When Raw Emotion Goes Viral

From the moment reports of a shooter in a Texas elementary school hit social media, you knew to expect certain beats. First, the errant clips from people near the scene; then the early, erroneous news stories; then the timeline filling in, hour by hour, as national media jostled with local outlets for information. Within a day, you would see the stomach-churning clips of survivors, bystanders, parents, followed by the heartbreaking photos and details of victims — which, for the town of Uvalde, meant reading obituaries of fourth graders, where in place of adult achievements stood details like: “Her favorite color was sage green.”

But it’s not just the news that goes viral. There are also the reactions to the news — videos whose popularity rests less on their ability to inform or persuade than on their capacity to reflect raw emotion. Soon clips would emerge from the Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, who represented the House district where the Sandy Hook massacre happened (“What are we doing?” he pleaded to a seemingly empty Senate); the N.B.A. coach Steve Kerr, whose father was shot to death at his university, pounding a table at a news conference (“When are we going to do something?”); Jimmy Kimmel solemnly addressing the camera with no audience (“You can tell things are out of whack when the coach of the Golden State Warriors shows more leadership and passion than almost every Republican in Congress”). As the internet served me reactions — from celebrities, from CNN anchors, ripped from TikTok — I found myself drawn to them and repelled by them in equal measure. News reports were filled with awful details, like the parents heard screaming as 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 — to engage with what the journalist Ryan Broderick, who monitors viral media and web culture, calls a kind of “emotional aggregation,” in which passionate video pleas rise into an “emotional feedback loop.”

One video in particular struck me. 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 begin by referring to an “Erika,” but it’s only on the video’s native TikTok that you see Erika is someone who disagrees with him about gun laws. “I’m glad that you said you were a Marine Corps veteran,” Gordon says, looking wolfishly into the camera, “because I wanted to bring this point up. How many times a year do you have to go as a Marine to requalify and prove that you are competent and proficient in the weapons that you have been issued? I’ll answer that for you, as a former rifle-pistol coach in the Marine Corps. You have to go annually. And how long does it take? Two weeks!”

His cadence builds to Aaron Sorkin levels of indignation as he continues. You cannot store a personal weapon in Marine barracks, he says; it must be registered and kept elsewhere. “Why is it that the United States Marine Corps, the finest fighting force on the planet, is more restrictive on who and where firearms can be stored and possessed than the average 18-year-old in the state of Texas?” He slaps his arm to his side. “Why?”

Gordon had my full attention for his two-minute video, no easy feat in the sea of waving hands on Twitter. Yet the elements that made the video so shareable were the same ones that made it depressing. Gordon’s delivery and straight-to-camera gaze had all the hallmarks of a social media influencer; with the sound off, he could be pitching a product. His most potent source of virality was his own identity as a Marine who conducted firearm training, taking the side of gun-control advocates. He was also, like the figures in similar videos, a man, which can feel like a key aspect of shareability — as though it’s 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 he categorizes reaction videos using two axes and four quadrants: good faith, bad faith, good actor, bad actor. When I called Gordon to learn where he might stand, he told me he joined TikTok during the pandemic, out of boredom. The son of a Marine, he grew up in Kentucky before joining the Corps himself, and identified as a conservative Republican for most of his life. It was after his stint in active service, as he settled into life as a stay-at-home father in Oswego, N.Y., that he got involved in community theater, which he said “really opened my eyes to the different Americas that everyone is growing up in.” His breakout video, which he says he recorded in his car at a Dunkin’ Donuts in 2020, was critical of Trump voters; he had thought he was alone in his increasingly liberal politics, but the response suggested others felt the same. He made his handle @usmcangryveteran and now has over 300,000 followers on TikTok, where he posts multiple times a day. The value of the videos, he told me, is two-pronged: They help both him and his audience process emotions. “As someone who struggles with PTSD and whatnot,” he said, “I understand that holding on to those feelings and allowing them to simmer and bubble is not healthy.”

But of course the videos about Uvalde do not exist solely to reflect sadness. They express support for stronger gun laws; the emotion they mirror is anger at political inaction, in hopes of channeling that outrage into change. Two weeks after the shooting, the actor Matthew McConaughey, who was born in Uvalde and had apparently spent days there meeting with grieving families, led a briefing in the White House press room; the purpose of his 20-minute speech seemed to be a plea for Congress to take up gun-control legislation. But its most memorable moments came when he discussed one of the victims — a little girl so torn apart 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 much viral content aims to be; it was scripted and, frankly, strange, an event managed by political professionals to help advance a legislative agenda. But knowing this did not change the way my face crumpled as McConaughey relayed the dreams of the fourth graders and their families. The thing that draws people to watch such videos is, ultimately, not about gun policy or activism or any form of action. It is about meeting an emotional need.

It is a depressing and embarrassing need to have, but I am certainly not alone in it. Whether it’s Black elders at a Buffalo supermarket or civilians lying dead in the streets of Bucha, the world serves us traumatic images and ideas every day. Some of us require assurance that we are not alone in our outrage or pain or confusion as digital bystanders. It might as well come in the form of Matt Gordon’s mouth, twisted in anger at gun rules that regulate Marines more tightly than teenagers, or even Matthew McConaughey’s smooth fingers pointing across a room, making a prop out of a dead child’s shoes.

Source photographs: Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images; screen grab from TikTok.

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