Mass hysteria only works, when it is live – but today everything seems to be live

Looking at the news recently and more precisely, looking at the reaction to the news, it seems as if the world is falling apart. I think that has a lot to do with us being creatures that have evolved to live in communities of maybe 50 individuals. While living in a cave or a straw hut, there might have been on occasion good reason for mass hysteria, but that meant that you or one of your children is been eaten by a bear, right now, right in front of your eyes. Or something of that sort. Live – in the sense of happening right now – meant it was part of your life – right here and right now. Terrible things here and now could have real consequences for us, so becoming hysteric, might in fact be a valid option.

“Elsewhere” on the other hand, was truly elsewhere. And news spread slowly. So if you received news, that someone else, has been eaten elsewhere – even if is was one of you kin – the individual in question had either already survived the attack, or had already been turned into bear poop. So there was little for you to do. Especially little reason for you to be hysteric.

Even with the advent of news – as in newspaper or TV news -, this, for a long time, did not change all that much. If you did open the newspaper while eating breakfast, the news you encountered already happened. What is dubbed by TV stations “evolving story” or “breaking news” is more recent. And things are definitely accelerating.

When the news broke about recent events in Nice, Turkey, Florida or yesterday in Munich, my first reaction was to check Twitter and Periscope. Of course I also check different news sites, but the “promise” the Internet gives that you can be see things unfold live is so intriguing. Plus, once you keep checking Twitter, you realize that most news sites do the same.

But looking at the reaction people show and the tone that shifts from event to event, I come to realize that people just can not handle live news very well. It is like constantly watching a bear mauling one of your close relatives in the next cave. Just that “your relative” is someone you do not know and would not care about, when meeting on the street. The “bear” are mostly random acts of violence that happen outside our media attention all the time. And the “next cave” is a place you have to google to find its exact location. But since, through the magic of the Internet, these events seem to unfold before our eyes, hysteria seems to be the adequate reaction.

And that is very dangerous, since fear has become the most important weapon in today’s conflicts. Fear causes us to overreact. Another of those very old instincts. If you were really afraid when the bear was eating in the next cave, there was little for you to loose. So why not stop acting sensible? Just shit your pants, start yelling, start hitting everything in your path and run as quickly as possible. Maybe you survive this way. But if these bear eating events have seemingly become part of our everyday routine, since the Internet and the news constantly confront us with these events in real time. Shitting your pants, yelling and flailing your arms – in short, loosing your mind -, is not the adequate reaction any more, just instinctive behavior is almost impossible to control.

Maybe the problem is, that Aesop never determined how far away the wolf can be, for you to justifiably still call it.

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