Social media is becoming an increasingly powerful medium through which news – fake news and rumours – are disseminated. It allows everyone to become a budding journalist with uncensored, unfiltered and unedited content taking over people’s feeds while they revel in the ‘democratisation’ of information and the media. The spate of public lynchings in India is an example of how the raw footage of murder is recorded, uploaded and shared, eventually becoming a part of the news cycle.
The recent lynching of a man called Qasim was both photographed and filmed. One video shows how his pleas for water in his final moments fell on deaf ears.
What is striking about the footage, and indeed recordings of other lynchings, is that people are able to almost casually film the brutality and we are able to view it online without much discomfort.
In a way, it represents the perverse and frightening merging of our virtual and real worlds. This is true of individuals and mobs, and also for more organised terrorist groups like ISIS.
Perils of Being Connected 24x7
The manner in which a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasabeh, was burned to death is one example of how murder was ‘performed’ to terrorise people both online and offline. Most of ISIS’s ‘promotional’ videos are shot in a style that replicates Hollywood action films, and video games. The new world motto seems to be RUS: record, upload and share.
Today almost 3.196 billion people use social media of some kind. Compared to 2017, today’s average user is online for 2-3 hours a day, while most young people clock upwards of 7-8 hours per day. 50 percent of India’s population is under 25 and about 30 percent of this group is unemployed. This stark reality is worrying for many ‘real-world’ reasons, but one necessary outcome of this will be that many more young people will spend time online in an ecosystem that they do not have the tools to analyse and comprehend.
There are no moral limitations in this virtual world where everyone else is simply an algorithm, an ID or a hashtag.
Nowadays, children as young as 10 quite literally hold infinity in their palms, and parents or indeed schools only provide minimal information about how to engage with this boundless world. Language itself is changing where ‘hashtag’ is now a verb.
Blood, gore and murder no longer seem to evoke revulsion and horror. They can be simply ‘scrolled away’.
When Real Life & Virtual Reality Merge
The problem of looking at the world through a virtual lens is that everything becomes abstracted. Humans too fall prey to this. The person being trolled on Twitter or abused on Facebook is de-humanised. It is this psychological malaise that enables people to casually record a lynching. This leads to a situation where, despite technically having access to the entirety of knowledge produced by humankind hitherto, people retreat into echo chambers and silos.
The rise of the politics of victimhood across the world mirrors the manner in which identities are hardening and explains why people increasingly feel besieged.
The Internet facilitates the ossification of identity, precisely because the bewildering diversity and complexity of the world is often too much for most people to understand.
Historically, the scope of this transformation is comparable to the rise of the printing press, which made it possible to disseminate information on a mass scale, and catalysed altogether new ways in which people viewed themselves.
Today, it is inevitable that our virtual and real identities merge into each other creating paradoxes within us. The virtual identity easily becomes dominant as it simultaneously creates the illusion of absolute freedom – you can insult anyone – from a President to your local politician – while also hardening identities to make them more fixed.
Traditionally, such contradictions in people’s personalities were addressed through socialisation of various kinds – familial, cultural and religious. Traditional education offered moral solutions situated within larger philosophical and religious frameworks.
However, these were predicated on the possibility of dealing with others face-to-face. In the virtual world, there is no fear of confrontation – let alone retribution – unless a crime is committed. This too falls within rather opaque legal grounds. Thus, prejudice, threats of violence and rape, libel, abuse, lies and various otherwise immoral acts are worn as badges of honour rather than acts of shame.
What Social Media Thrives On
It is precisely these base feelings that the virtual social media marketplace thrives on, wherein it seeks to reinforce the illusion that each user is the centre of their ‘virtuverse.’ We forget that, to social media companies, we represent mere algorithms and terabytes of data waiting to be mined for more efficient marketing – or in more sinister scenarios – to manipulate elections.
Throughout history, people have been perplexed by questions of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood.
Prophets, seers, saints and philosophers have spent their lifetimes constructing ethical frameworks, which offer ways to think about these issues. It is therefore important to try and conceive an ethical framework to provide tools to navigate this virtualscape.
The starting point may be to recognise the potency of the very thing that the entire social media eco-system thrives on: the ego.
The live filming of a lynching is an example of what may emerge has a larger social problem in the future when, with the rise of the Internet of Things, everything in the real world will be accessed through the virtual world.
How to Ethically Use Social Media
The toxicity of the ego is something that has preoccupied humans for millennia. In the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna spoke of how the jita-ātmanaḥ – or person who conquers their mind – is truly content (Gita 6:7 and 2:71). The Quran speaks of the need to control and transcend the nafs al-ammarah – the base self – in order to realise the full potential of human beings, for otherwise, humans are prone to make desire their God (Quran 25:43).
Social media is fuelled by this very desire to be recognised and to be valued, but in doing so, it abstracts and therefore helps us dehumanise them.
This age old debate took on new dimensions during the European Enlightenment, when Reason was crowned king, so that Ego could (often) masquerade as the rational self.
In the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoyevsky critiqued this ‘rational egoism’ and equated it with immorality in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions after his tour of Western Europe. Rational egoism argues that actions are rational only if they maximise self-interest. This is precisely the principle that drives social media.
Dostoyevsky wrote of egoism, that it is ‘the personal principle, the principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of self-solicitousness, of the self-determination of the I –of opposing this I to all nature – and all other people as a separate, autonomous principle, entirely equal and equivalent to everything that exists outside itself.’
The basis of these various kinds of egoism are found in the divisions that exist in the real world – of believer and non-believer, anti-national and nationalist, lower caste and upper caste – amongst others. However, while there are ways to transcend these binaries even within traditional systems, social media can entrench and amplify them – and facilitate dehumanisation. The behaviour that is symptomatic of this psychological – indeed almost spiritual malaise – will only increase unless social media companies, thinkers and users come together to decipher how to be ethical online.
(Ali Khan Mahmudabad is an Indian historian, political scientist, poet, writer, and assistant professor in the dual fields of history and political science at Ashoka University. He tweets @Mahmudabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)