Sagnik Bhattacharya, Advisor - Rights and Partnership,
AP Photo/Jon Elswick
Of the British print media, it was once said by the BBC Prime Minister Jim Hacker that,
“The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”
Jokes aside, the world of political polemics and campaigns have traditionally been that way all through the centuries that the printing press has been serving the political sphere and has entered the life of that silky abstraction termed the ‘Civil Society.’ While several media-houses feigned neutrality, their audience was, in most cases, aware of the inclinations of each and participated over these platforms likewise. And this stood true for even the ‘critical’ publishers outside the realm of political mouthpieces like the National Herald or People’s Democracy – it stood true for those houses that published analyses and opinions of commentators and experts such as Mainstream or the Economic Weekly. Indian readers of the Frontier in the 1970s did not expect a capitalist appraisal of Indian development but read it in anticipation of a (left of the) leftist discourse and critique of national and international government policies. The world of media mobilization was always a fragmented one—that was always divided along the ‘pro-establishment’ and ‘anti-establishment’ fault-lines.
However, since the popularization of social media since the mid-2000s, this trend seems to have been revolutionized in manners hardly imaginable a decade ago. Today, the right (or, wrong) algorithm will show the consumer advertisements on sustainable food-sources as well as fossil-fuel companies; and signing a “change.org” petition for expanded LGBTQ+ rights only to find a fundraiser for conversion-therapy a few swipes down the infinity-scrolls page is increasingly regular affair! This unprecedented merger of the platforms for the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’ (to put it in crude terms) can on the surface be explained very easily as it allows such social media platforms to earn from all sides of the spectrum which now includes the entire range of social and increasingly (since about 2015-16) political spheres of civil participation; but is that all, or is there a much more sinister rationale behind this conglomeration?
With the currently raging pandemic and the difficulty of organizing protests and dissent in the open, a lot of the pressure groups have taken to the internet more than ever to garner public support for their cause. While such efforts seem to grant visibility to marginalized protest groups or fringe protesters, a cynic would point out that a large section of the population responding to these posts and petitions are regular people scrolling on the platform who seem to take fancy to a certain cause, ‘like’ it and forget all about it altogether. Sadly, we all know the same behaviour is true for those who don’t stop simple at ‘liking’ but also ‘share.’ The result is short-lived outrage with minimum consequence – such as the “Boys’ Locker Room” incident or the social media outrage surrounding childhood bullying a few months ago.
That the social media genuinely aids social and democratic political movements has been demonstrated by Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring, but sadly it also empowers demagogues into positions of influence. It allows fringe issues from the remotest of rural areas to feature in urban public consciousness while at the same time allowing fringe movements such as the Flat Earth Society to take root. The question is, which side is actually benefiting from this ‘equalization,’ why is this unprecedented development taking root and most importantly, in spite of the now exposed clear right-wing inclination of these corporates, why are they allowing it?
A Cynical Question?
These questions might sound sardonic, but they stand to reason. If this grand coalescence was natural, it would have happened decades ago. Yet, media research shows, one newspaper or journal after another, given enough time, almost inevitably chooses its ‘side’ and ‘colour.’ All media, expect ‘social media’ such as Facebook or micro-blogging sites such as Twitter. But is this all bad? After all it allows activists a space to pitch their views and make their voices heard – garnering support through “Likes” and signatures on petitions. Worst case, even if the petitions don’t actually make any change they certainly encourage more proactive and positive action, right? Well, both yes and no.
While an unequivocal criticism of online activism as ‘slacktivism’ is certainly undeserved, research into its effectiveness has produced mixed results. In order to ensure ease of understanding I will first discuss the most prominent argument in favor of online activist: that online activism or even ‘activism by the button’ that is, ‘sharing’ or pressing the like button on a post or a petition promotes or incentives further steps and more effective action such as real-life involvement etc.
Unfortunately, a study at the University of British Columbia showed that the key factor determining whether “token support” will lead to further involvement with a particular cause was the nature of the act of support itself—whether the act was ‘public’ or ‘private.’ The study found that ‘public’ acts such as ‘sharing’ on the social media or ‘liking’ a post are less likely to create sustained and sustainable pattern of pro-social behaviour because these actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, go towards building our own self-image in front of out ‘friends’ and ‘followers.’ Once the need for a positive image is fulfilled there is little scope for additional investment in issues related to social or political welfare. They feel as if they have “done their part,” and in a vast majority of cases, the issue raises no further demands in their conscience. On the other hand, ‘private’ acts such as volunteering or donating does not immediately satisfy the need for personal image management and hence leaves intact the potential for future engagement with the cause or the issue at hand. It may sound cynical to its core—but we are effectively functioning within a ‘sympathy economy’ but this often makes us miss the big picture that the Times of India put very poignantly – when dealing with social injustice, sympathy does not equate to solidarity.
However, it is important to point out that Kristofferson et. al.’s study mentioned above does not claim that public social engagement can have no positive benefits, so the question is why do they not translate into substantial prosocial activism? The answer might lie both in the algorithms employed by these platforms and that great convergence mentioned at the beginning of the article. We are simply overloaded with information.
This information comes in the form of articles from both credible and dubious sites, from petitions, from tweets, from pictures, videos—some genuine, some doctored; and from personal experience posts. Yet, the crucial thing about them is that they come to us all at the same time! Contrary to the older form of political or social engagement where citizens could choose the kind of information they wish to receive as well as at rate at which they wished to engage with the world, the average user is now faced with a constant bombardment of data, facts and figures—all the while being aware that not all of it is true. The end result of this is a slowing down of the decision-making processes of the user and a lack of deep engagement with the content. This potentially rules out all the possibilities of extended and sustainable engagement that may have been made possible via the social media – effectively subduing the audience into a trance-like state of passive tokenism and effectively dissuading long-term commitments.
Picture Credit/ IONOS
The Safety Valve
The ultimate effect of this information overload within the sympathy economy is the provision of immediate gratification to the person engaging in such forms of interaction and effectively inhibiting ‘real’ activism—real social or political change. For as long as people feel they have done their part in solving global problems they will be less inclined to engage in more ‘active’ and more risk-prone actions such as demonstrations and protests which might end in violence or arrests; while at the same time a constant barrage of conflicting information will keep us rooted in their spots inhibiting decision-making processes.
As a result of this ‘great convergence,’ social media automatically acts as an inhibitor to social change by its very nature. Although the maxim might sound counterintuitive at first, it appears to be true: by allowing for a revolution, social media stifles revolution! The ‘revolution by the button’ is the real culprit that keeps the revolution limited to the digital world and buries it six-feet-under the hundreds of other posts and videos of household pets performing tricks which immediately dissipates the anger generated by a video of establishment atrocities. Allan Octavian Hume may or may not have created a safety valve to save British Imperialism in India, Silicon Valley certainly did—to sustain an unjust and oppressive global order.
Procrastination as Zeitgeist
It must be remembered at a time when social media platforms such as Facebook have been increasingly coming under accusations of right-wing support and manipulation. They have constantly been feigning neutrality, showing that social and political activists from all sides of the spectrum participate using their platforms. It is important to remember that his argument is essentially not a defense but a conviction of sorts, as it is this very coalescence that tacitly works in confusing the audience and delaying their response to the urgent problems that need action. This overload of information can actually trigger procrastinating behaviour owing to the (firstly) unconscious and subsequently conscious delaying of decision-making due to this onslaught of new and conflicting views that leave us with little time to process. In a way, procrastination is increasingly becoming the zeitgeist of the present decade.
The final question to ask here is of course, whom does it benefit? As activism is rendered increasingly confused and the ‘urge’ to do something, the ‘outrage’ is consequently “managed” by channelizing it through the “button” which provides immediate gratification and inhibits sustained action on the one hand, and pacifies and captivates its audience on the other, the ultimate beneficiary of this nexus is the political, social and economic establishment. After all, it stands to reason that media platforms that effectively build empires will closely shadow actual empires and with the stakes so high, it makes sense from a business perspective for massive multinational companies such as Facebook, Twitter etc. to try to be in the good books of the establishment. So the moderating effect that social media activism creates by offering the illusive option of the low-state ‘revolution-by-the-button’ is in fact a corporate manufactured procrastination that keeps things where and how they are while at the same time provides the illusion of doing something.
Conclusion: What is to be Done?
Although the challenge that the proverbial ‘Common Man’ faces today from such media platforms is indeed enormous, the solution to this is surprisingly simple at the onset. Simply by being aware of this manufactured procrastination, the careful social media user can in fact evade its snare to some degree. However, there are a number of more constructive steps that might be taken if such corporate machinations are to be neutralized.
Promotion of more direct connections and contacts with grassroots organizations and activists who work directly with the people.
Educating the audience about what their ‘solidarity’ can actually achieve.
Discussing how the cause may be affected by different degrees of displays of solidarity. That is, what a donation versus what a “like” might achieve.
Devising more ‘private’ and thus direct and personal forms of engagement instead of content that becomes successful through mere ‘sharing’ or ‘reacting.’
In a nutshell, newer forms of online participation of the civil society is needed if they are to remain relevant in the political and social discourse of the present and coming days. It must not be forgotten that large corporations and governments are equally a part of the establishment that citizens (or netizens) must engage with and they when forms of engagement becomes predictable, both these institutions can rein in that body of dissenters by channelizing their dissent into neutral forms – and in that case, we face a far more formidable enemy than the ordinary State.
When the organization that is the establishment incarnate, begins to be allowed for dissent through its own organs, both the citizen and netizen must be equipped to be able to smell the rat.
Sagnik graduated from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, specializing in transnational history and cultural anthropology; and is primarily interested in the field of State-tribe relationships with a focus on demographic knowledge production. He also regularly performs research on Global (Cultural) History and his primary area of interest is Eastern India. His research can be accessed here.