Netizenship And The Emotional Contagion

In the age of social media and burgeoning netizenship, it is inevitable that we are swept by emotional contagion, becoming a herd of sheep that gets barked at by memes and fake news. Where is our individuality? Shouldn’t our power of decision-making is based on personal fact-checking and even bias, not on what is popular or going viral.

In the wake of the power of social media and the rise of netizenship, I cannot but remind myself of this great sci book from the late 19th. You see, novelist and social critic H.G. Wells wrote one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time, Time Machine. Cited as one of the, if not THE, most important novels of that genre, Wells took it upon himself to look, with a critical eye, at the evolution of human beings, the class system, and the economic order of the day.

In the novel, the Time Traveller (no names, just that, Time Traveller) shoots about 800 thousand years forward, where extreme evolution has taken place and the evolved human race is divided into two: the fair, childlike Eloi living on the ground and the savage, simian Morlocks living underground.

Of Netizens And Netizenship

Whenever I come across the word Netizen, it’s the image of the latter, the Morlocks, that pops up in my head. Because Netizens have since been synonymous with overly reactive, crude, bleating herds of beings, that has also been responsible for many things wrong. Their (our?) voice can be heard everywhere and every day, on our social media platforms and the news portal comment spaces. Yes, these days, even the legacy media has taken to making a big deal about what netizens are fretting about. “Netizen sees red,” one headline screams, treating the netizens with the same honour as if they sat with King Arthur at the bloody round table.

Yes, netizens spew opinions, vomit comments, and rediscover something everyone knows and fret over it like a monitor lizard having two minds halfway swallowing a bullfrog. Sadly, we never know if we are one of them. And the worst part is that what netizens share gets spread further, creating waves of somewhat adverse reactions, some of which can be quite disturbing, which I shall talk about later.

This chain of reaction is called emotional contagion, which is originated from the study of psychology and is defined as “a direct primitive response produced by sympathetic nerves in the brain.”

A proper definition for emotional contagion in the social media context is, as mentioned here, is  one that “occurs when an emotional state or mood, such as happiness or sadness, can be spread unknowingly between people through reading posts, tweets, blogs, and so forth.”

Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion resides among netizens and has created wonderful stuff, such as, which has helped with many causes all around the world (you can check out their success story here), and you definitely would have received an invitation to sign some polls, petitions to remove pineapple from pizza permanently, etc. That’s for the Eloi of netizens.

What about the online Morlocks? Remember the monitor lizard I mentioned? Them. Or us. The trouble with hating netizens is that it becomes self-loathing because, as inevitable users of the Internet, specifically social media, we are one of them.

How often do we get What’s App forwards from some folks we really love, and we are not comfortable with what was sent? We don’t forward them, but many do, sort of like the dark side of the “pay it forward” feel-good thing that was so popular more than two decades ago that it became the title of the Kevin Spacey movie. Of all people.

What’s App Groups

Worse is when we are in a What’s App group, where these shares come in volumes, especially relating to politics and religion. It creates awkward situations; to paraphrase Hamlet, “to like or not to like, that is the question. Whether it’s nobler to click like and share this goddamned meme or suffer the ridicule of fellow group members,”

But we are all veterans of many What’s App groups that we have quit from, handing over the badge and spitting at the captain (Admin). Or we were kicked out because we crossed swords with that guy who keeps posting unrelated rubbish, and he is the admin’s stepson. We leave because we are champs, rebels, and anti-heroes, until we get invited to another group.

But as mentioned, not all netizen movements are bad. For example, as this article mentions, “The protests in Hong Kong are a textbook example of community use of technology and information sharing; the Arab Spring was widely supported by the establishment of makeshift relays to maintain a pirate network when the government shut down the internet; and Korean netizens have distinguished themselves by exposing the corruption and fraud of their president or by compelling authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into the Sewol tragedy that occurred in April 2014.”

Awesome. But what’s worrying is the Morlock side of social contagion, for  example, the dreaded cyberbullying that can directly cause suicidal thoughts, as a study here shows that “participants who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report thoughts of suicide and attempts as those who didn’t.”.

The question is, do we really need to be told to use social media responsibly all the time when most of us are not even aware that we have become part of the delivery system that may have caused damages?

Are we ultimately going to allow ourselves to be swept by the emotional contagion? What happens to our individuality? We have different thumbprints and signatures. But if we allow ourselves to be pulled in and coagulated into a lump of hatred, a clot of anger, and a puddle of vengeance, we end up making wrong decisions, like electing a leader who promised to bring down fuel prices the day after his party won even when we know damned well that it isn’t possible. – NMH

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Rakesh Premakumaran Kumar
A movie buff, as opposed to film connoisseur or aficionado, because the last two words are hard to spell, Rakesh has been in the field of writing for more than two decades and hopes that one-day movie “buff”ing is lucrative enough to afford him a Batmobile, the Michael Keaton one.

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