Monkey See, Monkey Do in the Social Media Zoo

Social media images showed a young man holding an assault-style rifle. The text threatened a forthcoming attack in Florida. But it was not Nikolas Cruz, America’s mass killer du jour. It was a copycat in Spartanburg, S.C.

After the disturbed 19-year-old Cruz shot up the Parkland, Fla., school that had expelled him for disturbing behavior, a wave of threats slammed schools nationwide.

A sixth-grader about a half hour from the Parkland massacre scrawled her gun threat in block letters on wide-ruled notebook paper and slipped it under the assistant principal’s door. The 11-year-old faces a felony charge.

Teachers across the country led classroom discussions to help students voice their emotions. During one such forum, an Allentown, Pa., 18-year-old threatened to kill everyone at his school. Police promptly arrested him.

That South Carolina ninth-grader who posted the Snapchat selfie, wearing a mask and a necktie in his bathroom, with the words, “Round 2 of Florida tomorrow,” claimed it was in jest. Another arrest. In addition to threatening a school, charge him with assault on good humor.

If you search the term “copycat threats after shootings,” you’ll find headlines chronicling a modern epidemic accompanying this nation’s cavalcade of mass shootings. Deranged people are scheming at this moment to surpass the body count of the Las Vegas shooter. They view the twisted perpetrators of Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, and Orlando as Hall of Famers.

Some will hint at their fantasies in comments to friends or coworkers. Others will expose them more vividly on social media—selfies of wannabe terrorists wielding large weapons to feel less small. Nearly all will compile a record of behavior that afterward makes their killing sprees appear inevitable.

Copycat killers remind us that humanity remains closer to the caves than to the stars.

Some years ago, I was assigned to write an article about a school field trip to a primate research center. As I stood behind a group of fourth-graders listening to the director explain social housing, one monkey suddenly bolted from his perch for no apparent reason. Within seconds, a dozen monkeys were frantically chasing each other around the large enclosure.

“You’ve heard the phrase, “monkey see, monkey do?” the director queried. “Well, you just saw it in action.”

Two Spider Monkeys play monkey see, monkey do on a power line. Humans play monkey see, monkey do online, through social media.Photo by Eric F. Frazier

Social Media Distraction

Few of us, fortunately, are killers, but we must admit that monkey-see-monkey-do thinking and behavior are deeply ingrained in our species. And social media encourage it. People mimic what they see and hear on their screens.

In this age of instant communications connecting all of us at every moment, one of life’s biggest challenges has become maintaining individual purpose and discernment. Symptoms of this conflict are all around us. Consider terms like FOMO (fear of missing out), articles with such titles as “How to Break up with Your Phone,” and 3,477 distracted driving fatalities recorded in 2015.

Let that sink in. People operating vehicles at high speeds forget what their primary purpose at that moment should be—to avoid killing themselves or someone else—in order to “like” a cat video. Or to type misspelled words on a device originally named for its ability to transmit audible conversations.

Parents must nag children to put away devices and finish dinner or homework. Every public event begins with a plea to silence cell phones (and someone fails to). Those of us who work at computers all day face ever-present temptation to disengage from the task at hand and check our feeds.

Social media platforms encourage us to join groups and interact with others, which can be positive experiences. But socializing used to happen differently and occupy a smaller portion of our lives. Like fast food, it has been industrialized and supersized.

Social networks used to develop more slowly. Contact was typically face-to-face and periodic. You looked into the eyes of friends over coffee and gossip. Weekly or monthly club meetings, golf outings, bowling nights, card games, etc. drew members from a tighter geographic area.

Today, like-minded people who’ve never met can connect online immediately from anywhere in the world, all day long, during other activities. Anyone can publish their thoughts, and others can share those messages with one click.

Again, these can be positive experiences. But virtual relationships, like shopping for paint online, can prove off-color and undesirable in the light of day.

Social Media Manipulation

Online networks also help disturbed people find role models of bad behavior. They enable bad actors to collaborate across vast distances. And now, we better understand that foreign spies, and even artificial bots, can pose as people they are not. Imposters and agitators, who infiltrate the madding crowd to inflame fear, mistrust and polarization for geopolitical aims, have moved online.

Information warfare—propaganda—relies on unsuspecting targets. It weaponizes monkey-see-monkey-do behavior to amplify existing social tensions and weaken social cohesion.

To defend ourselves, we don’t need to muzzle the internet, like China and Russia. We need to up our game as information consumers. That means more transparency. More critical thinking about what we consume and share. More fact-checking, and yes, more willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of opposing views and to change our own when new facts emerge.

I invite you to like and share this post. But first, please do the above.


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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.