It was the Halloween costume seen ‘round the world: A Michigan woman named Alicia Ann Lynch dressed as a victim of April's Boston Marathon bombing, sporting runner’s clothing and fake splattered blood. And as a result, she ignited the rage of the Internet.
On Oct. 31, 22-year-old Lynch posted a photo of herself wearing the costume on Instagram and Twitter, using the handle @SomeSKANKinMI. Shortly after, users descended on Lynch, tweeting their disgust. Responses included:
@SomeSKANKinMI People at the Boston Marathon died in terror and agony... and you looked at the images and thought "lol funny costume idea"?— Rebecca Brown (@Chinchillazllla) November 2, 2013
But the backlash didn’t stop there. When some discovered that Lynch had once posted a photo of her driver’s license online, they used her home address and other personal information to assist with further attacks. One user tweeted that he sent Lynch a vile package, others found racy photos of her online and circulated them, and some even tracked down her parents’ contact information and sent them death threats.
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Lynch posted to Tumblr that since the onset of the threats, her social media accounts have been deactivated and she told BuzzFeed on Sunday that she had lost her job as a result of the photo. The incident triggered a global discussion about basic judgment on social media and whether cyberbullying (in response to Lynch’s costume choice) was justified. Lynch also said, "I’ve had voicemails where they want to slit my throat and they want to hang me and tear off my face. I’m just like, I don’t even know how to respond to this right now" and "Honestly, it’s the Day of the Dead. I wasn’t a dead person, I wasn’t being disrespectful. I was a survivor of a marathon. And it’s not like I was walking around with a fake leg or my arm torn off or something like that.” She said that she wasn’t concerned about the possibility of prospective employers learning about the incident. “I have nothing to hide. It happened, I made a mistake. I just have to learn from it. I’m not a terrible person,” she said.
Lynch isn't the only one who's ever opted for a questionable Halloween costume. Actress Julianne Hough showed up at a costume party in blackface the weekend before Halloween, when she dressed as "Orange Is the New Black" character Crazy Eyes. After evoking the public’s ire, she tweeted an apology. "It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize," she wrote. Meanwhile, a pair of men from Florida dressed as murder victim Trayvon Martin (complete with blackface and a bloody sweatshirt) and George Zimmerman, the man acquitted of his murder. And who can forget Prince Harry's Nazi Halloween costume in 2005 — a soldier's uniform with a black-and-red swastika armband. "I am very sorry if I caused any offense or embarrassment to anyone. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize," Prince Harry said in response to the public's outrage.
“Social media has recreated the rules of conduct in that it allows people to get immediate feedback on their decisions. However, oftentimes it occurs after the damage is done,” Nando Pelusi, PhD, a New York City-based psychologist, tells Yahoo Shine. “And as commonplace as social media is today, it’s still new terrain when it comes to how it affects human behavior.”
In our 24/7 fast-paced world, where heinous headlines are mixed with cat videos in a never-ending news feed, the way people process information has changed, says Pelusi. Without the body language and social cues that help people weigh decisions, they’re likelier to underestimate consequences. What’s more, the nature of social media has a way of numbing human emotions, disconnecting them from tragedy. “Most people would grieve upon hearing that a friend was killed,” says Pelusi. “But when there’s a mass tragedy, those deaths tend to become flashing bits of data in our busy lives, making it tougher to process in a humane way.”
There also seem to be unspoken rules about when the world can poke fun at certain events. Scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently explored the “How soon is too soon?” theory, analyzing why tragedy often results in laughter. They found that time, emotional distance, and the size of the tragedy all play a role. When unfortunate events happen to large groups of people, the level of humor increases as time passes, as opposed to smaller tragedies, which are deemed humorous only in the immediate aftermath. For example, in one study, 99 percent of subjects said a car crash that occurred five years ago would be funnier today than it would be on the day of the accident; only 18 percent of people thought a toe injury would be humorous five years later.
We also know that people process grief in different ways. According to a story published in Psychology Today, Jewish people in World War II concentration death camps famously cracked jokes about their situations. It’s possible that tapping into humor is how some people cope with grief.
However, before posting an image or status update to the world, consider a few things, advises Pelusi. Ask yourself, "What's my goal?" Ponder the message, who will see it, how someone could potentially react, and how it will reflect on you. “Lots of times, when people offend, they’re trying to stir the pot or be controversial,” says Pelusi. “But there’s a difference between being controversial — challenging someone in a positive way to change their perceptions — and being downright offensive.”
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