Social Media and Emotion | Reuben J. Swallow

Online media is characterised by its immediacy alone. This immediacy can refer to the speed at which information spreads, such as The Washington Post sharing more than one story every two minutes compared with just a single daily printed edition. In the case of social media, this extends to an immediacy of proximity. Social media (SM), where every user can also be a publisher, is better described as a discussion board. On the surface, this realisation of McLuhan’s ‘global village’ has many positive attributes. Seemingly private chats permit immediate contact across global distances, and public feed spaces bring about vox pop goldmines. However, it is this costless, digital contact with everyone that eradicates real privacy by definition, as Douglas Murray describes in The Madness of Crowds, ‘the collapse of the barrier between private and public language’. This article explores the problems of SM which stem from its quasi-anonymous nature, wherein decency appears to break down as fast as a news feed can refresh.    

SM is widely acknowledged as a distraction. To the extent that it distracts people from real-life perceptions and ideas (people tend only to post their ‘successes’ online, offering a falsely idealistic impression of their life), as well as the obvious waste of time scrolling through trivial, attention-harvesting nonsense. It seems odd that SM in general is not lauded, and yet remains popular enough for the average user to supposedly be active for around three hours a day. I would go further and say these aren’t the limits of the problem. And indeed, the oddity that SM remains so popular might be found in the true reach of its dangers; it is so alluring yet so dangerous because it is an arena of emotion.

The aforementioned immediacy of SM favours bite-sized, impulsive trends rather than well-versed, critical thought. Scrolling in search of some unknown dopamine hit is often too fast to ever stop and digest complex details. Furthermore, this need for gratification appears to work both ways, where a user can be thought of as both consumer and producer; as consumers, they are lured by clickbaity posts from effectual advertisers. This could be the need-to-know of the latest trend, the tantalisation of the answer to a question hidden behind a hyperlink, or perhaps the sheer emotional weight of some other user’s Facebook status. This latter example brings us to how users can become producers, feeding into the dangerously emotional state of SM.  

Online discussions permit users many virtues not found in-person. It is perhaps another allure of SM that it is an escape from reality near at hand, an appeal which excuses many people to behave quite unlike how they would in public. The very fact of SM being used in absentia might be enough to remove any sense of compunction; you are in public but at the same time not in public. Occasionally, one might see an (often suitably lengthy) informative status producing reasoned thoughts. Crucially, if such a find is to be halfway informative about an issue, it will not be grounded in emotion, or posted with the sheer intent of evoking emotion. Herein lies the central problem- a majority of posts, shares, likes and comments seem to be produced only to satisfy the user’s emotion. This is an all too easy predicament to arrive at; if there is no perceived shame to be had from behind a keyboard, there is nothing to lose. 

A glance at the comments of any political or would-be critical-thought provoking SM post should be proof enough that users simply want to ‘win’ rather than learn or inform. The issue is of course most pronounced when an argument ensues, although SM appears also to be a dumping ground for standalone, vindictive outbursts. If standalone comments and forgettable angry statuses are excusable as people venting emotion it is done in a strange setting, given the internet is far from anonymous. As we will see below, the quasi-anonymity may be exactly why this occurs.

With no need to be polite or diplomatic in cyberspace, people are unreserved and unashamed as they attempt to be right, and not to learn. When Oscar Wilde remarked in The Critic as Artist, ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,’ he inadvertently alluded to SM more than a century early. The removal of a genuine social setting seems to remove most social customs with it; consider most interactions you have day-to-day, and you will unlikely recall such diatribes as:

An insinuation that white men are unable to experience racism. As if that statement wasn’t ironic enough, the same celebrity also expresses apathy against white people who are in fact trying to better themselves against potentially being racist, although the poor grammar here is difficult to properly decipher.

Another instance, sourced from a Buzzfeed article called Tweets About Men […] That Made Me Laugh So Hard, A Little Pee Pee Came Out, is surely a witless joke rather than committed journalism. The ridiculing of men’s difficulty processing traumatic emotions, which ‘psychopimp420’ proceeds to humour could be relayed into the abuse of their children, is in poor taste given that in the UK alone, trauma-based suicide remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 45, in fact making up 75% of all suicides. This proceeds a dark interpretation of #killallmen

Such conduct isn’t reserved to the male half of the species, either. In 2019, a then-21-year-old British-Asian woman was told to bleach her skin, “fuck off back to India”, and eventually just to die, and a then-19-year-old woman was threatened with her (and her mother) being doused in petrol and set alight after they were all doxed as conservative party members. Women aged 18-24 are significantly most likely to be stalked and sexually harassed online, regardless of political affliction, credited to the lack of privacy barriers on SM permitting strangers and catfish unprecedented access.  

The immediate trends and apparent anonymity of SM allow people’s emotional side to win out. With SM actively used by about half the human population, the effects of this pseudo-social realm on critical thought, intellectual reasoning, and even just civility, could be devastating. 

It is renowned that when people are being led by a surge of emotion, negative or positive, their perception of ‘truth’ is grossly distorted. In The Chimp Paradox, psychologist Steve Peters illustrates in layman’s terms how when evoked emotionally, the brain’s instinctive limbic system creates a rapid, often black or white impression of an occurrence, effectively plunging the mind into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’. Once this vigilant impression is formed, the mind is inclined to search for and twist evidence to reinforce this impression, rather than logically look for evidence and then develop a truthful understanding. 

In in-person socialisation, the physical presence of others is usually enough to incline one to restrain their emotions, or conversely, stop one from actively trying to evoke negative emotion in others for the sake of dignity. The emotional free-for-all of SM, being a so-called keyboard warrior with no obligation to be patient or even civil, is a vicious cycle where reasoning is pushed aside and people battle to assert their own decided truth. It is the perfect place for your ‘chimp’, as Peters likens it, to dominate your mind.    

Moving to the particularity of arguments, thoughtful conversation should take you and your interlocutor somewhere new. It makes you both think as you bounce ideas off one another. Except perhaps in the most heated of online furies, SM comment battles are not thought-paced conversation. The low-resolution communication of typing out replies promises to erode conversational thinking in a continuum of ways. This may sound like the cusp of a contradiction; this article has above noted the immediacy and quick-fix gratifications of SM. Surely then, the pace of SM is suited to recreate conversation? This could be true for the most benign of conversation topics. Unfortunately, however, this immediacy refers to overall online trends and the consumption of content. Moreover, even discrediting the fact that reading, typing, then uploading is slower than the call-and-response immediacy of physical conversation, one must ask if internet trolls are even responding to one another at all? More likely, raising their digital voices and trying to win emotionally. This is noticeable in how quickly the content of arguments changes from facts to opinion, to slander. Whilst referencing replies upon comments is difficult, it doesn’t take much scrolling to find pugnacious debate and insult on topics ranging from Sir Kier Starmer and climate change to basic economics -where one contender concludes that exclusively heterosexual males become upset when discussing fiat currency value. 

Furthermore, within this intrinsic response-time delay, SM permits participants to falsely reclaim L’esprit de l’escalier– the mind of the staircase. L’esprit de l’escalier describes thinking of the perfect reply too late, i.e., on the stairs on your way out. This seemingly is not an issue online; why not take five minutes, or five hours, to come up with a response? If you cannot manage that, why not scour Google for the first statistic that correlates with your case? Failing that, you could of course just delete the thread or ignore it. At least it didn’t feel like anyone could see you. The point being, you aren’t obliged to think when online; you’re under no pressure to respond other than that which you set yourself. Perhaps worse, you never have to concede. You never have to be blatantly caught out, stuck for an answer, and admit that you were wrong or didn’t know. If you never have to concede, it’s tempting to always be right, made even easier by Google and the time delay at your disposal. Once this dogma starts, thinking is cast aside.  

This article isn’t so petty as to stop with playground-esque quarrels and meaningless tweets. Recalling that SM trends move fast, it seems to have taken a similarly instantaneous time for a whole culture to be established on the ignorant, emotional, even aggressive foundations of online interaction discussed above. Recalling the examples above, along with asinine trends such as the Tide Pod Challenge, one could easily argue that SM is not a place to communicate globally and efficiently, but something outside of reality to go and prove your worth, perhaps by exercising your demons, perhaps just by following the crowd. Along with the production of hateful comments, that which you consume is a reflection only of yourself thanks to the shadowing algorithms. It is no surprise then that the lack of critical thinking worsens if SM permits such ‘echo chambers’; your account is engineered to see virtually only what you want to see, to like and dislike only what you want to like and dislike. Again, this is not remotely a reflection of real-life or conversation. 

Echo chambers can be somewhat harmless when an individual establishes one with themselves. For instance, in the purdah run-up to elections, it is strangely common to see demands along the lines of ‘if you vote for (insert unpopular political faction) then delete me off your friends’ list’. Whilst not establishing a positive environment for discussion and constructive disagreement, such sentiments would ultimately only result in the exclaimer talking to themselves. The nadir, however, is when the current social-media-sentiments are permitted to turn the whole damn thing into an echo chamber.

Perhaps it is just too tempting to exercise your shadow when you are safe from the shame of staring eyes, yet can still feel big ‘winning’ afront an invisible audience. If so, SM is a tragic reflection of the human heart. Indeed, the low-point of its emotion-filled echo chamber is the permittance of a culture so advanced in form, but still so utterly primitive in sentiment. The manifestation of this dichotomy might be the darkly named ‘cancel culture’. Though not a moral sense many would want to describe as a culture, the examples and analyses throughout this article should indicate enough that ‘cancel culture’ is the tip of the iceberg, supported by a virtual culture wherein people are quick to behave and reason in ways they never could in person. Droves of moral gatecrashers act as judge and jury, silencing voices and sentencing livelihoods on the back of a trend and seemingly without considering there might be unbeknownst facts and other valid perspectives.

Often, cancelling pursues imprecise political aims, such as the encouraged boycott of Goya Foods (the USA’s largest Hispanic-owned food company) after CEO Robert Unanue praised then-president Trump for signing a ‘Hispanic Prosperity Initiative’. Still, ‘cancel culture’ can be significantly more malicious when its adjudicators attack an individual. In a hopefully extreme example, as the internet searched for the identity of the later-convicted Luke Magnotta accusations were levelled against Edward Jordan, who suffered depression. After an apparent barrage of online threats, Jordan took his own life, before any authorities identified the real animal and thereafter human killer. All of this is without even analysing how SM disproportionally damages the mental wellbeing of girls.

SM might not have presented such problems if people strived to think for themselves, but the need to follow the crowd is what affords the mob its power, and running off this emotion and inherent moral superiority there is no need for real empathy. The worst part is not that people can behave in a way that is fascist in its suppression of opposition, but that the online culture we have built renders this acceptable; to state that a genuinely psychopathic concept (the linked article is well worth a full read) ‘doesn’t exist, you’re just being held accountable’ is as willfully ignorant as saying police brutality doesn’t exist, you’re just being held accountable for an alleged crime.

SM is bad for critical thinking and conversation. Climaxing in cancel culture and evident on a smaller scale, its immediacy affords weak intellectual foundations of emotion and then vague political rights and wrongs. SM is easy, and it may be comforting to surround yourself with only what you want to see. To this end there is an irony in its taxonomy; it is neither social nor media. The keen animosity against perceived outsiders revokes the term social, and the steady elimination of genuine communication negates the term media- defined normally as ‘the main means of mass communication’.

In summary, one must ask whether the ongoings in this battleground of emotion are of any concern outside of the arena. Do people have a real-life personality and a social media one? Is social media some dark game for Jung’s shadow to play, whilst our real selves remain quite peaceable in reality? This study could be far extended; I am barely touching on the real psychological implications of social media. Rather, I am giving a crude impression of a potential monster. If, as human beings, we are to delve deeper into cyberspace and more often leave our bodies behind, one would hope we learn to bring with us more than our limbic urges; to not do so may yet allow our greatest advancements to enslave us to our most primitive instincts.

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