Digital Hysteria – When our digital world ignites an unstable chain-reaction

Digital Hysteria – When our digital world ignites an unstable chain-reaction

How did a single digital photograph trigger an exponential chain reaction that led within days to an identical largely irrational response from millions of people? And what political world is emerging where government policies can be changed in days under the impact of such a high velocity wave of public opinion? Have we created a digital eco-system with the potential to not only create gyrations in government policies but even tear whole regions apart? These are big questions for our expanding digital world.

Let us first set out the sequence of events. For several years the media has been saturated with pictures of the plight of the Syrian refugees. This was followed by story after story of tragic drowning of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. The huge burden falling on Italy and Greece was well covered. Public opinion outside of Germany and Sweden remained largely indifferent. The UK media focus turned more recently to the migrants camped outside Calais. Public opinion hardened when the digital pictures were of mobs of young men tearing down fences and breaking into lorries. The predominant political pressure on the UK Government was to keep the Calais migrants out of the UK. Then a single digital image entered our digital networks. It was of a tall gentle giant of a Turkish policeman carrying the limp body of a drowned 2-year old child out of the sea. It was propagated through every digital channel onto smartphones, tablets and TV screens. Messaging traffic on the topic rose to a crescendo. In very quick succession there was shock, a common reaction that something had to be done, the briefest of vacuums of what needed to be done and almost seamless synchronisation of the flipping of public opinion to what precisely needed to be done. The public pressure had switched in 24 hours from demands on the government to tighten up the UK boarder against 3000 or so migrants entering the UK to almost fury at a government’s lack of compassion for not coming anywhere Germany’s willingness to take in 800,000 refugees. No distinction was made between genuine asylum seekers, refugees or economic migrants…they were all humans in need of our help. Such was the emotional intensity that many ordinary people were writing to their local council offering to take Syrian refugees into their homes. Those same people had probably walked passed homeless people sleeping in the streets of some of our cities many times. Something significant had happened that was the product of the interaction with and over the extensive digital technologies that we’ve put in place over the past few decades.

This is not an article about Syrian refugees. No comment is being offered on whether this effect was a force for the good or not. It is only about the potential instability from our digital eco-system and its power to transform public policy and political landscapes in unpredictable ways. Rapid changes of public opinion and massive public clamour are not new. The ability of the media to whip up “manias” from Beetle mania to Apple mania has been around for years. What is new is the combination of the scale, the speed, the almost total synchronisation of human response and its randomness. Some may take exception to the headline of “hysteria”. It was chosen for the want of a better term. Hysteria is a form of emotional contagion that generates empathy, the feeling of sameness and the need fix on a shared response. In the chain reaction from impulse to response there was no calm analysis, no review of options or thought for the consequences. In electronic circuits the effect is known as bi-stable. A circuit flips with near lightning speed from one extreme state to the other. It becomes chaotic when the trigger for the change and the state the circuit flips into are both unpredictable.

This cannot be dismissed as a freak event. The nearest example we have of the same power of our digital technologies to transform a political landscape is ironically the Arab Spring. The digital image this time was of a street trader in Tunisia, a struggling bread winner of a family of seven, setting light to himself. The role of Face Book, Twitter, smart phones and broadcasting satellites was central to what followed. The drama created played out over a longer time period. A Tunisian police woman slapped the face of the street trader on 17th December 2010, the President of Egypt resigned on the 11th February 2011 and the Syrian civil war that was a counter-reaction to this chain reaction is still going on in 2015.

It is too early to draw conclusions of where this latest example of digital hysteria will take Europe. There is a strong case for arguing that there was a big Syrian refugee crisis long before the tragic drowning of a little child off the coast of Turkey. But the smart phone has played a role in the sheer size and direction of the refugee crisis. Many of the refugees have camera phones. They have been snapping and sending pictures back to friends and family still in the refugee camps in the countries bordering Syria. They’ve not been snaps of drowning bodies in the sea but of happy smiling faces of those refugees who made it and are now settled in a peaceful and welcoming country. Those digital images have created a powerful magnet drawing an exponentially rising number to make the dangerous and arduous journey. The precise route for unlawfully crossing EU borders has been fed back to those following along the trail from Turkey to Germany using mobile phones.  All this has totally bypassed official channels, organisations and EU official rules and processes.

The digital eco-system we have created is providing enormous economic and social benefits. But it appears to have a flaw in its construction and/or use that can be occasionally chaotic and with the potential to create gyrations in government policies, bring down governments (as we’ve seen in the Middle East) and even tear whole regions apart. It is far too early to talk of solutions but some serious research looks in order.

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