Pulling Heartstrings on Social Media

Sometimes I may not appreciate being told what to do, but I always resent being told how I ought to feel.  Yet on a daily basis, in matters large and small, I find myself being told that I must have emotional reactions to things as grave as the civil war in Syria, or as trivial as which brand of loo paper will better my life, all couched in the same terms.  Whether you realize it or not, gentle reader, this insidious type of manipulation is happening to you as well, all the time. Only now, it is not only happening in print or television media, but in your social media world as well.

Yesterday afternoon, barring some unforeseen intervention, a dog who shall remain nameless was put down at an animal shelter which shall also remain nameless. Admittedly this is not some new occurrence: it happens every day, all over the United States and indeed around the world.  I only know about it because someone placed this information in my social media timeline. Yet what truly struck me was not so much the plight of the dog, but rather the way in which I learnt of her impending doom.

For you see, the shelter housing the dog tweeted out that unless the dog was rescued by a certain time yesterday afternoon, the dog would be destroyed. This tweet included a picture and brief description of the dog, as well as contact information should the person who saw the tweet decide to save the dog’s life.  Needless to say, I found this rather dramatic.

As an experiment, I decided to share the tweet and see what sort of responses it elicited from my followers.  I asked those who cared to respond what they thought about this tweet, but I did not include any editorial comments of my own.  Rather, I wanted to see what sort of reactions I would receive from a cross-section of people. Admittedly this was not a scientific poll nor a carefully controlled survey, but the results are still instructive.

Reactions were split almost exactly into two equal camps. Half of the respondents were moved by pity to say that the tweet emotionally affected them, and were saddened by their inability to do anything to help the dog. These ranged from expressions of wanting to adopt the dog if they could, to feelings of heartbreak, concern, and so on. I did not have the heart to point out that a visit to the shelter’s profile page would reveal that there were, in fact, dozens of other dogs with the same sad story of nearing death unless they were adopted by a certain deadline.

Others, however, had quite a different reaction to this tweet, including at least one dog owner.

One described the tweet as “cheap” and “sensational”. They felt that the attempt failed to make them feel guilty, however, though they could not explain why it had failed. Another compared the shelter unfavorably to those who post images of dead people on social media to shock people and attract attention for a particular cause, while another said they had never seen anything like it on Twitter before, and did not appreciate it. Still another described the tweet as merely “crass emotional manipulation”.

What was particularly interesting was the fact that some of those whose strongest emotional reaction was pity did not at first appear to realize the effect the impending deadline had on them.  Once this was pointed out to them, upon further reflection several suddenly realized that they were being manipulated. Once they had accepted that there was nothing they could do for the dog, and their initial sense of sorrow for the dog had given way to rationality, they recognized that they had been “handled”.

To my mind, there is something rather more macabre about announcing that you will be killing an animal, than simply doing it quietly. It reminds me a bit of posting a bill at a place of execution such as Tyburn in London, saying that so-and-so will be hanged, drawn, and quartered by order of Bad Queen Bess on such-and-such a day, should you care to come along and bring a picnic lunch. Though of course there is a very important difference here, and that is that animals, much as we may love them, are not human beings. To react to the putting down of a dog as something akin to execution is to hold an imbalanced view one’s place in the natural order.

More to the point of this piece however, this is an example of how a group of people can have completely different reactions to the same information, based on how that information is presented to them. Both editorial boards and advertising agencies have understood for a long time that by playing the emotional heartstrings, the public can be manipulated into doing whatever you want, whether it is selling newspapers to start a war, or asking people to watch a monkey throw excrement from behind a screen. William Randolph Hearst built San Simeon as a result of the former, and Piers Morgan is on CNN because of the latter.

Despite the supposed media-savvy nature of those of us who are Gen-X and younger, Americans are still far too easily influenced by those who whip up an emotional overreaction on the part of their target audience. This is nothing new, of course, for examples abound in American history. Yet so often we focus on national and international issues, analyzing what a pundit or a politician means in a major speech, that we miss the more mundane forms of that level of manipulation when we come across them in daily life.

Therefore pay attention in your social media, gentle reader, the next time you read a tweet or see a post that makes you feel emotional. All human beings feel emotions, but not all emotional reactions are ultimately beneficial. Take the time to ask yourself: do I really agree with what I am being asked to do or believe, here? For oftentimes you will discover that the rational, adult reaction is to take a deep breath, and not allow yourself to be manipulated.

“Marionettes” by John Singer Sargent (1903)
Private Collection

5 thoughts on “Pulling Heartstrings on Social Media

  1. I believe this is how marketing works. Any type of marketing for any product. The only difference now is that the social media has exacerbated emotional manipulation, making it more effective. As to whether the effect is a positive or a negative one, I am not sure. The problem I think that we should be focusing on is the lack of critical thinking amongst the masses who receive such emotionally charged pictures, ads, etc. Critical thinking is becoming rare these days, leading to too many knee-jerk reactions. I maybe mistaken though. In the past, I have to admit that I didn’t care much of how people react. However, after learning about critical thinking in school, I started noticing that there are a lot of people out there who use critical thinking less and rely more on their emotions. I can say the same about me as well, but I’m slowly learning to think critically first. 🙂


  2. William, years ago I gave up watching the TV news for this same reason. The “If it bleeds it leads” approach made me realize I wasn’t being informed but manipulated by the left wing media. What that Animal Shelter did makes me angry, but the way our culture is today, I don’t think the majority would be mad at the Shelter. I think the Shelter can get away with this now because pets have been elevated to “family member” status in our culture.


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