On Christmas Day, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used his website to tell the world that he was not an atheist any more. In this way, the billionaire used Facebook to express his feelings about religion, like many social media users before him.
My research shows how debates about religion on social networks bring out passionate emotions in users. I found that conservative Christians who discuss contentious issues about religion on Facebook debates often do so in emotionally charged ways.
It seems that simply being religious may sometimes trigger particular emotions and reactions to the topic of religion. But it is not only devoutly religious media users who get pulled into debating religion online or feel very strongly about it: hardcore atheists may also harbour strong emotions about religion, or rather, anti-religion. Discussing topics of faith can strike very close to home for those who strongly identify as either religious or anti-religious.
News stories with emotional cues tend to both gain audience attention and prolong audience engagement.
As a whole, Facebook users who passionately discuss religion online seem to be triggered by their own identity (as religious or non-religious) and an emotional involvement with the theme of religion.
Religion is increasingly viewed as highly politicised, not least due to the way that it is frequently covered in the news. Numerous studies have shown that news stories with emotional cues tend to both gain audience attention and prolong audience engagement.
It may therefore come as no surprise that online debates about religion are packed with emotional cues that evoke strong reactions from those who participate in them. This sets the stage for passionate online debates.
But is the emotional involvement necessarily intrinsic to religion?
Of course, emotional conflicts are not new, and social media is not the only thing that makes emotions fly high and low.
Studies of the way media audiences may shape conflicts are still relatively scarce. But by taking several of the existing studies and comparing them with my own ethnographic study of a Norwegian Facebook group whose members wish to promote the visibility of Christianity in the public sphere, it is possible to discern a number of similarities in how media users “perform conflict” in emotive ways.
Across several types of conflicts in Northern Europe, media users respond in unmistakably similar ways: by claiming to be the silent majority; by making moral and normative claims about right and wrong; and resorting to blame-and-shame tactics. Even the same type of vocabulary is in circulation across many issues.
The emotionally charged way that media users engage with a variety of conflicts points to very similar mechanisms that serve to amplify and multiply conflicts, for instance, through scapegoating.
Typically, media users are highly expressive of anger, which they direct at the perceived enemy, that is, whoever is deemed responsible for an intolerable state of affairs. The anger is often set off by trigger themes and emotional cues, and leads to escalation of the conflict itself.
In Europe, religion is a common trigger theme, but so are immigration and climate change. These issues all seem to consistently fire up the public, and are more likely to induce spiralling arguments and the escalation of conflicts.
Emotional cues are particular words or phrases that serve to heighten emotional involvement. For instance, calling politicians “dictators” or stating that one’s opponents’ are “in pact with the devil” or calling them “imbeciles” can heighten the emotional stakes in a debate.
One of my most intriguing findings was the discovery that media users employ very similar terminology to attract attention from other debaters and to incite further involvement in the debate.
Employing emotionally charged phrasing, such as calling the unwanted status quo “a tumour”, “toxic disease”, or “poison” are suitable phrases to get other social media users’ blood pressure soaring. Near identical terminology that describes a problem as “disease” and those responsible as part of “a dictatorship” or “the likes of North Korea”, is surprisingly common across all the cases of mediatized conflict I compared.
Media users also responded in very similar ways to thematically different conflicts. The one thing that all of these conflicts had in common though, was that they dealt with trigger themes. Trigger themes have the power to ignite feelings, at times explosive ones.
Raging against the machine
Not only is there an omnipresence of emotion in many online debates about religion and other contentious themes, but the presence of anger is pretty striking too. Those who rage against the machine tend to scapegoat a variety of groups, such as politicians, immigrants or Muslims.
In the Norwegian Facebook group, depending on who is raging - the anger is directed at politicians, all religions, Islam or Muslims, secularism, atheism and at times simply the daftness of co-debaters. Put together, all this rage leaves a pretty obvious footprint on the online discussions in the Facebook group.
Still, I believe there is a danger in focusing too much on anger. In my reading, anger may be the emotion that is most clearly expressed, but more complex emotions may well lie at the heart of the enraged utterances.
Online conflicts with inherent trigger themes, such as those that tug at core religious and identity issues, tend to evoke emotional responses, which, in turn, inspire social media users to perform the conflict in ways that multiply the dispute or disputes.
My study concludes that there needs to be a trigger theme for social media users to perform in particular ways, but that the trigger theme need not be religion.
Trigger themes appear to be an integral part of the dynamics of online conflicts and inspire a heightened state of emotion among audiences, regardless of the topic. In fact, media users appear to react to conflicts in remarkably similar emotionally charged ways, whatever the subject of debate. Religion is just another trigger for the emotions we express online.
This article has been co-published with Religion going Public.
Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.