The Tyranny Of Opinions

Posted by Devang Pathak in Media, Society
December 22, 2016

Tyranny is defined as a cruel, unreasonable, arbitrary use of power or control. Ancient Greeks called it a rule by one who has absolute power without legal right. The visuals this word inspires in my mind, however, are much more grandiose than these academic explanations. The fears of ambition and corruption in Julius Caesar come to mind as does Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi. There is another kind of tyranny which I have recently discovered.

The prospect of raiding the vast expanse of the Internet in 2006 genuinely excited me. I had this mythical tool at my disposal through which I could conjure up all the information in the world. The summer after my tenth-grade boards was a joyous one. I could scour the Internet to find answers to questions I had always harboured but found no closure for at school. The information age had arrived with previously inaccessible data present in books, documents, newspapers and, even oral stories, collated into online encyclopaedias and websites.

‘Google it’ wasn’t the tagline of a lethargic and ill-informed generation yet but a key to unlock an infinite supply of the world’s knowledge. There was no room left for assumptions or blissful ignorance anymore because one could corroborate one’s facts through multiple sources. The pursuit of this information age in India however, coincided with another revolution for me, one which would go on to render all previous Internet revolutions redundant. An exclusive website called Facebook had been making strong gains in India and I had received an invite to join.

Indian Social Media in its true might arrived in 2008 in the advent of Facebook, followed by Twitter, radically different from the existing platforms of Orkut, MySpace and chat applications. The new platforms integrated the features of their predecessors while turning on the spotlight on a previously unattended demographic – you.

The Internet of knowledge and communication was redesigned to fit into a new narrative with you at the centre of it all. Your thoughts and feelings no longer served just the purpose of ice breaking at strange social situations or banter with friends, but as essential content to fill your online friend’s newspapers. A learning curve spread over several months and years shaped the acceptable online conversation one could have with their social groups and even with the world at large.

A radical period of self-expression and bonding followed where the introverted and the socially inept could voice themselves in safe spaces and form meaningful connections. Platforms like Twitter and YouTube even encouraged a public conversation on ‘trending’ topics, gradually according not just acceptance, but even fame and success to many. The reality shows on television now transitioned into real lives and everyone was a contestant.

But as with the Internet, the platforms themselves went through a transition where their goals of connection and conversations were radically altered.

Facebook emerged as the largest media company in the world. Twitter, left far behind in number of users and usage, became a real-time news centre which often defined the ‘Breaking News’ of the day, while combating the tag of a hateful and abusive platform. The growth was bolstered by their users generating content which itself was used to show ads and earn revenue. The more content was generated, the better they fared.

The spotlight-drenched user, having mastered the suppression of his hesitance and introversion, would happily comply to every prompt from the platform. When the selfies and photos would be exhausted or the game and application posts seem repetitive, the user would happily broadcast his thoughts on current events.

I had once stated that democracy is a place where someone’s stupid opinion is considered as important as my intelligent thought. I was hopelessly wrong. A democracy is a place where an opinion is considered as important as a fact and in some instances, even more significant.

Digital humans, hyper-connected and hyper-vigilant, had to condense their complicated musings into simplified statements. Facebook, with close to 2 billion users, would radically alter its news feed algorithm in recent years to the present setup where posts from friends are favoured over posts from pages and celebrities, including publications. Effectively, one was more likely to see an article shared by a friend, captioned with their opinion than the original article shared by the publication’s page. Twitter did not employ any such complicated algorithms on its timeline but its 140 – character limit spawned a culture it could seldom control.

A tool to quickly garner and spread breaking news, Twitter quickly became the ground for political, social and cultural war. The end user, enamoured by the stories of overnight fame on social media, would happily supply content to Twitter. You could simply tweet your opinions without evidence and lay claim to the fame you deeply desired. “What I think” quickly surpassed “This is a fact” in an argument.

The liberals and conservatives would indulge in screaming battles instead of nuanced arguments. Platforms like Facebook, which created an affirmative environment for one’s beliefs, saw their opinions being supported by like-minded people while Twitter users weren’t afraid of vile feedback or trolls as they let their points of view known. It seemed like a futile exercise allowing people to vent their feelings in an innocuous manner. Then came 2016.

A great number of articles and opinions are available on how the online filter bubbles contributed to the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. But what few have pointed out is that other than the bubble, his election represents a culmination of our shift from facts to feelings and opinions.

The self-assured internet user now operates with an insurmountable level of narcissism and self-righteousness, formed over a near-decade of social media. They are now certain of their opinion on something, even before allowing time for facts or logical thinking. For instance, when India announced the demonetisation scheme, users on Twitter were quick to claim moral superiority in how this would punish the black money hoarders and lauded the decision within minutes of the announcement. As of November 18, HuffPost India reported 55 deaths related to this demonetisation move while Catch News roundup as of December 9 stood at 90. There are reports on its ineffectiveness in curbing black money, implementation mistakes, shifting narratives on goal, and the countless stories of personal pain and loss.

Facts do little sometimes to circumvent their opinions. If a news article or fact is presented, it’s quickly framed in a manner to support their argument. You can have two people with radically different points of view, citing the same source but offering different interpretations.

It must be noted that not all users are cognizant of this behaviour. They aren’t political commentators or experts. They do not operate with a particular agenda in mind. In fact, most notable users who have massive influence digitally, speak from a sense of objectivity and a tinge of self-righteousness. They try to interpret a situation on their own accord with the best intentions. But they fail to take into account the loss in translation in an era of 140 characters and agenda-driven narrative.

Freedom of speech and expression is often raised by them when such criticism is exercised and rightly so. Free speech forms a pillar of a true democracy, even if its conception couldn’t possibly have accounted for social media. Free speech has been historically used to rile up the masses in protection of freedom and liberty. But in truth, it’s always had custodians. It was a right exercised firmly only by writers, activists, artists in film, theatre and music, as well as journalists to express themselves or to reveal a societal truth. It was never designed to handle an entire society at a time. Now, close to 2.3 billion souls use it every day on two massive platforms, resulting in an age of misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance. Freedom of speech now leads to a freedom for disruption.

I am automatically programmed to react to a current event online in the most verbal and visual way possible. My first priority is to be funny because nothing attracts followers and admiration like humour. But it’s still an opinion and it has the potential to influence 600 people who follow me on Twitter. I interact personally with six people at most on a daily basis and my entire year will not have me keeping in touch with more than 20. And yet, I hold this massive power which I exercise in the most irresponsible way possible.

There’s a tyranny in your opinion in 2016. It accords you massive power which is exercised in seldom a rightful manner. How do we tell publications to repeal an incorrect report when we will gladly retweet or share someone’s post whose only credibility is determined by what he/she has stated online or by their follower count? There are hundreds of ill-informed tweets and stories which are shared everyday not by fake news sites but actual users. Why is our trust in social media so implicit while we question traditional news sources and journalists vehemently?

If you’re looking to me for solutions, I can barely conjure up any. But if there’s a starting point, it lies in us trusting facts again. An article from a trusted news source and journalist with vetted facts should be more widely circulated and read than a Facebook post or a tweet. Period. Twitter threads should never be your go-to source for credibility until vetted by a reliable source. Columns from respected experts, formulated with unbiased facts and neutral representations need to be trusted over social media celebrities or graphics, including this article. If a respected journalist or expert refutes my claim that social media has made us more opinionated than before with facts, I would humbly accept my fallacy and withdraw this article.

The onus of a deep introspection, however, lies on us. The insecurities and impulses which push us to treat our digital reality like a fame quest need to be understood and quelled. When you express your outrage or endorsement of something, you are becoming responsible for something which can influence the hundreds, thousands or even millions who follow you. You are attaching your name to something which will never be erased much like a quote in a newspaper or an appearance on Television. If we are to win back the conservatives, liberals, pacifists, progressives and others whom we have isolated, we cannot do it through obstinate and ill-informed positions we adopted with little conviction in order to gain a fan.

It’s time to accept that your opinion based on your bias, experience and knowledge is worth the outdated 500 and 1,000 Indian rupee notes. You may have a huge reserve of them and treasure them deeply, but the world has no use for them anymore. If 2016 represents a chaotic moment which has bred uncertainty and anxiety, it also presents an opportunity for radical ideas and changes to take effect. These volatile times now demand vigilance from us in how we consume and shape this new discourse and a failure to do so, risks making 2017 even worse.