After 10 years of complicated maneuvering and flight control, the Rosetta space craft was about to do the almost impossible: Land on a moving comet 150,000 miles above the Earth. It was a tense moment of the European Space Agency, when so much could go wrong in such a short time.
When Rosetta landed in November, mission control erupted. There was wild applause, joyful celebrations and even a few shed tears after such a long journey. But while Rosetta successfully managed to avoid the perils of space on its journey, the agency found itself in a crisis much closer to home.
During a video interview with international news journal Nature, the wardrobe of a British scientist caught the eye of the social media community. Within minutes, the news had shifted away from the efforts of the crew to the offense caused by his shirt featuring leather-bound women. The hashtag #ShirtStorm quickly followed, with others voicing their outrage. The discussion had shifted from a 10-year mission in a matter of minutes to a debate about the inclusion of women in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
The furor over the scientists' shirt resembles the increasingly common practice of publicly complaining about "microaggressions," according to Jason Manning, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University. In recent years, it has become increasingly common for university students to create online forums for describing words and deeds they perceive as offensive and indicative of sexism, racism, or other prejudice. In the paper "Microaggression and Moral Cultures," Manning details the social conditions that encourage people to take offense, publicly voice grievances, and seek support for their stances. The report was co-authored California State University's Bradley Campbell. Together, the authors outline the social conditions that breed online complaining and hashtag activism.
"One theme in our paper is that social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant," Manning said. "A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone's alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure."
In the case of the ESA, the British scientist gave a tearful apology days after the social media storm. Though that controversy was over relatively quickly, Manning added that there are more violent and hurtful consequences of these public shamings.
"Modern media provides new ways of harming others and tarnishing their reputations. People can now be more easily humiliated by publicly exposing their private affairs, such as posting nude pictures or other sensitive information online," he said. "Such exposure might even drive someone to suicide."
In the age of social media and hyper connectedness online, conflicts may increasingly make their way online.
"New media technology, which gives any person the ability to bring their grievances before a crowd of millions, seems to encourage the public airing of grievances in this way," Manning said.
Manning and his colleague initially began their work after noticing microaggression websites popping up around colleges across the US. One goal of their work was to explain why relatively minor slights are treated as a serious matter worthy of public complaint.
"One explanation we advance in the paper, taken from sociologist Donald Black's theory of conflict, is that insults and slights are more offensive in settings where people are relatively equal and diverse to begin with," Manning said.
"One can assume that nobody in history has liked his or her own social group being put down, but in diverse and relatively egalitarian societies , insulting any group is more likely to be considered offensive by everyone," Manning said. "This might further encourage people to notice and draw attention to even unintentional insults."
Materials provided by West Virginia University - Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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