Youth Day: We need to leave (anti-)social media behind

 Youth Day: We need to leave (anti-)social media behind

Tian Alberts

If there is anything that Cambridge Analytica and Russian troll farms influencing elections have taught us, it is that even the tech-savvy generations don’t fully comprehend the complexity and pitfalls of the supposed tools that we use online to contribute to the public discourse. The impersonal nature of social media ensures that fortune will not favour the brave and virtuous, but rather the alliances and hunting packs, however anonymous and artificial the accounts may be that comprise them, that generate the most traffic in a given period. Giant media corporations report daily on the notions underlying social media traffic, leading to conclusions about society in general that are consumed by viewers, listeners and readers who thereupon pick up their smartphones to express outrage and contempt. In their nature, these sequences comprise a positive feedback loop that generates extremely potent narratives — both online and offline — that are difficult to pierce with scrutiny, level-headed discussion, dialectic analysis or even human empathy. This difficulty is compounded by the predictable undesirable social and professional consequences of publicly posting or expressing views that might not even necessarily contradict overarching narratives, but merely fail to validate all aspects of them.

The harsh implications of all this for our youth is an understanding of the world reduced to superficial, vapid and often misguided narratives flagged by hashtags and trend categories. Nuance, grey areas, empathy and critical appraisal are lost, but at least we can claim that we displayed solidarity in relation to problems that we could hardly understand — and hence never solve.

The tragic and unjustifiable police-death of George Floyd in the United States, while rightly and understandable eliciting outrage and pain, also triggered the surfacing of potent narratives surrounding systemic racism, white supremacy and victimisation of black people worldwide. By referring to them as narratives, I don’t suggest at all that conversations on those topics cannot be legitimate, but rather that in their current form they are not conversations at all. Instagram feeds filled with black squares and concomitant hashtags to signify solidarity with “black people” worldwide, begs the question whether we are labouring under the assumption that our social media platforms and the effortless “post” or “tweet” actions they put at our disposal really contribute to some sort of solution.

While in the wake of online movements even prospective non-participants and especially dissidents eventually succumb under the social pressure to “step in line” and post something validating after all, it is not at all clear that this social media culture of uncritically mustering strings of hashtags and stories together serves the purpose of tackling injustice at all. What if this modus operandi primarily promotes disinformation, stereotypes, half-truths and supposed axioms that represent little more than that which is rendered when thousands submit “post” or “tweet” without applying their minds independently and individually? Given the immense online pressure when the “entire world” seems to be watching, and not to mention the rampant cancel culture, such a conclusion seems warranted. What does it signify about our youth’s potential to achieve great things, if the content of our public discourse is moulded (and selectively muted) by the numerical extent to which certain hashtags are replicated – mostly beyond our national borders?

Zaid Jilani, a Pakistani American Muslim, has written recently that although there are discernible instances of discrimination and racism against ethnic minorities in his community, the assumption that ethnic minorities in the USA are “simply virtuous victims, cast adrift on a plank in an ocean of white supremacy over which we have no control” — as the current hashtags seem to denote — is extremely dehumanising as it strips him of agency and responsibility. The point is not the substance of this contention, but that his contribution is too nuanced, balanced and empathetic to different viewpoints to survive the incessant back and forth and hashtag peddling on social media; it wouldn’t adequately fit a prominent narrative or bolster a hashtag.

The populism and extremism that can accompany “hashtags” and “trends” became apparent in South Africa’s 2019 general election. If the election results were to be based on Twitter support for political parties, the EFF would have won the election. In reality, of course, the EFF mustered just more than 10% of the popular vote. While divisive threads about race, racism and group identity are discernibly rife on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, a Momentum survey in 2019 has revealed that South Africans’ greatest concerns were, among others, unemployment, crime, corruption, poverty, housing, water supply and education. While 72% of respondents regarded unemployment their greatest concern and 41% corruption, a meagre 4% regarded “racism/discrimination” as their greatest concern with even roads (10%) enjoying higher priority among respondents. A possible explanation for the disproportionate and divisive prevalence of divisive racial merchandising is that by design these platforms, reward troublemakers, provocateurs and race-merchants with followers and other endorsements when humans’ ancient tribal circuits elicit a response resembling an “us versus them” mentality. Regrettably, the nature of these online battles permeates the greater national discourse that will define members of the youth’s approach to problem-solving and collaboration in the future.

The irony that presents itself is that social media isn’t quite social after all. When half of the Twitter accounts spreading misinformation about the Coronavirus are automated bots, and real people often hide behind anonymous profiles while posting slurs that they would never utter in the real social sphere, can we credit a network like Twitter with the notion of socialness? Given the widespread abuse of the few real individuals with the courage to use their real names when joining in contentious “debate”, as well as the psychotic manner in which especially teens often in vain seek validation on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, so-called “social networks” seems awfully anti-social. It is no wonder that multiple studies have found a strong relationship between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

Granted, social networks have broadened the horizons of millions of people by exposing them to concepts that are censored in their countries, promoted freedom of speech, enhanced communication and even access to education. These aspects of social networks can be retained without further fuelling the profitable, yet costly mechanisms that pollute the public discourse and cause teens to spend hours to end seeking affirmation and mindlessly scrolling through meaningless content at the expense of their mental health and productivity.

As a point of departure, we need to acknowledge that if we are going to have constructive conversations, promote causes and solve issues on a societal or personal level, that it will not happen on social networks. We should only use social media to animate real discussions, real connections and real-life efforts – not replace them.

Fortunately, podcasts, webinars and other long-form digital media have proven that a repudiation of social networks does not imply resorting to less modern forms of communication; we must distinguish modern digital opportunities from anti-social platforms that by design divide and give rise to simplistic narratives and stereotypes.

If we were to become the thought leaders that will save the future, we need to depart from social networks instantly, and promptly leave behind the superficial battles, misrepresentations and stereotypes that they stimulate. Grossly simplistic narratives and stereotypes about who we and supposed groups among us are, will not enhance our potential to achieve success collaboratively if not destroy it indefinitely.

Tian Alberts is editor-in-chief of Nova Mentis and a post graduate LLB-student at Stellenbosch University  

Tian Alberts