By Elizabeth Doherty
IN the wake of the terror attack in Paris – and the rise of thousands adding the French flag to their profile, psychologist Alison Rooney has considered just why the social network has become our place to pour out emotions.
Within hours of the Paris terror attack on November 13 – many of us have changed our Facebook profile photographs to the French flag.
Many of us have also posted feelings of loss for the 130 killed and 352 injured.
We have used Facebook in particular, as the central zone to share our inner most feelings about this tragedy, a few hundred miles away.
According to Dr Alison Rooney, a senior clinical psychologist, from Malahide, Co Dublin, we are using the powerful social network, to “catch” emotions from others and share a similarity as human-beings.
This is, according to Dr Rooney, a “psychological phenomenon of emotional contagion.
This is the tendency for us to be influenced by the emotions of another person or people, to ‘catch’ their emotions about something.
While rolling TV news reports and Twitter tried to capture the traumatic events on the ground as the terror attack unfolded – no other social network seemed to be able to envelope how we each felt, like Facebook could.
It simulated how we summed up the feelings of confusion, fear and loss.
“The events in Paris were hugely shocking and distressing for most people,” Dr Rooney said.
But of course, human emotions, and the value of these, has been a commodity for a long time.
Advertisers have for years cashed in on playing on our emotional capacity.
Some of the most popular TV ads manipulate our hearts – think the latest John Lewis Christmas ad, with the grandfather stranded on the moon, looking down upon his grand-daughter.
Facebook is the king of connection and its aims are to keep us on board. While we are online, after all, we also see ads.
And it is very, very aware, it is connected to our every day, and thus, our emotions – positive, negative and anxious.
Facebook is constantly working on new ways to keep us connected to it and was involved in research that concluded that moods and emotions can be transferred through social networks, said Dr Rooney.
“It provided the means for people to include the French flag in their profile picture after the attacks and this idea spread quickly, with emotional contagion contributing to this.
“Media coverage of the Paris atrocities was enormous in this part of the world.
“We heard much less about other terrorist attacks that occurred around the same time in the middle east.
“I think that most people are saddened and shocked to hear about the deaths of innocent people who are often victims of appalling regimes when these events happen.
“Facebook did not offer the facility to put flags from those other affected areas on profile pictures.”
Questions have been asked why Facebook did not offer the Lebanese flag in the wake of the 43 killed in a terror attack there earlier this month – or why a Palestinian flag had not been an option after atrocities there last summer.
Of course, the situation in Palestine and across the world, including in Iraq and Syria, is one of ongoing unrest and death tolls are rising in each nation.
Mark Zuckerberg said Paris was the first time the feature had been used aside from natural disasters and in future it would be offered again.
“There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex, sensitive times, and for us, that was Paris,” Zuckerberg said.
But to Dr Rooney, Facebook’s choice to publicise the French flag – as a signal of solidarity, was also a move made on geographical reasoning for the West.
“We are familiar with Paris and it is not somewhere that we would normally associate with such terror and death,” Dr Rooney said.
We may identify more easily with its citizens. This brings home to us the idea that we our families could possibly be confronted by such an event.
“Such a thought will cause our threat system (fight or flight response) to become more active – leading us to be more focused and aware of potential threats.
“This system is not rational and can be over-reactive in its attempts to identify and respond to perceived threats which may unfortunately contribute to over-generalisations and racist comments or opinions. “
The latter is of course the downside to the social networking of politic emotion.
As well as social networks being used as a tool of solidarity, combined grief even, they can be subverted and used to spread a message of hate.
Since the Paris terror attack, notably, online there has been an increase in racist and anti-Islamic postings.
In a terrible irony, social networks have even been subverted and used to spread propaganda videos of violence and murder in Syria and Iraq – to recruit so-called Jihadists.
This, unfortunately, seems to be the bad side of the web and one that no-one seems to be able to control – apart from being able to click the “delete friend” option or good old “block,” button.
But inevitably even if racist rants appear on our timeline – or if we are sick of being drawn in to conversation about events we cannot control, human beings are, for the most part sheep – and we will, as Twitter directs – ‘follow’ each other.
Our addiction to feeling part of something, the rest of the human race, will mean, even if we take a break from social networking, many of us will inevitably fail in cold turkey mode – and once again power up to go online again.
“Our brains are hard-wired to want to connect with others,” Dr Rooney said.
We want and need to feel that we are part of the group.
“For the early humans, this was a basic survival mechanism of safety and protection in numbers and it was safer to be within the group than on the outside where predators can gain access to us more easily.
“Facebook has offered a way to feel connected to a network and can be quite addictive for many people as a result.”
But, there are concerns about this addiction to feeling wanted and part of something.
Are we really engaged in reality when we aren’t lapping up the emotional baggage of others and sharing it ourselves online?
“There is research evidence to show that our attention spans have decreased as a result of constantly checking and being interrupted by Facebook, text messages etc,” Dr Rooney said.
“Teenagers are likely to be more affected than other age-groups because of their strong need to feel accepted and part of the group.
“People may behave in a more disinhibited manner online.
“This may be partly caused by feelings of anonymity and the absence of face-to-face cues that normally guide our social interactions,” Dr Rooney said.
Let’s just hope as we grieve as one, remember the good times as one, and share our secrets far too openly, that we remember to pick up a Jane Austen too…