Most people, especially those who pay attention to online media and social media, will have a hard time not to notice: It seems as if there is a constant and every-increasing stream of bad news involving violent acts coming from places close and far. Shootings, terror attacks, gang rapes and so on.
Lots of people are debating whether the subjective impression of more “large-scale” incidents is representing reality accurately or whether it is just the consequence of selective perception caused by Internet-fueled changes in the media and news landscape. Plenty of statistics are pointing towards decline of violence over the past decades. However, there is always a delay until statistics are available for the most current times, which is why a definite verdict about the period right now is difficult.
But no matter what statistics eventually will reveal, I want to point to an important aspect which is easy to forget: In the year 2016, the average Internet user in a developed country is being confronted with pretty much instant news from a region covering, maybe, 1.5 billion or more people. Whenever a violent act takes place in Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East, parts of South America or parts of Asia which in some way deviates from “average” violence, the news about it promptly travels around the globe, sometimes within a few minutes, rarely with more than a few hours delay. And it at least briefly ends up in many people’s field of attention – no matter where they are in the world or which media types they rely on.
My estimation of 1.5 billion people who live in areas which are subject to near real-time coverage is a very rough one. Due to reasons such as language barriers, local censorship, lack of perceived international interest or absence of local correspondents, events happening in parts of China, Russia, India, large parts of Africa or some parts of South America don’t reach the international news audience equally fast.
The actual number could be a bit less or a bit more. But lets pin it to 1.5 billion. That is 1.500.000.000. It’s a number which the human brain cannot fully grasp. It’s a lot, that’s for sure. And if you think about it: Can one really expect that among 1.500.000.000 people, no violence and evil acts will happen on a daily basis? Of course not. Most people would assume that already among a randomly chosen crowd of 10.000, there’d be a few characters with questionable intentions and a track record of at least minor violence. It’s only logical to expect that number to grow by orders of magnitute if your crowd consits of 1.5 billion.
The quantity and quality of random violent attacks, especially also in developed countries, might in fact be increasing a bit right now. The world is changing. A lot of the old order is dissolving, which creates feelings of insecurity, fear, tension and blame. If statistic eventually should prove that the previous trend of constant decline in violence has halted, it would in my eyes not be totally surprising.
However, in any case, what matters probably more is to pay attention to the dimensions and proportions. If every major violent act committed by a person out of 1.5 billion people is being broadcasted to the whole world right after the moment it happened (or sometimes even during the act) and pushed onto smartphones and into everyone’s feeds, then there is no way that connected people will be able to escape daily news of horrible acts. Even in the most peaceful version of the world imaginable. The futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil summarized the situation well during a recent talk: “Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it”.
In my opinion, the only two ways to deal with this reality are: a) stopping to follow the news and avoiding social media or b) being aware of the new dynamics and mechanisms of global news media as well as of the brain’s struggle with handling numbers, proportions and with remembering how narrow and limited the news coverage of the past had been.