Posting Images of Empty Grocery Store Shelves Just Makes Everything Worse

Why you should think before you post

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.

The images are all over Twitter. They’re in the press. They’re on Instagram and TikTok.

The grocery store shelves are empty.

It’s tempting when you go out into the world and see something strange, to share it with the world. Whether it’s a bulldog on a skateboard or a shelf completely depleted of its resident packs of Charmin and Scott, we want to tell the people in our lives when we’ve witnessed odd things. But while there’s little to lose, and in fact much to gain, from posting images and videos of cute animals on your social media feeds, the same can’t be said for sharing photos of anxious shoppers standing before a shelf that once housed canned tomatoes and pasta and now provides sanctuary to a single bag of chewy quinoa orzo.

Tweeting a picture of your local grocer’s cleaned-out aisles might feel satisfying in the moment, but it could negatively affect your audience, stoking further anxiety, fear, and even possibly panic in certain people. And at a time when many of us are already up to our ears in stress and dread, doing what we can to reassure each other, instead of causing further distress, is a duty we should all take on.

If you post an anxious or fearful tweet depicting an empty or packed grocery store, it could lead to your followers feeling the need to go out and do their own frightened bulk-shopping. A 2007 study found that fear need not emerge from one’s own experience, but can be just as strong when gleaned from another person. If you’re expressing terror through text and images on your social media accounts, you could be spreading that fear among your followers. And if you have a large audience, your emotional footprint is even greater: A 2012 sentiment analysis investigating the impact of popular Twitter users on their followers found that audiences tend to replicate the moods of their favorite accounts. (You can read more about this study in a piece I wrote about negative online behavior.)

All of which is to say that the things we say in fear can impact how the people around us are feeling.

Chung-hong Chan, a communication researcher at the University of Mannheim in Germany, expressed dismay at the proliferating genre of empty-shelf tweets. “I think posting images of panic buying on social media creates more panic than helping anyone,” he tweeted. He further explained his perspective in an email to OneZero.

“There is no need for one to post photos. In most of the cases, posting photos like empty shelves is not for information purposes, i.e. signaling which supermarket does not have stock, so don’t go there,” he says. It’s mostly a social media performance, he says, and a way to dramatize our current emotional state. Further, he says, images of empty shelves and crowded shops will have a much bigger impact on your audience than a textual tweet. “An image creates visual actuality, i.e. the crisis (food shortage, for instance) is real and we must act now… If my friends on social media are posting these photos, it indicates they are also panic buying. So probably I should do that too.” But panic buying or stress purchases can create more strain on already-overworked grocery store employees, and create further stress and even fear for your fellow customers when they encounter an empty frozen food section.

“It’s almost as though [the empty shelves are] all we can see in this hazard. We can’t see floodwaters, we can’t see a storm.”

This phenomenon is what’s known as “fear contagion” among some researchers. Media and news outlets, as well as social media and chat platforms, led to a culture of fear during the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A 2016 study published in Current Psychiatry Reports found that fear, propagated by both traditional news media and on social media, spread much more quickly than the disease itself. This had a cascade of effects on the region, including interfering with getting people effective treatment, growing global stigma against people from West Africa (we’re already seeing a similar effect in the United States, as a stigma against Asian Americans grows), and increased risk of psychiatric disorders for those in the area, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Jacek Debiec, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, wrote in an excellent piece for The Conversation about how fear proliferates rapidly in times of crisis. Like animals, he writes, humans are acutely aware of fear signals from other people. Unlike animals, however, the relentless stream of images on the news and on social media means we get few breaks from being exposed to other people’s expressions of fear, sorrow, and in some cases, panic. I asked him to explain more about how sharing images of empty store shelves on social media, specifically, impacts audiences.

“We [post images online] in order to participate, to feel connected with others. ‘Panic shopping’ in the context of the ongoing pandemics results from the feeling of urgency (an urge to buy to go through a lockdown or quarantine) and further augments this feeling of urgency (an urge to buy because others are doing it),” he says. “For most people, this is a manageable distress. However, for some people, especially those with underlying anxiety disorders or limited financial resources, this kind of exposure can cause excessive worries, even catastrophic thoughts about the future.”

Lu Dong, an associate behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, says that though there’s not a lot of research about what exactly would compel people to post images like this on social media, it is likely compelled by fear.

“If it is a public figure with many followers and conveying a fear-mongering message, then yes, I think they should stop,” she says. It’s a takeaway we can apply to the future, too, should anything similar ever happen again. It’s not easy for everyone to keep their head above water in the midst of disaster, and if you have an anxiety disorder or something similar, it’s even harder. But if those with large audiences, or who have a naturally easier time staying at least somewhat calm, refrain from contributing to panic-provoking discourse, it’ll make it that much easier for the rest of us to ride it out.

That’s not to say social media is a net negative during times like these — far from it. Dong notes that humor can be a boon during stressful times, and images of cleaned-out grocery stores shared with a joke are unlikely to cause further stress except among those who are especially susceptible. “If it is shared among close friends on Facebook, and joking about people’s overreaction, this is unlikely to fuel more fear-related behaviors among the public,” she says, noting that on her own Facebook feed, someone posted an image of an empty shelf on which the only thing left was canned parmesan. Even in times of terror, no one wants canned parmesan.

Debiec recommends posting images of products that are still in stock. “What stores are still open or what products are still available in a particular store would balance the scary message of empty shelves,” he says.

Leysia Palen, a professor of information science at the University of Colorado, Boulder who has recently written on how people connect online during periods of change and crisis, says that since we have little visual evidence of what we’re currently experiencing, we turn to what we can see — the empty shelves. “It’s almost as though [the empty shelves are] all we can see in this hazard. [With Covid-19], we can’t see floodwaters, we can’t see a storm. We can’t feel winds… We see a woman with a lot of stuff in her cart, and a man with a lot of stuff in his cart. It’s the one observable thing we have to say about the hazard right now.”

Unlike natural disasters, terror attacks, or war, a virus is invisible. We connect with the terror we feel at its approach, in part, by pointing out the physical ramifications we can see: crowds at grocery stores. Empty shelves. Depleted refrigerators. To grapple with our fear and shock, we do what we always do: We share our experiences with others. When we can’t even get together and commiserate, it makes further sense that we would take to Twitter or Instagram or TikTok in that absence. But just because it makes sense doesn’t mean you should do it.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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