Cleveland Manhunt: What Our Children Learned From Our Tweets

On Easter Sunday, Robert Godwin, father of 10 and grandfather of 14, was shot and killed while walking home

The stranger who killed him, Steve Stephens, recorded the murder and posted it to facebook, resulting in a two-day manhunt across several states. 

And we tweeted.

What does our collective tweeting in response to Robert Godwin's death and the subsequent manhunt for Steve Stephens say about us? If our children were following us, what would they have learned? 

We taught them to seek out gossip under the guise of news

He killed 12--no, 15--no, just the 1--well, just the 1 we know of.

He was in Philly. No wait, New York. No wait, Indy. No wait, still in Ohio. 

He was Muslim. He was a BLM supporter. He was a sociopath.

Many commenters spent the first two days of the week guessing the details of Stephens' life and whereabouts. 

We taught them to criticize

There were criticisms over police not finding Stephens quickly enough.

Others called conspiracy, assuming that facebook and Apple had more information on Stephens' whereabouts that either they or the police were deliberately withholding. 

Others criticized national media outlets for ignoring the Cleveland story. Much of that focus was on whether or not our President had his hand over his heart during the national anthem while standing next to a bunny who would normally be terrifying if not for the cold blooded murderer possibly hiding out in my town. 

We taught them to be bad risk calculators

Although I didn't tweet, I was among those who overreacted by staying in my house for the duration of the search and panicking about my husband's possible demise when he was home 15 minutes later than expected. He had actually been out buying wine and coffee, so my terror turned relief turned eternal gratitude when he came in, because, well, I'd been under self-imposed house arrest and would then be properly mood controlled. 

I know that I wasn't the only one staying in. Schools and businesses closed for safety. People who were able to stay home from work chose to do so. But staying home was a disproportionate response to the news. As Ted Diadun noted in a column for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, once the manhunt went global, "all two million of us in the Cleveland metropolitan area were considered to be in grave danger. Perhaps, as the hysteria spread, all 180 million of us east of the Mississippi."

We taught them to choose spectacle over privacy

According to reporting in the New Yorker, over one thousand people viewed the video before it was removed from facebook. That's disturbing enough, but not nearly as disturbing as those who continued to share the video after it had been removed and when they knew what it was that they were sharing. 

We can take some solace in the fast-spreading rumor that Stephens had carried out the killing on facebook live, which suggests that many people talking about the video had not actually watched it. But that even one person shared it suggests that when we are given a choice between spectacle and someone else's privacy, we choose spectacle. There is a disturbing lack of empathy in sharing a video of a man's final, brutal moments, especially when his family has asked people not to do so. 

We taught them to forget our common humanity

Some commenters said that if Stephens dared cross into their states, he would be "taken care" of immediately. It's hard-to-impossible to have sympathy for Stephens. Still, we should be concerned that it's perfectly normal to joke about anyone's impending death on Twitter. 

What do these search suggestions say about us?

What do these search suggestions say about us?

Most disturbing of all were those who insisted that no murder had taken place. There were cries of "fake news," that the family of the victim looked like paid actors. There were disturbingly detailed breakdowns of the video, suggesting that those particular conspiracy theorists had devoted a significant amount of time to replaying Godwin's final minutes.

What does it say about us that the most popular searches for Steve Stephens are for "video," "hoax," and "dead," respectively? 

We we still have time to teach

There has been an outpouring of support for Godwin's family, including a GoFundMe campaign that, as of this writing, has raised over $90,000. Thousands of supportive tweets, whether they'll ever be read by the family or not, suggest that we have a collective deep well of empathy and compassion. 

But that empathy and compassion are threatened by our worse impulses to spread gossip, to criticize the helpers, to hide from imagined dangers, to invade privacy, and to ignore our common humanity. 

Inevitably, soon there will be another national news story that encourages these sorts of reactions. When that happens, let's pause to think about the kinds of responses we hope our children would give in that situation. And then let's model those responses for them.