How People Come Together After Terrorist Attacks (at least on Twitter)

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Some disasters affect all of us. The psychological consequences of collective traumas — traumas including natural disasters and terrorist attacks — ripple across all of society. The people immediately harmed by the incidents are affected most severely, but feelings of sadness and anxiety progressively drift across to everyone else, getting slightly weaker with each additional degree of separation.

This contamination is catalyzed by human empathy — when we feel connected to people, their pain is also our pain. Is it possible that some good can come of this spreading agony, even after the most horrifying collective traumas?

Solidarity is a common reaction after traumatic events. Marches, commemorative ceremonies, and expressions of mutual sadness emphasize the connection between us. Complete strangers often come together to support each other. So perhaps when we share emotional reactions on a large scale, it promotes society-wide prosocial cooperation and a sense of belonging.

Many of us are skeptical about the benefits of online social networks in promoting social cohesion, because users seem to fight and hate more often than they collaborate. However, one advantage of these services is that they open up wider opportunities for communication and content sharing. So if people really do come together after traumatic events, we may be able to identify those positive reactions in messages posted online following major national tragedies.

A recently published study tested this idea directly by analyzing French Twitter content related to the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The researchers examined all tweets with hashtags relevant to the event, excluding retweets, around the time that the attacks occurred. After narrowing the dataset down to include only people located in France, their analysis covered over 60,000 Twitter users who had recently learned of the terrifying trauma unfolding in their country.

The data showed a large spike in the total number of tweets at the time of the attack, confirming that Twitter activity in France was affected by the incident. The researchers then used a computer model to analyze the language within these tweets, classifying them according to several categories: 1) emotional content (e.g. happiness, sadness), 2) social content (e.g. relationships, social activities), 3) French values (e.g. liberty, equality), 4) prosocial behavior (e.g. caring, solidarity).

Tweets with negative emotional content became particularly prominent on the day of the attack, and remained higher than normal over the following week. This synchrony between users hinted at the emergence of collective behavior following the tragedy. The researchers zoned in on three specific negative emotions: anxiety, sadness, and anger. The most frequent emotional expression immediately following the attack was anxiety, followed by sadness, and perhaps surprisingly, anger trailed behind in third. All of these emotions showed signs of collective synchronization, revealing consistent patterns across several days.

What happened to social language? In contrast to the emotional tweets, language related to solidarity and shared values peaked on the day after the attack rather than the day of the attack. But similar to the emotional tweets, this spike in prosocial language showed a lasting effect over several days, and its slowly decaying “memory” demonstrated collective behavior. When our country experiences a national tragedy such as a terrorist attack, we first collectively respond with an emotional outbreak of grief and anxiety, and we then collectively respond with an eruption of mutual support and social connection.

So at the group level, collective prosocial behavior emerged on Twitter following a national trauma. But we can also zoom in to examine what is happening at a more individual level. The researchers split their sample group into users with high emotional synchronization and low emotional synchronization. The people who ranked high were the people who posted more emotional tweets in the two weeks following the attack compared to before the attack. In other words, these were the people who participated in a collective emotional response to the tragedy.

Although high and low emotional synchronizers were equally likely to post tweets related to sociality and shared values before the attack, the high emotional synchronizers were far more likely to post those messages after the attack. Their collective expressions of emotion turned into collective expressions of solidarity.

The data from this study suggest that traumatic events can bring people together to share experiences and support each other, even in the volatile world of online social networks. The study was purely based on observation and correlation, so we need more experimental work to identify how causes and effects link up with each other to create these behavioral patterns. For now, we have an early glimpse of a slim but meaningful silver lining to the most sickening tragedies that our societies can endure.

Strong leaders will frequently reference solidarity following collective tragedies, because they understand the value of social cohesion in lifting spirits and making communities stronger. In a speech following the 2017 terrorist attack in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan explained that Londoners would “stand in defiance” with “unity and love for one another”, and that the terrorists would “never succeed in dividing our city”. These types of messages are essential in encouraging healthy psychological reactions and social resilience within a community that is suffering through a tragedy.

Distress and suffering may not only be symptoms of a national disaster; they may also be active ingredients that tighten social bonds between people with shared values. When we struggle through collective hardships, whether it be within our families, working teams, or wider communities, we can translate our mutual suffering into a unifying force. There will always be people who try to sow division, even following traumas, but we can instead choose to stand behind those who send messages of emotional connection, social resilience, and ultimately greater strength on the other side of the tragedy.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +445,678 people.

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Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

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The Startup