When raw emotion goes viral

From the moment reports of a shooter at a Texas elementary school hit social media, you knew to expect certain heartbeats. First, the errant clips of people close to the scene; then the early and wrong news; then the timeline filled in, hour by hour, as the national media vied with the local media for information. Over the course of a day, you would see stomach-churning videos of survivors, bystanders, parents, followed by harrowing photos and details of the victims, which, for the town of Uvalde, meant reading obituaries of fourth graders, where in Adult Achievement Place highlighted details like, “His favorite color was sage green.”

But it’s not just the news that goes viral. There are also news reactions: videos whose popularity is based less on their ability to inform or persuade than on their ability to reflect raw emotion. Clips would soon emerge of Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who represented the House district where the Sandy Hook massacre occurred (“What are we doing?” he pleaded before a seemingly empty Senate); NBA coach Steve Kerr, whose father was shot to death at his university, banging on a table at a news conference (“When are we going to do something?”); Jimmy Kimmel solemnly addresses the camera without an audience (“Things are clearly out of control when the coach of the Golden State Warriors shows more leadership and passion than almost every Republican in Congress”). As the internet provided me with reactions — from celebrities, from CNN anchors — drawn from TikTok, I was drawn to and repelled by them in equal measure. News reports were full of horrific details, such as parents hearing screams when officials told them their children were dead. The horror of the event was obvious, and yet that obviousness did not alleviate the need to see the horror articulated: engaging in what journalist Ryan Broderick, who monitors viral media and web culture, calls a kind of “aggregation emotional,” in whose impassioned video pleas become an “emotional feedback loop.”

His cadence raises Aaron Sorkin’s outrage levels as he continues.

One video in particular caught my attention. It featured a man named Matthew Gordon, appearing in a black shirt in front of a wall of framed “Star Wars” posters. If you watch the video on Twitter, where it went viral, you hear him start off referring to an “Erika,” but only in the video’s native TikTok do you see that Erika is someone who disagrees with him about gun laws. “I’m glad you said you were a veteran of the Marine Corps,” says Gordon, looking at the camera like a wolf, “because I wanted to make this point. How many times a year does he have to go as a Marine to re-qualify and prove that he is proficient and proficient in the weapons that have been issued to him? I’ll answer that for you, as a former rifle and pistol trainer in the Marine Corps. You have to go annually. How long does it take? Two weeks!”

His cadence raises Aaron Sorkin’s outrage levels as he continues. You can’t store a personal weapon in Navy barracks, he says; must be recorded and kept elsewhere. “Why is the United States Marine Corps, the best fighting force on the planet, more restrictive on who and where firearms can be stored and owned than the average 18-year-old in the state of Texas?” He hits his arm next to him. “Why?”

Gordon captured my full attention with his two-minute video, no easy feat in the sea of ​​hands shaking on Twitter. However, the elements that made the video so shareable were the same ones that made it depressing. Gordon’s delivery and direct gaze at the camera had all the makings of a social media influencer; with the sound off, he could be launching a product. His most potent source of virality was his own identity as a Marine who trained with firearms and sided with gun control advocates. He was also, like the figures in similar videos, a man, which can feel like a key aspect of shareability, as if it was somehow uniquely powerful to see men express outrage and pain. (“An older man crying,” Broderick notes, “is a whole genre of viral content.”)

Jamie Cohen, who teaches media studies at CUNY Queens College, told me that he categorizes reaction videos using two axes and four quadrants: good faith, bad faith, good actor, bad actor. When I called Gordon to find out what his position would be, he told me that he joined TikTok during the pandemic, out of boredom. The son of a Marine, he grew up in Kentucky before joining the Corps and identified as a conservative Republican for most of his life. It was after his stint on active duty, when he adjusted to life as a stay-at-home dad in Oswego, New York, that he became involved in community theater, which he said “really opened my eyes to the different Americas that we all have. they are living. grow in.” The revealing video of him, which he says he filmed in his car at a Dunkin’ Donuts in 2020, criticized Trump voters; he had thought that he was alone in his increasingly liberal policy, but the response suggested that others felt the same. He made his username @usmcangryveteran and now has over 300,000 followers on TikTok, where he posts several times a day. The value of the videos, he told me, is twofold: They help both him and his audience process emotions. “As someone who struggles with PTSD and all that,” he said, “I understand that holding on to those feelings and allowing them to simmer and bubble is not healthy.”

McConaughey asked his wife, Camila, to show the cameras the shoes in question, a heart drawn on one toe.

But of course the videos about Uvalde do not exist solely to reflect sadness. They express their support for stricter gun laws; the emotion they reflect is anger at political inaction, hoping to channel that anger into change. Two weeks after the shooting, actor Matthew McConaughey, who was born in Uvalde and apparently spent days there meeting with grieving families, led a briefing in the White House briefing room; the purpose of his 20-minute speech seemed to be a plea for Congress to pass gun control legislation. But her most memorable moments came when he spoke about one of the victims: a girl so mangled by bullets that she could only be identified by her green Converse sneakers. McConaughey asked his wife, Camila, to show the cameras the shoes in question, a heart drawn on one toe.

This appearance was not impromptu or “authentic” in the way that much viral content pretends to be; it was a scripted and, frankly, bizarre, event run by political professionals to help advance a legislative agenda. But knowing this didn’t change the way my face crinkled when McConaughey relayed the dreams of fourth graders and their families. What draws people to watch those videos is ultimately not about gun politics, activism, or any form of action. It is about satisfying an emotional need.

It’s a depressing and embarrassing necessity, but I’m certainly not alone in that. Whether it’s elderly black men in a Buffalo supermarket or civilians lying dead on the streets of Bucha, the world offers us traumatic images and ideas every day. Some of us need reassurance that we are not alone in our outrage, pain, or confusion as digital viewers. It could well come in the form of Matt Gordon’s mouth, twisted in anger at gun rules that regulate Marines more strictly than teenagers, or even Matthew McConaughey’s smooth fingers pointing across a room, doing an accessory with the shoes of a dead child.

Source photos: Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images; TikTok screenshot.

Source: www.nytimes.com