How often do you decide to stay out of a Facebook discussion? Is it because you don’t have anything to say? Or is it rather because Facebook discussions turn into a war of words so quickly so that even Gandhi cannot save them?

All you have to do is to look at just one long string of comments posted anywhere online. This is especially on point if the online space is specifically designed for socially sensitive issues. You will have reached the age of enlightenment as far as social media communication is concerned. 

Online public communication is often full of spite which doesn’t have anything to do anything with the concrete discussion topic.       

Part of the comments is well-argued. Commentators stick to the subject. On the other hand,  a huge volume of Facebook or other social media comments targets the author’s look or personality.

We often ad hominem attacks or vicious attacks of the author, the owner, or anyone in any way related to the text, the video, or the image from the subject topic.

How Social Media Trolls Nourish from Others’ Emotions

For a short amount of time, participants stay on topic. After a while, the comments start picking up their own pace and run out of control from the topic of social media or website feed. The more people take part, the more dissolved the topic.

emotional contagion social media reactions
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

It can get particularly messy when professional and semiprofessional trolls or flamers get involved.

The usual manner in which the rest of the audience replies to these online pyros is by publicly shaming them. However, instead of silencing them, trolls become a highly combustible material. Their flaming rhetoric gets even more attention, feeding upon itself.

The problem with trolling is that trolls feed on the attention of any kind. They can maintain the same solid position when opposed and when backed up.

Their only task is to be present, so both opposition and support do the job.

The trouble is that, when they do this, they appeal to an army of followers who are genuinely concerned about the subject topic. Many of those that are commenting involve in the communication because they need support or connection.

This is usually the tipping point at which instead of a discussion we get to witness a chaotic war of comments.   

The Science behind Emotional Epidemiology 

What is the dynamics behind the creation of these violent online spaces that take a life of their own?

The dynamics dwell upon emotional contagion. In social networks, emotions are contagious. Emotional contagion is a real phenomenon. “Real” emotions we share off-screen but also virtual emotional states can be transferred to others through the process of online emotional contagion.

When people are emotionally afflicted they feel the same emotions as someone who is nearby. Emotional contagion can take place without the participants’ awareness of how this happened. On massive social networks, there is even something called global emotional synchrony.

emotional contagion on social media: global emotional synchrony
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The Ripple Effect of On-Screen Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion finds its partial support in a series of real field experiments.

Data collected from a large-scale experiment conducted in a real-world social network over 20 years indicates that long-term affective states or moods such as depression or happiness can transfer between members in the social network.  

The network, which can be anything starting from a neighborhood, company, marriage to a group of friends contained clusters of happy people, in which the happiness stretched as far as three degrees of distance. Three degrees of distance can, for example, include a scenario of a friend of a friend of a friend.

Those surrounded by the largest number of happy people, as well as those who held central positions in the network were the happiest. The outcome was not only due to people’s tendency to make friends with people who share similar personalities. The research has shown that happiness clusters formed as a result of the spreading of happiness.  People carrying the same “virus” show behavioral mimicry, too.  

You can now measure your own propensity towards getting the emotion virus. Knowing that you can get the disease is an important emotional intelligence tool. Even if you are susceptible to getting the cold, your own awareness can help you put some water to the fire next time you meet with a violent Facebook feed. 

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