The world of online commenting is always a hazardous experience. It is a place where the uninitiated find, often to their horror, that the world of online commenting is not necessarily a place where opinions and positions will be respected. There is one way specifically that can be particularly heinous: the laughing emoji.
We have likely all been there. Perhaps an innocent comment on a local news article, perhaps a comment on a film article, or maybe even a deeply serious debate. You make your comment and then there it is! The laughing emoji! Are they laughing at me? Why are they laughing? What is it that is so funny?
The connection between what is on screen and the person viewing it can be, and often is, a personal and private moment. It is in these moments, in this mixing of public and private space, where being laughed at can hit the conscious with maximum effect. The ubiquity of its use in commenting contexts means that it can be a potent poison.
Beyond its basic meaning of expressing laughter at something funny, the laughing emoji is also a tool with which a person attempts to control a number of factors including your values, beliefs and knowledge, and the laughing emoji does so via one of the most powerful methods of social control: shame. For a brief academic summary of shame, you might want to read Bates & LaBrecque’s (2020) short article. Mendible (2016: 15) regards shame to be:
a crucial component in techniques of social control and in the formation, maintenance, and management of any systematic process of subjection
Silvan Tomkins (in Frank et al., 1995: 133) once powerfully described shame as:
an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event, he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth
Being laughed at is a common and condescending way to apply shame to a person or group and it is the same principle when the meaning is communicated through the laughing emoji. In political arguments, it can be used to shame commenters into accepting the political status quo or to demotivate the commenter from continuing their line of thinking which could lead them to discover other political possibilities. It is a kind of pressurisation through embarrassment into conformity by the person who utilises the laughing emoji.
Shaming to preserve the status quo, intentional or not, aids the prevention of social change and helps the maintaining of existing oppressive and exploitative power relations. It is not hard to find this manifest in debates on billionaires and poverty. There are many who scoff at the poor whilst simultaneously defending the rich and any attempt to question this power relationship is met head on with derisory laughter.
In continuity with the status quo, the laughing emoji can be used to communicate existing social discrimination. For those who speak out against discriminatory ideas and positions, being laughed at is commonplace. However, the person laughing betrays their own biases towards pre-existing discriminatory ideas. For example, if a commenter shows compassion to refugees, the laughing emoji is an attempt to ridicule this display of not only human emotion, but humanness full stop. In doing so, the one who used the laughing emoji is simultaneously demonstrating their inhumanness and lack of compassion towards the lives of others. Perhaps even further in terms of racial or ethnic discrimination.
Through the laughing emoji, the shaming element aids in devaluing the position of those who speak out against discrimination and can also serve as warning to others who might think of speaking out on a given issue. It promotes to those who see it the message that it is ridiculous to feel such a way which, in turn, encourages us to detach from any human affinity with the severe difficulties that refugees face.
In similar manner to the status quo, the laughing emoji can also help perpetuate existing social boundaries whether they be emotional boundaries, professional boundaries, or even boundaries of decency. The condescension of the laughing emoji is a signal to reject the individual commenter not only in comment terms, but as a person. It has as isolating effect through which an individual experiences a rejection. Thus, for those on the receiving end, social boundaries are brought into focus quite abruptly.
The laughing emoji, in its use to maintain existing social boundaries, could also be seen as maintaining the Overton window. The Overton window refers to the spectrum of public and political discourse or policy focus which is deemed acceptable; the social boundaries of acceptable debate. Through using the laughing emoji against commenters who speak in favour of certain social changes, universal basic income for example, it both sets these ideas as unacceptable in the public and political discourse, and simultaneously reinforces that Overton window. Thus, the laughing emoji makes visible the social boundary of acceptability of social structure.
Being laughed at has other well-known effects. The shaming effect leads to feelings of insecurity or inferiority, especially given the way in which the condescension of the laughing emoji can give the impression that the person using it is in a higher position of power than the person on the receiving end. Any person commenting who is not self-assured in their knowledge could further experience an epistemological insecurity especially when they are unsure of their own position in the wider context of the debate. It could lead to those who are unsure being persuaded to back away from their thinking and align with the position of the person ridiculing.
Becoming resentful or hostile can be an effect of being laughed at. This can and does lead to the very polarised comment systems we see online particularly when being laughed at inspires feelings of anger or resentment. Similarly, it also consequentially exacerbates the echo chamber effect as people retreat from more public forums and into corners where others are more agreeing to one’s views.
Continuing the emotional aspect, feelings of invalidation can manifest, particularly if the laughing emoji is used against the commenter in relation to something they have said which is based on real world experience or even traumatic experience. Used in this manner, it could perhaps be seen as a form of gaslighting where one’s experience comes to be destabilised giving rise to one doubting themselves or even others joining in on the casting of doubt.
This kind of behaviour is often seen in things such as benefits shaming where people’s real experiences of poverty are at laughed by others who have been deliberately misled by media constructions which communicate images of those on benefits living a life of luxury or being unable to budget correctly. Shame has been shown to be very closely associated with claiming benefits (e.g. Negus, 2021).
Being subjected to the laughing emoji, particularly in sensitive commenting, could lead to individuals deciding that participating in further online discussion is not worth the trouble. Here, the effects are multitudinous. It allows those laughing to control conversations or debates ultimately allowing those people to have their voices amplified over others. Similarly, it aids in silencing those who might contribute important experiences and narratives to a given debate. This is a reason why sociology often uses qualitative data as social phenomena can be hidden in the experiences of the individual. Although the experiences of one individual do not necessarily demonstrate anything, when combined with other individuals it can unveil patterns of consistency. Many of the most important contributions are made by those who have significant, individualised experiences. By laughing them out of the debate arena, everybody loses.
Another interesting way of looking at the laughing emoji, especially within the contexts that we are looking at, is as a logical fallacy. An appeal to ridicule is considered a logical fallacy whereby a person makes an appeal to, or uses as the basis of their argument, ridicule. The laughing emoji is the appeal to ridicule in visual form; a visual logical fallacy. Very often, many people just click the laughing emoji as a response to a commenter without adding any written context. This indicates that the individual’s argument is the sum total of the laughing emoji; an appeal to ridicule. Therefore, the person who does this is, in fact, perpetuating a bad argument and on that very fact alone has essentially proven themselves to have nothing to contribute.
Overall then, the laughing emoji when used in a condescending context can create all kinds of issues in that personal intersection between public and private space. The ability of people to wield it for the purposes of maintaining the status quo, shaming, and social control creates an unwelcoming environment in which speaking out means placing one’s self in a vulnerable position. Those who look on are also vulnerable to witnessing the effect of the laughing emoji on others. Its wholesale use across many sensitive areas ultimately unveils its tyrannical grip on conversations across the internet.
Bates, R. A., & LaBrecque, B. (2020). The sociology of shaming. The Journal of Public and Professional Sociology, 12(1), 3.
Frank, A., Alexander, I.E., and Sedgwick, E.K. eds., (1995). Shame and its sisters: a Silvan Tomkins reader. Durham; London: Duke University Press.
Mendible, M. (2016). American shame: stigma and the body politic. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Negus, S. C. (2021). Getting personal: investigating how living with universal credit affects emotions and identities. Sheffield Hallam University (United Kingdom).