First off, everyone please take a big breath.
OK. Now I’m going to talk about clowns in the woods.
Wait, come back! I know the media has created a frenzy, but it’s not reason to panic.
I’m going to talk about clowns in the woods from a digital citizenship perspective. All these stories are designed to get attention; they’re created to scare you. But if there’s anything to be afraid of, it’s ourselves and the power of misinformation.
Let’s take apart this story step by step.
First, go to the source: Where did this come from?
Snopes traced back to the story on August 21, 2016 where a boy reported seeing a clown in the woods near his Greenville, South Carolina apartment complex. Afterwards, other children reported seeing clowns and the apartment sent out a letter to residents.
That incident is the catalyst of the most recent clown sighting craze, but this story has come up before. In 1981 there were clown sightings in Boston.
If we expand our view from just clowns, we can see patterns of other mass panics through American history. Anyone heard of the Salem Witch Trials? Those trials also started with a report from a child.
Second, examine media bias
Clowns have a history of inspiring fear, there’s actually a term for it: Coulrophobia. Combine that inherent fear, with mass media and you have a viral story.
Time magazine recently did a piece on the history of clowns in popular culture. The story includes this quote from folklorist Benjamin Redford: “Folklore, stories, legends and rumors that might have not gotten much traction years ago can now spread with the click of a button.”
If you see a story with a creepy clown on the front, while you may be afraid, you’re more likely to click on it than say a report on the economy. Fear and hysteria sells papers and increases views. This is also a very shareable story—and social media has fanned the flames.
If you are moving a product, you look at trends and capitalize on them. You don’t necessarily research or critically examine them. That increases exaggerated reports and misinformation by media outlets sharing without checking facts.
Third, think critically
Is it more likely that a child really saw a murderous clown in the woods? Or just someone in a costume?
If you were wanting to cause harm, why would you dress up in something so conspicuous? The serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a clown for his day job, but NEVER dressed up as one when stalking or killing his victims.
Why are we hearing so much about clowns in the woods? Is it because we’re afraid of clowns? Are there really more of them— do we just hear of them more?
Unfortunately, people have been harmed from these reports. A 16 year was stabbed and in Mexico two people dressed in clown costumes were beaten to death.
Panic and fear are more dangerous than any clown.
We should all ask ourselves: What responsibility do we have to not spread panic?