The question of emotional manipulation
This shift toward more emotive public communication and media culture could be explained by the rise of the internet and social media, which have enabled new emotional communication forms and habits (Peters 2011,301; Lindgren 2017,128).
In addition, mobile phones’ real-time messaging in the 1990s, and especially the use of emoticons, i.e., emotion icons, has paved the way for the use of emotions in digital communication. Of course, for centuries love letters and other forms of emotional correspondence were a common private practice. In that sense there is nothing new but the magnitude, intensity, and real-time feedback of the messages.
Jose van Dijck et al. (2018) have used the term “platform society” to illustrate how online platforms and societal structures are already intertwined. They have also emphasized that the platform companies often bypass old organizations and regulations (ibid, 1). Interestingly, they have not mentioned how the platform companies have already heavily invested in immersive technologies, potentially the next phase of human communication systems (see also Chapter 8). According to Frank Biocca and Mark Levy (1995, 127), already in the early 1990s introductory VR books often described VR as “the next logical step in the history of communication”.
Platform companies’ powerful position has already led to some serious ethical discussions. For example, Facebook has been blamed particularly for massive-scale emotional tests (Kramer et al. 2014;Jouhki et al. 2016) and for being the main publishing platform of a form of digital advertising that has been called “fake news” (Silverman 2016; van Dijck et al. 2018,49). Increasing awareness and critical public debates have created pressures, especially in the European Union, to combat misinformation and disinformation and to regulate the platform companies (Bakir & McStay 2018,155).
As David Hesmondhalgh (2019, xxi-xxii) has analyzed, there is a constant battle between the “doomed dinosaurs”, traditional cultural industries including media organizations, and their “crucial frenemies”, the IT industries. He writes that “it is increasingly obvious that the new world of digital networks has some extremely worrying aspects”, such as in terms of surveillance.
In addition, according to McStay (2016,1—3),“emotiveillance” has already been tested in reality, for example emotional surveillance by advertisers. In London in 2015, marketing company M&C Saatchi produced an advert for a fictional coffee brand that changed according to people’s facial reactions. It was presumably the first time that data about emotions was collected automatically for improving an advert’s performance.This improvement was done by replacing elements that did not bring enough positive responses.
McStay (2016, 1) has also coined the “empathic media” concept, which refers to “technologies that track bodies and react to emotions and intentions”. These “empathic media” technologies include, for example, facial coding, voice analytics, VR, augmented reality, and wearables. Based on these technologies, the users’ emotions could be machine-readable, and this data could be used for influence and surveillance (Bakir & McStay 2018, 155). McStay (ibid., 10) emphasizes that collecting and using intimate data raises legal and ethical questions, but he does not yet offer any answers for this “emotion-sensitive advertising”.
According to Pantti (2010, 178), in television journalism the most important question regarding emotion has been “How much emotion is too much?” This is also a valid concern for immersive journalism. As the development of immersive journalism is still only in its early stages and no mass audiences exist yet, it is important to start critical scholarly examination about the potential health issues and ethical implications of immersive technologies for journalism early enough.
Virtual reality and health effects: positive and negative
Physicians and psychotherapists have been in the forefront of adopting VR technologies in their work. According to VR treatments research literature, positive results have been published already for two decades.These range fromVR exposure therapy for phobias (Emmelkamp et al., 2001;Bowman & McMahan 2007; Parsons & Rizzo 2008; Diemer et al. 2015) to VR treatment for reducing pain (Hoffman et al. 2000; Hoffman et al. 2004; Malloy & Milling 2010), and, more recently, VR treatments for anxiety disorders (Opris et al. 2012).
According to the latest research, psychotherapists have used VR exposure therapy successfully to treat fear of heights (Temming 2018), fear of flying, and fear of going to the dentist (Metz 2018). In medicine,VR has had an impact on reducing pain (Hooker 2019; Savran Kelly 2018; Bailenson 2018), detecting early risks of Altzheimer’s (McKie 2018), neurological conditions (BBC.com 2018), and schizophrenia (Fidelman 2018). In addition,VR experiences have proved to be helpful in meditation practices (Garone 2018).
On the more negative side.VR experiences have also been proven to cause, for example, the loss of spatial awareness, dizziness and disorientation, seizures, nausea, eye soreness, trouble focusing, and motion or simulator sickness (Bailenson 2018; Fagan 2018).The term “cybersickness” has also been used in relation to immersive journalism (LaViola 2000; Hardee & McMahan 2017).
According to Gary Hardee and Ryan McMahan (2017), there are three main theories for what causes motion sickness in VR experiences. First, the poison theory argues that during an immersive experience the body misinterprets the stimuli as a form of toxic substance. Second, the postural instability theory claims that prolonged postural instability' results in motion sickness symptoms because humans are expected to maintain postural stability. Third, and perhaps the most believable of all, is the sensory' conflict theory, which is based on an assumption that the body does not know how to handle mixed signals or inconsistencies in relation to motion and the body’s orientation.
Psychologist and communication scholar Jeremy Bailenson, from the Virtual Human Interaction (VHI) Lab, which was founded in 2003 at Stanford University', has been one of the study pioneers of howVR experiences could lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. He has been focusing on experiments onVR since the turn of the millennium.
According to Jeremy Bailenson (2018), people’s VR experiences indeed have an impact on them and have psychological effects. Of course, these effects could be both positive and negative. VR experiences could encourage empathic understanding, often understood as “perspective-taking” or “walking in another’s shoes”. When head-mounted display users immerse themselves in closed VR experiences, their attention drifts away from their own bodies. Bailenson also mentions that this has been useful especially for pain reduction. On the negative side, he reminds that watching and listening to VR experiences could also cause “compassion fatigue” that can trigger anxiety, nightmares, and even burnout.
In Finland, we conducted our own empirical user tests on emotional reactions to immersive journalism experiences. The first pilot was with journalism students (n = 20). Additional focus group interviews with journalism students (n = 27) and VR journalism professionals (n = 4) followed. The tests, even at this small scale, provided a clear picture of ethical challenges as well as VR journalism’s potential benefits and pitfalls. Based on our own tests, including nine different minidocumentaries or immersive experiences with journalism students, the main result was that the same experiences could generate many different reactions, depending on the person and their background.Therefore, we can claim that immersive journalism stories are far more complicated, nuanced, and provide a more subjective experience than previously thought (Uskali et al. 2019).
Based on our findings, we can argue that negative motion sickness effects do exist, but they vary from person to person. Regarding immersive journalism, one important aim should always be to avoid any motion sickness effects. The easiest way to do this is just to remember not to move the cameras (see also Hardee & McMahan 2017). According to our research,surprisingly many mini-documentaries in 2018 still included segments that used 360-degree cameras in motion.
In conclusion, we argue that immersive journalism, when using the VR storytelling methods, operates in a sensitive emotional area that also needs serious consideration of ethics.