This Smile Brightens up Our Hearts: Emotional Modulation and Social Mobilization during the West African Ebola Outbreak

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 15:30
Oral Presentation
Ryann MANNING, University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, Canada
In this paper, I explore the emotional dynamics of networked activism by Sierra Leonean diaspora communities in response to the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak. Emotions infused this transnational social movement and helped connect people around the world to the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. I focus especially on how diaspora activists used social media to orchestrate action-oriented emotional chords, combinations of emotions akin to musical chords, which they believed would help enlist and sustain participation in the fight against Ebola. Analyzing real-time and retrospective data from a variety of online and offline sources, I find that diaspora organizations and individuals produced and deployed digital cultural objects in order to collaboratively shape the emotional tone and rhythm of interactions among members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora. Activists repurposed familiar cultural material in creative ways to help their community make sense of the novel challenges posed by Ebola. For example, they adapted symbols and practices from traditional mourning rituals into virtual memorials to the victims of Ebola—especially Sierra Leonean doctors who died from the disease—which circulated widely on social media. Often, diaspora activists created emotionally polyvalent objects that expressed and elicited multiple emotions, such as images and stories of Sierra Leoneans at home and in the diaspora who were taking action to stop Ebola. Incorporating rich, in-depth qualitative data from social networking sites and other online forums, I explore the dynamic interplay between emotion and action as members of the diaspora interacted with these cultural objects while discussing the emerging crisis in Sierra Leone and mobilizing to respond. Based on these findings, I develop a theory of emotional modulation by social movement activists, and I suggest implications for our understanding of networked activism, transnational organizing, and the complex role of emotion in social movements.