All you need to do is to have a look at just one long string of comments anywhere online, especially if an online space is specifically designed for socially sensitive issues, and find out how online public communication works. It’s often full of spite which doesn’t have to do anything with the concrete discussion topic.
Part of the comments are well argued and the commenters stick to the subject. On the other hand, a huge amount targets the author’s look, personality, or attribution, or anything else personal about the author, the owner, or anyone in any way related to the text, the video or the image being commented.
Trolls Feed on Emotional Contagion
For a short while, participants stay on topic. Then, the comments start picking up their own pace and run out of control from the online space. The more people take part, the more the topic is dissolved. It can get particularly messy when (semi)professional trolls or flamers get involved. The usual way that the rest of the audience replies to these online pyros is by publicly shaming them.
However, instead of being silenced, they get aflame. Their flaming rhetoric gets more attention. The problem with trolling is that they feed on attention – of any kind. They can maintain a solid position when opposed and when supported because their only task is to be present.
The trouble is that, when they do this, they appeal to an army of followers who are genuinely concerned about the subject, or who are commenting because they need support or connection. This is the point where instead of a discussion – we get to witness a chaotic war of comments.
What is the dynamics behind the creation of these violent online spaces that take a life of their own?
This happens because emotions are contagious. Not only the “real” emotions we share off-screen but also the virtual – emotional states can be transferred to others through the process of emotional contagion. When people are emotionally afflicted they feel the same emotions as someone who is nearby without the awareness of how this happened.
Emotional Contagion On-Screen: The Ripple Effect
Emotional contagion is partially supported by a series of real field experiments. The data collected from a large-scale experiment conducted in a real-world social network over a period of 20 years direct to the fact that long-term moods (depression or happiness) can be transferred between members in the social network.
The network – a neighborhood, a company, a marriage, or a group of friends – contained clusters of happy people, in which the happiness stretched as far as three degrees of distance – for example, to the friend of a friend of a friend.
Those who were surrounded by the greatest number of happy people and those who were central in the network were the happiest. The research has shown that happiness clusters were formed as a result of spreading of happiness, and not only as a result of people’s tendency to make friends with people who share similar personalities.
You can now even measure your own propensity towards getting the emotion virus. Even if you are susceptible to getting cold, your own awareness can help you put some water to the fire next time a Facebook feed gets violent.
Photo credit: Foter.com