The Australian man accused of last Friday’s massacre at a New Zealand mosque stated bluntly in his white-supremacist manifesto that he hopes to start a race war. New research, though, suggests that his monstrous act is more likely to result in a more connected, compassionate citizenry.
An analysis of Twitter messages by French citizens following a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris found that “a collective negative emotional response” was followed by a long-term increase in expressions of social solidarity.
“These findings suggest that it is not despite our distress that we are more united after a terrorist attack,” write David Garcia of the Medical University of Vienna and Bernard Rimé of the University of Louvain.* “It is precisely because of our shared distress that our bonds become stronger, and our society adapts to face the next threat.”
The study, just published in the journal Psychological Science, analyzed the Twitter messages of 62,114 French subscribers to the social media network. All had tweeted responses to the November 13th, 2015, terrorist attack on the office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Most of the tweeters lived in Paris, the site of the attack, but others were scattered around the nation.
Using a linguistic software program, the researchers noted the emotional tone of these users’ tweets over the six months prior to the attack, and for seven months afterwards. The program specifically searched for terms denoting sadness, anxiety, and anger, as well as ones referring to shared French values, and words that referred to behavior that benefits society as a whole, such as “caring.”
Not surprisingly, they report that the strongest initial emotional response to the attack was anxiety, “followed by sadness starting the day after.” What happened next is more interesting: The second day after the attack saw a spike in terms referring to relationships, shared values, and cooperative behavior.
Moreover, over the following months, the researchers found “a marked long-term increase in the use of lexical indicators related to solidarity.” The experience of joining with others to express collective grief inspired people to convey higher levels of positive emotions than they’d had before the attack—and to make more references to altruistic activities.
“The buzzing noise elicited by a collective emotional event actually weaves a social resilience process,” the researchers write.
Garcia and Rimé concede that an analysis of tweets can tell only a partial story. They add that the calls for unity they’ve identified could, in some cases, be accompanied by messages conveying an increased intolerance of outsiders.
But for a modern, multicultural, metropolitan area, community solidarity can transcend ethnic or religious identities. Slogans like “Boston Strong“—or whatever emerges from Christchurch—are inherently inclusive.
“A society hit by a collective trauma does not just respond with simultaneous negative emotions,” the researchers conclude. “The collective experience of emotions leads to long-term solidarity.”
Update—March 20th, 2019: This post has been updated to reflect David Garcia’s correct academic affiliation.