The Real World

Dark Side of Sharing

(700 words, 2-3 minutes to read)

We live in a confusing time.

1) I often see “news articles” that contain blatant lies, or at least heavily doctored facts, making incendiary claims about this or that political/religious/ethnic group. There’s a temptation to share such articles, along with my own comment pointing out the inaccuracies and warning people to be careful.

I’m performing a valuable service, right? But every share gets the article more clicks, generates revenue for the people who write and host garbage articles, and incentivizes more of the same. They wanted publicity, and I’m giving it to them.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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2) A friend of mine found out that a neo-Nazi was soliciting at a store near her house, advertising a meetup or something. It’s scary, the idea that people like that are so close to home (even given the fact they they constitute a tiny fraction of the population). Similarly, I recall a story of some Florida school teacher who was fired after it was revealed that she was boasting about bringing her white supremacist beliefs into the classroom. She apparently even had a podcast on the topic. I have an instinct to point out these people, to make others aware that they are around and to be careful.

I’m performing a valuable service, right? But for someone advertising a neo-Nazi meetup or a white supremacy podcast, the best thing they could possibly hope for would be national publicity and their information spread all over the internet. The people who would never attend/download still won’t, but those that might now are able to. There’s a sense in which my behavior incentivizes more of the same. They wanted publicity, and I’m giving it to them.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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3) Far too frequently, there are mass murders (shootings or bombings, usually). Some are motivated by hatred and anger, and others by desire for fame, but all are horrific and seem newsworthy. Sometimes the frequency is sufficient to motivate policy changes, or changes in security measures. Sometimes the effect is more personal, as we grieve collectively the very public loss of life. I often want to share these stories, to motivate a sense of outrage against the perpetrators or the system that allowed such a tragedy to happen.

I’m performing a valuable service, right? But a potential murderer motivated by fame will, upon seeing other murderers achieve it, be more likely to follow through. (A clear example is the one surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, who became some twisted version of a celebrity through his actions.) Even one driven more by anger could see frequent occurrence of previous acts as justifying their terrifying plans. So there’s a sense in which my behavior incentivizes more of the same. Whether they wanted publicity or justification, in a way I’m giving it to them.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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4) Donald Trump ran for president in 2012, and nobody noticed. Nobody really talked about him, and he was quickly defeated in the Republican primaries. Then he ran again in 2016. His Republican opposition was not clearly weaker than in 2012; the demographics of the country, or the Republican party, hadn’t changed significantly since 2012. What’s more, he met with an impressive series of scandals and accusations, and some of which he admitted publicly to. In my bubble, nearly very talk show, every news outlet, every person I talked to, was saying negative things. It made perfect sense to constantly talk about and share articles detailing his wrongdoings and backwards attitudes.

We were all doing a valuable service, right? But as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” He was all over the news every day, every night; people watched the debates just to see him. When his opponents tried to talk about the real political issues, or what they wanted to do as president, nobody heard them because all any of us could see was Trump. He wanted publicity, and we gave it to him.

It’s not clear whether all that sharing actually does more good than harm.

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