Is Social Media Making All Of Us Angry?

Posted on November 21, 2016 in Media, Society

By Zulfikar Manto

The recent victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections is being attributed to the anger people had against the established system. A similar argument was put forward in India at the time Modi and Kejriwal won the Lok Sabha and Delhi State elections respectively and, in Britain at the time of Brexit.

Clearly, people everywhere are very angry, and this anger has some serious political repercussions. Anger among the people against the establishment is nothing new neither are people’s expressions of this anger.

In modern democracies, this anger is expressed by an overthrow of the incumbent government, while in previous totalitarian regimes, rebellions were not unheard of (remember the French Revolution?). Is there something wrong with the kind of anger that drives the global political scenario?

Something that has majorly changed since the French Revolution is the rise of social media and how it can be easily accessed by most in the world. More people now have access to spaces where they can express their opinions and contribute to the making and distribution of news.

Coordinating rebellions and mobilising rebels is much easier now than it was, say, in 1857. It is now extremely convenient to broadcast news of an upcoming demonstration or protest via social media forwards, and as one would like to believe, this is a healthy trend in a democracy. If people are unhappy with the democratic government, social media makes it very easy for them to convey it.

The democratisation of broadcasting technology has however had a side effect that is increasingly showing its form. As more people have the power to circulate a piece of news, the credibility of news plummets.

Online hoaxes have always existed, but deeper penetration of social media has made them even more powerful. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that repeated rumours can be easily be misused to form a particular opinion. The mob lynching a year ago in Dadri is one example of the havoc rumours spread via social media can create. This is the reason why mobile internet is often restricted in sensitive times, be it in Gujarat or Kashmir.

While the credibility of information is one issue, the tone and language of such information is another. While you could argue what is true and what’s not, whether or not the language is disrespectful is somewhat a subjective decision. As the administrator of a social networking platform, if there is content stating that some journalists have illicit links with some politicians, it would be hard for me to disprove such a claim. Also, it would be wrong for me to take down such content for the absence of evidence because it is only a social networking site, not a court of law. On the other hand, if the content refers to the journalists as ‘dalaal’ or ‘presstitutes’ it is clear that this is hate speech and should be taken down. Most such WhatsApp forwards are in vernacular languages, and now increasingly, not in the form of text, but also as images or videos, making it extremely hard for automatic algorithms to detect and handle hate speech.

Social media today is full of hate speech; words like ‘presstitutes’, ‘sickular’, ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ flood my social feed. Such content surrounds us to such an extent that we don’t even realise what we are reading is only meant to instil a feeling of anger in us.

To define this anger, I am tempted to use a term that the Cabinet Minister, Arun Jaitley, used a few months ago – ‘manufactured dissent’. And this is how the anger today is different from the anger during the French Revolution. Today’s anger is what can rightly be termed ‘manufactured dissent’ as most of this does not come from the problems we face ourselves, or see others facing, rather because of the hate speech we are regularly exposed to.

Formulating a solution to this issue will take time. In fact, the problem is that so many people are okay with such content, that it would take time for social media platforms to even recognise this as a problem. It is unlikely that the elected governments or even the opposition would take a stand on this because believe it or not, they all benefit from it. The only way one can tackle this is for the ‘aam junta’ to understand the responsibilities that come from using the social media. I am sure they will definitely learn it one day, hopefully before the damage is done.