Smoke and mirrors?

Published February 25, 2024
The writer is an instructor in journalism.
The writer is an instructor in journalism.

A LINE from a piece I quoted a few weeks ago has stayed with me: “Does social media cause this anger or does it reveal it?” This was from a 2022 interview Vox did with Lucy Allais, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University. I’ve been paying more attention to exchanges in the real world and the virtual world to see if I can attempt to answer whether X held up a mirror to show us we are rude and angry; were we always like this?

I couldn’t get anywhere because I was rudely disconnected from the platform I hoped would allow me to show you a glimpse of the aforementioned frustration. But I think we all kind of know that how we got here is the result of years of stoking anger, resentment, fear about ‘the others’ — for one side the others are corrupt, another blames the cult followers for all ills in Pakistan.

An explanation may be needed here, especially for an older generation unfamiliar with how algorithms select content that elicits anger and outrage as an audience engagement strategy. These platforms allow for people’s inhibitions to be lowered online because the nature of the interaction offers anonymity, invisibility and no fear of consequences. Social media is an unforgiving place. Users are baying for blood and unable to imagine, let alone accept, that someone made a mistake in their 280-word tweet. You can get away with saying truly horrible things and at most, your account is suspended, only for you to create another one. Studies show how extreme emotions coupled with lack of accountability can lead to bullying, harassment and — this is scary — arguments that end in violent in-person confrontations.

Max Fisher documented some incidents in his book Chaos Machine. He cites a study conducted in 2017 where researchers tried to understand why refugees in some towns in Germany experienced violence and others didn’t. They found that where people used Facebook a lot in that area, violence was up. If there was a decrease or disruption in Facebook usage, violence was down. There’s equally compelling, and terrible, stories of how people used WhatsApp to organise massacres of Muslims in Myanmar and the violence in the US Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, has been linked to vlogs on YouTube promoting radical views.

Social media is an unforgiving place.

Social media platforms are, as the founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey told a Congressional hearing in the US, “ultimately […] a business. And a business wants to grow the number of its customers”.

The way it does so is by keeping users online longer, in their echo chambers, hearing what they want to hear. However, they don’t want to accept responsibility for what people do after they’ve been fed content on their platforms. This is where it gets tricky. Social media isn’t shaping worldview but world events too, as Fisher writes in his book.

And Facebook — which also owns WhatsApp — doesn’t really want to take responsibility for the mobs that went on an anti-Muslim rampage in Sri Lanka in 2018. Fisher writes how Facebook did not respond to the Sri Lankan government’s calls to help them — before the violence broke out — but did write to ask why their traffic had dropped after the government banned Facebook for a short period to quell the violence. Facebook did eventually apologise for its role after conducting a probe into the events.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since.

The answer is not to impose a ban, says Fisher. This must be especially disappointing to read for policymakers in Pakistan, whose favoured form of solution is to ban. I don’t know when it has served them well but here we are, with no access to X and no let-up in the disinformation.

Fisher believes platforms could try turning off algorithms and “engagement-maximising features” — like the like button and the counter at the bottom which shows you how many people have liked it, shared it. Policymakers around the world have to work with these platforms to get them to remove the harmful aspects within their platforms because there is good in social media. I believe most governments don’t want to risk alienating these platforms that can pack up and go elsewhere, taking their millions with them.

Right now, unfortunately, these platforms are showing us our worst sides. And it’s playing out in the real world as we saw when women diners attacked — verbally and physically — PML-N’s Hanif Abbasi at a restaurant in Islamabad. I fear once their identities are revealed and shared, their safety is at risk. I suspect they didn’t think of the consequences because they were driven by moral outrage online, not rational thinking in real life. It is impossible to avoid harassment, misogyny, videos of violence and atrocities, conspiracy theories online. We have to move fast if we want to stop that from treading in our physical world.

The writer is an instructor in journalism.

X: LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2024

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