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Why the death of Cecil the lion broke the Internet

ST. PAUL -- It was the story that ate the Internet -- nearly 700,000 tweets, 2 billion impressions and a runaway Yelp page, all in a single day. It brought death threats, international backlash and tears from a comedy talk show host.

Protesters rally Thursday outside the River Bluff Dental clinic against the killing a famous lion in Zimbabwe, in Bloomington, Minn. (Reuters Photo)

ST. PAUL - It was the story that ate the Internet - nearly 700,000 tweets, 2 billion impressions and a runaway Yelp page, all in a single day. It brought death threats, international backlash and tears from a comedy talk show host.

So why did #CeciltheLion blow up in the first place ?

Communications experts say it’s both a function of an age-old impulse to police social norms and a story tailor-made for new media - inflammatory, visceral and easy to grasp.

“We need to regulate each other, and this is what you see here,” said Susanne Jones, an associate communication professor at the University of Minnesota. Someone has been accused of doing something wrong “ and the public is lashing back.

The pattern has been around as long as people have, she said: a transgression occurs, society responds and the transgressor seeks forgiveness.


Once upon a time, it might have happened in the town square. Today, it happens on Twitter.

“We’ve done this forever,” she said. “The only difference, really, is the magnitude.”

A story that at one time might have reached a village instead reached the world. Its rise was abetted by “a lot of the ingredients that seem to be common to this sort of thing,” said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There’s no surefire formula for a breakout story, said Jones, who is also the editor of the journal New Media & Society - and “if I could answer that question, I could make a fortune.”

But this one had a few things going for it. It’s easy to summarize - a Bloomington dentist, Walter Palmer, hunted and killed a well-known lion in Zimbabwe. It fits nicely into 140 characters with a photo and a hashtag.

And the details - the dentist paid tens of thousands of dollars to a guide now charged in court for failing to “prevent an unlawful hunt:” the lion was skinned and beheaded - are head-turning.

“There are elements such as disbelief - how could anybody do something like that?” Jones said.

Gi Woong Yun, a communications professor and social media researcher at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said stories that catch fire generally either need to be fun and pleasing - think cat videos - sensational, or deeply affecting.


This one fit the last category, he said.

“There is no naked picture or anything, but this is quite gruesome and very emotional,” Yun said.

He said the story’s spread was driven by a handful of major social media influencers, from news outlets to celebrities such as comedian Ricky Gervais. Collectively, those users reached tens of millions of followers.

“Once multiple power players post it, at that point, there’s no way you stop it,” Yun said.

And then there was the lion itself - depicted almost universally as majestic and beautiful. It wasn’t shown ripping apart a gazelle.

“In all the photos,” Yun said, “it looks so cute.”

That plays into an affinity for what biologists term “charismatic megafauna” - big animals that capture an outsized share of attention and sympathy.

Ernest Small, a Canadian botanist and biodiversity researcher, said they share a handful of traits. First and foremost, they’re large, garnering our awe and respect. They’re often furry or fuzzy, and they’re usually mammals with which we share genes and a life cycle.


“We recognize the similarities,” he said. (On the flip side, that leaves most of the planet’s 50 million-plus species, dominated by insects, in a bind as far as popularity contests go.)

The consequences of viral outrage can be severe, said the University of Illinois’ Steve Jones. They might impact Palmer’s professional life - his practice was closed this week amid protests - and personal relationships.

And it’s easier to condemn than to exonerate: If it were to come out that the hunt was in fact legal or even that Palmer wasn’t responsible at all, “it’s unlikely that there will be a Twitter storm” of similar magnitude, he said.

On the other hand, such stories can fade as quickly as they come.

“In about six weeks,” Jones said, "this whole incident will pretty much be forgotten.”


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service

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