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Social media a fickle and unreliable measure of empathy

When it comes to tragedy and natural disaster, some people turn to social media to express support or empathy.

Whether it was the 129 people killed in the Paris terrorist attacks or the shooting of nine people in a church in South Carolina, people use Facebook and Twitter to offer their thoughts and prayers.

With each post they make on the subject, people attach a hashtag such as #PrayForParis. But a week later, those hashtags weren’t as prominent as the trend began to fade.

Dr. Stephen Benning, a professor with the psychology department at UNLV, says it’s not necessarily that empathy fades.

“Hashtags have a half-life of a few hours,” he says. “It’s not that we’re callous or moving on.”

He says people still think and talk about the events, but when topics aren’t trending anymore they have less ability to talk about it online — or at least they aren’t as inclined to tag it with a hashtag.

“Those algorithms are designed to trend for a few hours,” he says.

According to Trendinalia, a website that tracks how long things trend, on Nov. 13, the day of the attacks, Paris trended for two hours. By Nov. 14, #ParisAttacks” had six hours and 50 minutes while #PrayForParis” had five hours and 35 minutes.

But the week after the attack, the topic wasn’t listed on the top trending topics.

Benning says some hashtags do stick around longer depending on how often they are being used, such as #BlackLivesMatter.

Contact reporter Michael Lyle at mlyle@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5201. Follow @mjlyle on Twitter.

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