Turn On, Retweet, Tune Out

From Syria to Gaza to #BringBackOurGirls, what makes people care about stories one minute -- and forget about them the next?


Deborah Sanya, an 18-year-old Nigerian student who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in the mass raid on a school in Chibok back in mid-April, took a tremendous risk and bolted. Through the night, she and two friends ran and ran, eventually reaching safety in a village. When New Yorker reporter Alexis Okeowo spoke to Sanya at the end of April, she described how the young woman was fasting and eating, fasting and eating, all the while interspersing that with prayer.

At the time when Okeowo’s article came out, many in the world were riveted by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls: It was a story with terror and mystery and a need for world attention — immediately. The infamous #BringBackOurGirls campaign began online. People got mad. Op-eds appeared. World leaders indignantly spoke out.

Yet more than three months later, with most of the girls still in captivity, global cries to help them are intermittent at best. It’s hardly the first time a cause has hit the headlines, only to slide slowly into the shadows, like a cranky child quietly banished to her room after throwing a temper tantrum. Remember Kony 2012?


In addition to the big hits that live and die hard, there are countless issues people care about on and off at best. See: Syria; Israel-Palestine; a number of countries with intense war and suffering in Africa (the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo); HIV/AIDS.

What exactly is going on in the attention economy that people have little room (or desire) for sustained empathy? Too many causes? Too far away? Certainly, the media bear blame; there’s limited space in newspapers, in magazines, and on the nightly news, and even on the boundless Internet, journalists are always looking for the next story. Still, this is insufficient to explain what makes people care one minute — and not the next. Something else is going on, and I asked several experts, including activists and academics, to explain what it is.


To start, what makes a cause or campaign, when it bursts onto the scene, really take hold? "Bring Back Our Girls was the function of not only a story that created empathy, plus the Internet, but an unfinished story, so our minds kept pushing at it, as if at a sore tooth," says activist Gloria Steinem, who has decades of experience at the forefront of the U.S. women’s rights movement. (Steinem is the founder of the project I run at the Women’s Media Center, Women Under Siege.)

In other words, it’s the lack of a resolution — and the potential of one coming — that grabs interest. But Steinem says, too, that she fears people lose interest in staying until the end when it doesn’t come quickly enough. People are in it for the plot, and they’ll turn their attention elsewhere when the twists stop happening. "It’s been my experience that the single most important bridge to caring is not a fact or a statistic, it’s a story," Steinem says.

Similarly, Columbia Journalism Professor Helen Benedict, who has written extensively about women and violence in the military, says that what will make people care is "fiction that pulls people out of their own skins and little worlds and puts them in those of others…. Putting oneself in another’s shoes. Using one’s imagination to break through myopia."

The story of Bring Back Our Girls has stalled for a global audience because there has been little progress in finding them. And so people have found other things about which to worry: serious things such as the news from Gaza and the child immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, and then the usual fluff, like how much Kim Kardashian is making on her new Facebook game.

In Nigeria, however, the campaign continues. Supporters hold vigils and meet with politicians.

Steinem says people outside the country would still care as well, if the Nigerian girls weren’t so nameless and faceless. "If we knew even one of these girls," she says, "empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more."

Social scientists tend to agree. "We have to identify in order to care," says Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University and chairman emeritus of Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. "We can’t just satisfy our curiosity; we need more than that. The human portraits have to evoke evolving emotion. If we just feel outrage or pity or even compassion, that isn’t enough. We need to go through the stages that draw us into life narratives, sustaining our attention, our belief that some significant denouement is on the horizon."

Ochberg describes a three-act process that occurs in the development of a heavy international story. In "Act One," the traumatic event is identified and described; for example, the Nigerian girls go missing and news stories pour forth with all the known details. People begin to care. A lot. A hashtag carries things forward. For a little while, at least. In "Act Two," people "return to normalcy after great upheaval." Here there are more contemplative dimensions to the international response: coverage of the victims, of trauma and recovery (for instance, the New Yorker piece about Sanya, in which faceless girls were made more three-dimensional). In "Act Three," there is "unrequited loss, pointless suffering, persistent evil." People do not have the ability to easily tolerate this dark final act: the realization that there may be no happy resolution to reach, no transcendent truth, no meaning. So in an attempt to preserve ourselves emotionally, humans circle back to the parts of a story — a new story — that are more easily digestible: the shock of an event, the personalized follow-up, the urgency of wanting and demanding to know what happens next.

"Our species does remember certain things ‘in our bones,’ and we have deep resonance with personal tragedies and with societal traumas," Ochberg says. "[But] our species is also forgetful and easily bored. So no wonder we lose interest in a calamity and go on to the next ‘Act One’ of a news cycle."

Right now, the story of the Nigerian schoolgirls is in Act Three. There is nothing good to report. There is not even very much to report at all; the Nigerian government has been virtually silent on what it is doing to rescue the girls. From the media’s perspective, there aren’t headlines to be written. From a more personal perspective, it hurts to sustain attention on the story — particularly the speculation about what it is that isn’t known. For instance, while the Nigerian government does little, the girls are likely being raped, experts say. That’s not easy to digest.


In April, three experimental psychologists released a study of the Kony 2012 viral campaign that suggests sustained attention isn’t easy to hold for yet another reason. The first video that the NGO Invisible Children produced about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony was incredibly successful, the study’s authors argue, because of its simplicity. The message was clear: Kony has caused terrible, terrible problems in Uganda, especially for children used as soldiers, and he must be found and brought to justice. A more nuanced follow-up video that "acknowledged more of the complexity regarding the situation in central Africa," by contrast, didn’t gain nearly the same traction.

"Reducing a complex issue to the actions of a single enemy can inspire moral outrage and inspiration to take action," the authors write.

This could also help explain the diminishing attention paid to the Chibok kidnappings. As journalists who’ve stuck with the story and concerned NGOs discuss important intricacies (Nigerian politics, security-sector corruption) and the difficulties of finding the girls (Boko Haram’s mysterious inner workings, the challenges posed by geography), stories and updates resound with a big, silent thud. (To be sure, many activists are at an uneasy peace with this reality — hence the continued simplification of what needs to be done on a host of pressing humanitarian issues. See, for instance, "conflict minerals" in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

"Had we all more compassion, more empathy for global atrocities, the daily videos of sniper fire and innocents being killed from Syria would have moved us by now to say ‘do something,’" TMS Ruge, a social media strategist and campaigner from Africa, wrote on in 2012. "But they haven’t. Why? Because no one has invaded our Facebook time line demanding we watch a 30-minute Hollywood production simplifying the issue for us."

"It is an indictment on what moves us to act," he adds.

Other advocates and journalists I spoke to, however, generally agree that people aren’t dumb or heartless when it comes to humanitarian matters. They think global audiences are unconsciously pushing away bad news as they try to lead their own peaceful lives.

"It’s not that people don’t care," says feminist writer and activist Soraya Chemaly. "It’s that caring is dangerous and might cost too much." She calls it "a self-protective willful blindness." Keeping painful truths at a distance "enables people to believe that they are immune from the risk, that their behavior, their traditions, their belief systems aren’t implicated in harm."

Echoing Chemaly, Steinem, and others, Steven Hawkins, the head of Amnesty International USA since September 2013, says he sees the challenge of making people care about atrocities "over there" as "one of broadening."

"If we’re going to go deeper, and I think we can, then you have to connect the relevancy of human rights with what’s going on in people’s lives," Hawkins says. "We have to find ways to bring human rights home."

Good journalism and strong activism, then, mean helping people see — and keep seeing — that no one lives in isolation. When someone is hurting, as the Nigerian girls and their families are, the world as a whole suffers. When governments fail to protect their citizens, collective vulnerability rises. And when media noise about atrocities and other horrible news dies down, journalists and audiences alike are failing not only to help those in need. We are also failing ourselves.

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321

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