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The huddling on social media during the invasion of Ukraine

Loading player In the last two weeks, the invasion of Ukraine has been, predictably, one of the most followed, discussed and commented on social media, moreover considered in recent days both as a potential means of propaganda and an essential part of the story of the war. In addition to the part that expressed feelings of consternation for the victims and concern for the developments of the conflict, a significant share of the collective reactions to the invasion that emerged on social media in Western countries showed in a rather unified way a certain level of verbal aggression, eccentricity and humor often judged out of place or in bad taste.

Many have made jokes referring to a kind of continuity in the recent woes of the world, associating the pandemic and the risks of a world war. Other people, even among those known to the public, have shared thoughts against Russian President Vladimir Putin, or have suggested military strategies and even psychological analyzes, apparently with little sense of proportion. Still others shared memes in which Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and others involved in the war in Ukraine are seen as characters from the Marvel film sagas.

Fans cast Jeremy Renner as Zelensky in fantasy Ukraine invasion movie: Too soon?

– New York Post (@nypost) February 28, 2022

Most of these expressions have reinforced among some observers interested in the debate on the role of social media in society the impression of a marked imbalance existing between the reactions on the platforms, considered as a whole chaotic and unpredictable, and the individual ones, generally more empathic in the 'immediate and aware of the gravity and complexity of the circumstances. To explain the spread of these attitudes on social media, an article in Atlantic suggested a key to reading that recalls the notion of “milling” known within the psychology of the masses, a branch of social psychology that studies ways in which the psychology of a crowd differs and interacts with that of the individuals who are part of it.

Several studies of mass psychology – of which the French psychologist and sociologist Gustave Le Bon was one of the first theorists at the end of the nineteenth century – indicate that factors influencing crowd behavior are the loss of responsibility of the individual and personal impression. universality of the behavior he assumes, factors that increase in relation to the size of the crowd. In the crowd, according to Le Bon, the “social actors” lose awareness of their actions and tend to suffer the effects of a form of mental “contagion”, ending up behaving differently than they would individually.

These studies define “milling processes”, theorized by the American sociologist Robert Ezra Park, a contemporary of Le Bon, the typical methods of spontaneous gathering of large but unorganized groups of people following events that interrupt the routines institutionalized and produce uncertainty and “social unrest”. From the social interactions typical of crowding, individuals draw mutual emotional influence and develop a common impulse that guides their collective action.

In the case of the reactions on social networks to the invasion of Ukraine, according to Atlantic, the crowding has translated into a stirred and confused excitement among people who meanwhile tried to understand how to think about what was happening: how to avoid sources unreliable, how to frame the invasion in a historical perspective, how to make donations. And the attention gradually shifted from the event itself to the perception that other people had of the event.

– Read also: The First TikTok War

According to the American sociologist Herbert Blumer, a pupil of Park, both the crowd and the other two more advanced types of elementary collective grouping – the mass and the public – operate outside a normative, cultural and moral system of reference. During the crowding process, the people within the group begin to move and talk about the event that is happening. The main effect of crowding-out, Blumer wrote in 1939, 'is to make individuals more sensitive and reactive to each other, so that they become more and more concerned about each other and less and less responsive to each other. usual objects of stimulation “.

In a study published in 2016, a group of researchers from the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington used the concept of crowding to define and analyze comments and opinions circulated on Twitter in the hours following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. uncertainty, the research team wrote, people on Twitter collectively tried to make sense of the available information through various stages, including interpreting and discussing the still unclear information, formulating various hypotheses and theories, even naive, and the contestation of the reliability of the sources.

In a sense it is as if people these days are replicating typical dynamics of freezing on social networks, although in the scientific literature this concept is generally described as an evolutionary phase of collective behavior that is a prelude to meaningful group action (non-evolutionary evolution). necessarily present in the case of social networks). We get emotional, we lecture and praise, we refute theories and share “nonsense that is immediately swept away,” wrote the Atlantic.

According to sociologist and researcher Timothy Recuber, who deals with mass media and digital culture at Smith College, Massachusetts, and wrote the book Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America's Decade of Disaster, in “troubled times” people struggle to find appropriate responses to the situation. And many of those responses, on social media, are just “expressions of our helplessness as ordinary citizens,” not concrete attempts to intentionally influence the situation, Recuber said.

In the interpretations of the dynamics and effects of the crowding-out and of the different phases of grouping of individuals given by other sociologists after Blumer, and in part also by Park himself before Blumer, the crowding is not always and not necessarily followed by dangerous collective actions and disruptive. Sometimes collective behaviors allow a group to renew and evolve, and the individuals within it do not completely lose control of their faculties in the face of the destabilizing event.

In the 1950s, American sociologists such as Ralph Herbert Turner and Lewis Killian helped to debunk the idea of ​​abnormality attributed to collective rather than institutionalized behavior. And they explained that the random and spontaneous movements typical of crowding are sometimes useful for individuals within the cluster to understand how other people are reacting to a certain situation, and to try to guess which thoughts or behaviors will be approved within. of the group. Which isn't too different from what happens on Twitter, according to Atlantic.

– Read also: We should better study the effects of social networks on collective behavior

Even in the case of crowding out on social networks, however, there is the risk of a prevalence of reactions to events capable of deactivating some normal individual mechanisms for assessing the reliability of sources, with negative consequences in the dissemination of false information and collective feelings fueled by propaganda. . The American journalist Glenn Greenwald, known for carrying out the investigations on the revelations of Edward Snowden and for several years increasingly criticized and isolated for his positions judged on various pro-Russian occasions, has nevertheless underlined a risk that actually exists in recent days. Much unverified content and potentially produced to make Ukrainians “brave and noble resistance fighters” or the Russians “barbaric and unwary assassins”, for example, have been spread all over the place with little concern and caution about their reliability.

These contents, according to Greenwald, cause an increase in “tribalism, fanaticism, moral righteousness and emotionality,” all powerful drives that result from millennia of evolution. And “the more unity emerges in support of a world moral narrative, the more difficult it becomes for anyone to evaluate it critically”, because the faculties necessary to make those assessments are deliberately deactivated “on the basis of the belief that one has achieved absolute moral certainty”.