Laugh It Off?

Dark humor about high-profile tragedies isn’t new, but the Internet has transformed it.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

In 2012, 25-year-old James Holmes opened fire during a screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve people were killed, and dozens more were injured. In the weeks that followed, participants around the Internet made light of the shootings by creating and sharing memes, cruel Photoshops, and myriad off-color jokes, as Kate Miltner has chronicled. Similar things happened in the wake of the the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Hurricane Sandy, Robin Williams’ suicide, the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash, and the Baltimore protests. Each case inspired what folklorists describe as “disaster humor”: comedic (and often highly transgressive) responses to mass-mediated tragedy.

In my book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, I devote a chapter (early draft of it here) to a particularly extreme form of disaster humor: Facebook memorial page trolling, or RIP trolling. From 2010 to early 2012, when Facebook succeeded in significantly reducing the phenomenon, self-described trolls posted abusive comments and images onto pages created for and dedicated to the deceased, and reveled in their ability to disrupt, disgust, and shock online mourners. Although some trolls deliberately targeted the friends and family of the deceased, most focused on what they described as “grief tourists”—Facebook users who did not know the victim and who, according to the trolls, could not possibly be in mourning. As far as the trolls I worked with were concerned, grief tourists were shrill, disingenuous, and deserved to be taught a (circular, ultimately hypocritical) lesson—namely that nothing on the Internet should be taken seriously and that individuals who do take things seriously are asking to be punished.

When confronted by the full spectrum of online disaster humor, particularly the kind embraced by RIP trolls, nonparticipants tend to react with incredulity, hostility, or dismay. They also tend to make two basic assumptions: first, that there must be something wrong with anyone who would engage in these sorts of behaviors, and second, that the Internet (or at least anonymity) is making us terrible. On the surface, these seem like perfectly reasonable conclusions. However, the presumption that disaster humor is an expression of sociopathy, and that these behaviors are unique to the digitally mediated landscape, obscures the context, causes, and in many cases the purpose of disaster humor.

Folklorist Elliott Oring addresses all three points in his analysis of disaster humor following the 1986 Challenger space disaster. Rather than deferring to the long-held assumption that these “tasteless and cruel” jokes were either evidence of human depravity or served a critical therapeutic function, Oring argues that Challenger space disaster jokes provided a counterpoint to hyperbolic media coverage, and in the process helped highlight the media’s role in catalyzing disaster joke cycles.

Oring’s framework also helps explain RIP trolling behaviors. Whether or not they intended to, RIP trolls were enacting a grotesque pantomime of precisely the corporate logic that transforms tragedy into a business opportunity. Rather than providing a snarling, sociopathic antithesis to mainstream media, RIP trolls were calling attention to sensationalist corporate media’s exploitative and sometimes downright trollish underpinnings. This didn’t take away from the fact that the trolls’ behaviors were harmful and exploitative. But it did help highlight the fact that memorial page trolls weren’t the only guilty parties.

Another critical piece of the disaster humor puzzle is the online medium itself. Folklorist Christie Davies posits the connection between disaster humor and historical and technological conditions in his 2003 essay “Jokes That Follow Mass Mediated Disaster in a Global Electronic Age.” According to Davies, “sick” humor has been around since people began writing down jokes. But even the sickest jokes did not, as far as anyone can tell, take the form of the modern disaster joke.

As Davies explains, the first modern disaster joke cycle (clusters of jokes that emerge, evolve, and eventually plateau in response to specific tragedies) followed President Kennedy’s assassination and coincided with the “total triumph of television,” an era of incongruous, distracting, and politically unmoored media content perfect for the proliferation of detached comedic responses. Although Davies’ analysis is focused on the ways in which television spurs disaster joke cycles, his underlying argument is directly applicable to the contemporary Internet. Davies seems to flirt with the idea that technological advances singlehandedly bring about the emergence of novel behaviors and that consumers of mass mediated content are fundamentally gullible. I disagree. But his basic point, that mass mediation engenders emotional distance and that emotional distance lends itself to detached, fetishistic humor, is extremely illuminating, especially in the context of online disaster humor (and trolling humor more generally).

Both Oring’s and Davies’ analyses challenge the assumption that laughter in the face of tragedy is in any way new or exclusive to the online environment. That said, the media through which these jokes are communicated are new. And these differences matter when considering the ethics of disaster joking. Take, for example, the process by which Challenger space disaster humor spread. In 1986, the primary method of transmission was interpersonal, face to face. By and large, jokes about the explosion were shared and spread privately and couldn’t easily be traced to a single individual.

Today disaster humor spreads with the help of online media outlets eager to jump on emerging disaster narratives. The so-called Holmies phenomenon provides a textbook example. As I describe here, a small handful of trolls thought it would be funny to pose as fans of James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, shooter. They posted fan art, declared their love for Holmes, and generally made a punch line out of the terror experienced by the shooting victims (to say nothing of their friends and family). The media got wind of the trolls’ activities and filed a series of stories decrying the participants, all while reprinting exactly the images they deemed disgusting, callous, and sociopathic. What started out as a private joke between individuals became a national story—one made all the more harrowing when one considers that the parents and friends of the 12 people who died likely encountered, or at least heard of, the “silly” and “hilarious” jokes, Photoshops, and winking proclamations of love that swirled around James Holmes after the shootings.

As the Holmies example shows, the most offhanded joke on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr—one intended for a very specific audience—can, within a matter of minutes, be amplified to tens of thousands of people, some of whom might be survivors of a tragedy, or survivors’ friends and family, or friends and family of the recently deceased. The joke tellers may indeed be reacting to and subverting sensationalist media narratives, as Elliott Oring suggests. And may indeed be referring to a specific set of historical and technological conditions, as Christie Davies suggests. But regardless of the context of these jokes, they can cause irreparable harm. And quickly. No matter what the joke teller might be trying to accomplish.

Ultimately, our unprecedented ability to connect with one another is what differentiates traditional, embodied disaster humor from digitally mediated disaster humor. Incidentally, this level of connectivity is also what allows the Web to be such a social, communal, and, when we’re lucky, supportive environment when dealing with tragedy. The fundamental ambivalence of digital media (a point I will be exploring in my current book project) also serves as a reminder: All the dispassionate academic contextualizing in the world can’t and shouldn’t mitigate the fact that how we behave on the Internet impacts others. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. So think carefully before you retweet, reblog, or otherwise amplify content, particularly in response to human suffering. Because you never know who might be listening.

Adapted from This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture by Whitney Phillips, published by the MIT Press in 2015. Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.