously survived Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but many of the vehicles on the base – Gitmo beaters, we called them, since most were 20+ years old because transporting new cars there is expensive and difficult – were wrecked. It’s an island! Things can flood in severe weather. My Jeep, I think, was one of those, as it had horrible rust problems and ongoing problems with the electronics. That being said, it had also spent 15 years exposed to salty air, since I, like its many previous owners, routinely drove it onto the beach for cookouts, dives, and relaxation. Plus, it’s an old Jeep. Things break. Who knows?

Anyway, the base command decided to evacuate as many civilians as it could from Guantanamo. It was a flurry of chaos – nearly a thousand people trying to scramble onto a few evacuation planes before a devastating storm promised to ravage the base. Crucially, there were not enough spots on the planes for everyone. So that caused a NEW scramble, as panicked people tried to ensure that the randomized process to select evacuees would get their kids, or their spouse, or their pets, away from danger.

The newly open, accessible, and cantankerous Facebook communities of Gitmo participated in this process. Rumors came fast and furious – false stories that children were turned away at the airport, or denied a slot on one of the troop transport aircraft to make room for someone’s dog, or that the command had screwed up the first civilian evacuation of the base since the 1994 Carribbean refugee crisis.

I did my best to board up our house, cover the electronics (TV, PS4, computer) in plastic, protect the furniture as best I could, move everything away from the windows. My husband happened to be off base at the time for a training seminar; it meant I was a lucky one so I got on the second to last C-130s to leave the island. I was stuck for six excruciating hours on those net benches, unable to move or pee because of how tightly we were packed in, trying to help calm a yound child without good ear protection as she screamed and cried and fussed in discomfort.

We landed at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in a similar flurry of chaos. Everyone was exhausted, no one knew what was happening, we were all worried sick for our homes and our friends and our families.

The newly open, accessible, and cantankerous Facebook communities of Gitmo participated in this process, too. While I was being shuffled off to a women’s barrack’s whose floor had been cleared to make room for a group of us, I saw on my phone the anger of people who were left behind. They alleged corruption in the evacuation, that money exchanged hands, that a trustworthy source saw a master-at-arms pull a child off one of the evacuation planes to make room for someone’s cat, that luggage was prioritized over children. The rumors flew fast and furious. The bank had closed, so there was a run on the two ATMs on the base accessible to civilians. The 8 shelves of groceries at the NEX were picked clean. People tried to find whomever they knew in the dusty old bombshelters to ride out the storm – and because the cellular towers still worked, they updated the Facebook groups.

It soon became apparent that some of the posters were persuing old grudges:

  • I may dislike this passenger manager at the airport because she made me pay for extra luggage, but I also saw her giving favors to friends who were waiting for an evacuation slot.
  • I am upset at this retail clerk, so I saw her closing off access to an ATM so we couldn’t get cash.
  • I dislike my neighbor’s cat, so imagine my fury when I saw him being loaded into the back of the C-17.

None of it was true, but when people are upset and powerless they repeat rumors to try to regain some small measure of control over their lives. When a category 5 hurricane is heading directly for your home, and you can’t leave because you are trapped by seven decades of inertia-driven foreign policy, you feel dehumanized. No one had answers, either, because the core command of the base stayed behind and the officers running the evacuation had not yet set up a briefing process for all of us at Pensacola.

So when I see the horror of the west coast burning out of control like the end of days, and then I see that there are malicious rumors flying around smaller communities – who also feel powerless, and trapped, and abandoned – I’m not surprised. It is a natural reaction of people who are terrified and desperate to have some sort of control.

I may not be able to save my house, but at least I can keep others informed.

And just like when Gitmo was partially evacuated for a hurricane – one that, we should note, ended up missing the base and instead wrecking a city on the other side of Cuba – in the Pacific Northwest in particular, those rumors, just like in Gitmo, turned into the pursuit of petty grudges. Like the insane, and FALSE, rumor that people somehow, and inexplicably, identified as antifa were starting fires. I would have been shocked if this hadn’t happened. Catastrophe and false rumors go hand-in-hand.

What I was surprised about was how long it took Facebook to bother to do something about it.

See, people being catty and mean in a closed Facebook group on an isolated military base aren’t going to directly harm each other. It will ratchet up tensions, and make people who would ordinarily tolerate each other in public for the good of the social order of a very small community stop talking, but no one will die. In places like rural Oregon, however, where wannabe militias have set up illegal checkpoints to screen for “outsiders” during a mandatory evacuation, it actually can kill people. In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t yet (we will see as our ability to investigate catches up with reality – eventually).

People doing this, I understand. It is predictable. Expected. Facebook doing nothing about it for days on end – and still not doing a good job of limiting those style of posts – is also, sadly, predictable. That is because, by and large, Facebook is simply incapable of being proactive to prevent people using their system to prevent fatal tragedy. They declined to take action until after a guy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, followed through on the murders a Facebook group was trying to incite, and they waited days into an evacuation in Oregon to act as well.

There are reasons for this, but to a degree they don’t really matter. What matters is that Facebook, and the other social platforms, let me be clear, will not act to prevent this. Instead, they will do in disaster what they do in normal times: amplify emotions, create a vicious cycle where disagreement blossoms into grudge and then becomes revenge, and not act until it is too late and people have been placed into mortal danger if not already killed. It is an iron law of the universe.

So when you look at how social media users are covering a disaster, don’t take claims at face value… especially if they haven’t been confirmed. Unverified rumors are spicy and fun to spread because they let you feel in control… but they don’t help anyone. In fact, sharing them might get someone killed. And the platforms won’t do a thing to stop it.

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