Facebook in the Face of Tragedy

Social media networks break news stories and spark revolutions. In the wake of tragedy, they may also help us cope.
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(Photo: Bruno Cordioli/Flickr)

(Photo: Bruno Cordioli/Flickr)

Last week, the world watched the horror of the most recent terror attack at Charlie Hebdo unfold on social media. The attack, which aimed to spread fear and perhaps anti-Muslim prejudice across Europe, also triggered an almost unprecedented show of solidarity. The #JeSuisCharlie hashtag rapidly became one of the most popular in Twitter’s history.

The spread of emotion, even negative ones like fear, via social networks may not be all bad, according to a 2008 review. An emotional connection to tragedy may make individuals more willing to extend support to those in need.

As our online social networks eclipse our real-life social networks, the impact of media platforms like Twitter and Facebook on our mental and physical health has become a prominent area of study. These online platforms now fulfill the fundamental human need for social connection in a way that was previously only possible through face-to-face interactions. They allow us to share personal information through features like status updates, and to receive feedback from our friends and followers via likes, favorites, and replies. But studies show that these online interactions can be a double-edged sword.

Fear can spread through social media ties, even to regions that are in no immediate danger, a 2014 study found. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, cities that were geographically nearby, where individuals had more stronger media relationships with Bostonians, or had direct experience with the city, were more likely to express a shared fear on Twitter. The very nature of terrorism, in which one group directly threatens another, often causes individuals to more closely identify with an in-group; someone who went to college in Boston but hasn’t been back since may suddenly consider themselves a Bostonian again. This can also lead to more hostility toward outsiders.

“All of these non-objective, social factors lead the amplification of fear and related emotions in response to terrorist attacks to ‘ripple’ out from the geographic locale in which the attack takes place,” the authors write. These ripple effects can have significant and costly consequences after tragedies. After 9/11, for example, many people opted to drive rather than fly, which the authors note actually increases personal and public risk. But just as the bombing spread fear beyond the city limits, expressions of solidarity poured in via the #BostonStrong hashtag.

Governments could harness the power of these networks by monitoring the spread of fear through their communities, and tailoring their response to citizen's concerns.

"The #JeSuisCharlie hashtag is the analog to the #BostonStrong hashtag," says Drew Margolin, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Cornell University, and a co-author of the 2014 study. "Both are symbolic expressions of solidarity with victims extended by people who are geographically dispersed, a phenomenon that is becoming more and more prevalent when these kind of terrible events occur." The #BostonStrong hashtag was used most often in areas that also expressed fear following the attack, demonstrating that the attack itself generated not just fear but a sense of resistance that was then shared via social media.

The spread of emotion, even negative ones like fear, via social networks may not be all bad, according to a 2008 review. An emotional connection to tragedy may make individuals more willing to extend support to those in need. Another study looked at the potential psychological benefits of the use of Facebook following disasters for individuals. Namely, the protective effects of social networks against depression and PTSD. After the devastating L’Aquila earthquake of 2009, the researchers found that Facebook users were half as likely as non-users to develop depression. They write:

Online social networks may offer potential psychological benefits for vulnerable populations, gained through their collective participation as stakeholders in the response. Disaster victims report a psychological need to contribute, and by doing so, they are better able to cope with their own situation. As well, affected populations may gain resilience by replacing their helplessness with dignity and control, along with personal and collective responsibility, perceived connectivity to others, and increased self-esteem.

Social networks are no longer just a place to passively monitor what your friends are having for breakfast. The popularity of social networks continues to climb, with nearly half of Facebook’s 1.3 billion users logging in every day. Governments could harness the power of these networks by monitoring the spread of fear through their communities, and tailoring their response to citizen's concerns. In fact, the public increasingly expects emergency managers like the Red Cross to respond quickly to their social media posts during disasters. This expectation may be unrealistic right now, but on an individual level, the ability to provide support and community after tragedies through support groups and hashtivism has already been demonstrated again and again. Though it's true that terrorism often incites more prejudice, and the anonymity of the Internet allows people to behave in ways they never would in person, as our online and real-life personas merge, angry and hateful online outbursts may become less common, overshadowed by shows of tolerance and support. Today, social media networks break news stories and spark revolutions; in the wake of tragedy, they may also help us cope.

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