What to expect when your story gets swept into the online news cycle

Image by freepik

An 8 year-old from Toronto goes Halloween costume shopping at Party City, takes offence that the store sells First Nations costumes, and asks her mother if she can write a letter of complaint to the management. Mom suggests social media as a more direct way to shine light on the issue, and posts her daughter’s missive to Twitter. Before you can say ‘trick or treat’, Huffington Post and GlobalTV come knocking for an interview.

The coverage is glowingly positive and upbeat — a precocious, socially conscious child, standing against the injustices of the world. The thumbs up come fast and furious. But so does the avalanche of hate. Dad engages but eventually blocks the combative strangers who descend on his Facebook feed. Mom’s Twitter is now private. “We’re taking an incredible amount of shit on social media for this,” the girl’s father acknowledges a few days later.

Few parents could have anticipated such a crucifixion — never mind the extent to which it was preordained. However, empathetic the reporters, however positive the spin, the story was destined to court trolls, generate ‘controversy’, and serve a larger machine.

Such is the nature (and economics) of the 24-hour news cycle.

How it works: to be profitable online, media outlets must generate a massive number of page views and shares. The most tried and true way to ‘go viral’ is to trigger an emotional response. Given the immediate and anonymous nature of online media, the most click-worthy emotion is…outrage.

This means the link between page views and profit is also the tie that binds social justice activists and haters. The fact that no two groups could be more opposed in their opinions and judgements makes them perfect pawns in a larger game: revenue generation.

So before entrusting your personal story to even a sympathetic reporter, remember: the 24-hour consumer news cycle cares not for your affiliations, your predilections or your children. It just wants audiences to pick a side and run with it. What happens next will take care of the rest.

My thanks to longtime friend and colleague, Katherine Gougeon – creator of culturally relevant brands and content – for this article. For more unique and insightful commentary on today’s mass media culture, connect with Katherine on Linkedin or Twitter @kgougeon  (Image collage by Katherine’s frighteningly bright son, Anton Pirisi)

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