Character and Emotions on Social Media

Published: Posted on

Image of a man holding a phone at a railway station

By Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategic Initiatives
The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, University of Birmingham

Engaging meaningfully on social media platforms can mean keeping up to date with former friends and colleagues, throwing yourself into discussions and debates with strangers, filtering through endless memes, or watching videos of current affairs, sports, and politics. Everyone, anyone, can have their say. If you’re a ‘celebrity’, high profile figure, or have managed to build an online following, you can open yourself up to attack from dissenting voices, rival fans, or even online trolls.

One would be hard-pressed to find any high profile ‘celebrity’ that hasn’t received some form of negative messages via Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram at some point since their advent. Indeed, one only needs to scroll through the replies to any Donald Trump post to see that every endorsement is met with a counterpoint.

A lot of this is fair game, as if you build a strong following, one would assume that you have something to say. Further, being a ‘follower’ on social media does not necessarily mean that you endorse the voices of those you follow. Just as it is possible to follow someone offline, it is possible to follow someone online but disagree with (some of) the things they say. I can hold friendships, read opinion pieces by journalists, or listen to the music of a particular artist, but disagree with their views on politics, religion, or sport.

The ‘rules’ of social interactions on social media, though, apply differently to those of general society and conversation. We all act and behave ‘differently’ online to how we behave offline. Such is the access to instant information, to instantaneous opinion, that there is often a loosening of the lips, a relaxation of fingers on keyboards, that results in us liking posts on topics we otherwise know little about, or sharing images of events we are a million miles from (and which may later turn out to be fake). We can end up sending out our opinions that are not based on fact or reflection, but on feeling and emotion.

These emotions, following the Jubilee Centre definition of character, are produced by our individual character strengths, ‘which inform our motivation and guide our conduct’ (Jubilee Centre, 2017: 2). Such strengths of character require practice in order to be habituated, honed, and harnessed in our development of good sense. Such sense, or practical wisdom, apply to our ‘online’ selves as much as our offline selves. We are not, in spite of the opportunities to pretend to be, somebody else online.

Our actions and interactions online are our own, just as much as when engaging in conversation offline. How we interact with our peers offline matters as we form friendships, relate with relatives, and cooperate with colleagues, so why should we see online interactions any differently? Are our interactions online more emotionally charged? Less considered?

Recently, the Jubilee Centre published a report with Demos called Over the Character Limit. The report concluded a yearlong study of interactions by UK users of Twitter, and collected over one million tweets that used at least one of the moral virtue terms ‘honesty’, ‘courage’, ‘empathy’, and ‘humility’. The study found that over 71% of tweets used the virtue terms in a ‘non-neutral’ way, for example, celebrating the appearance of the virtue in someone, or criticising its absence in another. The study, the fifth from Demos to look at character in public life, further found that Twitter creates an environment for users to state their definitions and parameters of moral terms, questioning whether humility was overrated, and reflecting that empathy was in decline in public life.

The study found that users were linking virtue terms with a whole range of discussion topics, from Brexit to Trump, from abuse to joy, and from religion to mental health.

Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson recently spoke at the National Television Awards about the documentary ‘Odd One Out’, which explored the effects of cyberbullying on the mental health of victims, including herself. Whilst the evidence for the impact of any form of character education, in schools or elsewhere, on our mental health is flimsy at best, the theoretical links exist (see Wee and de La Motte de Broons de Vauvert, 2020). What can be said confidently, though, is that critical discernment and reflection are vital when navigating the online world. This discernment can be taken from the critical thinking we develop in school, university, or elsewhere, and applied to our actions online.

Although engaging critically online can help in filtering through the fake news and ‘noise’, engaging empathetically can help see through the ‘character limit’ of our online worlds and treat those with whom we interact in a manner in keeping with how we may want to be considered offline.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *