A few weeks back, a friend and I engaged in one of those good old-fashioned, all-too-rare-in-this-day-and-age things called a conversation. It was good to put my phone, laptop, iPad and other assorted technology down for a few minutes to get the 21st century equivalent of exercise: talking to other people.
However, the subtle effects of technology, which pervade and stalk every waking moment of millenials, were all too evident when I reflected upon my conversation and decided to write this piece.
The matter being debated was one which has received huge attention worldwide: the dire, appalling condition of Middle Eastern citizens, especially Syrians, subjugated to IS and the consequent mass asylum being sought in Europe. My friend argued that contrary to the public support that unrestricted immigration was receiving from pretty much all of Europe, Cameron and other European leaders’ hawkish policies were appropriate. Even before he had finished his premise, my inner Arnab Goswami (for the unaware) reared its ugly head and started frothing at its hypothetical mouth: here was a white man, having lived all his life in relative affluence in a developed nation, having the temerity to deny these impoverished folk the chance for a better life, away from war and destitution. Luckily for you guys, this article is being written because I managed to stop myself from interrupting him – but more importantly, it revealed to me the dangerous side of the so-called ‘Hashtag Revolution.’
You would be aware of the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, unless you’ve been living under a rock or in Scotland. It was used by people all over the world as a way of outraging and uniting to make their voices heard: that of giving refugees access to Europe and the EU. And so it was this wave of popular, indoctrinating sentiment which played a part in my initial anger at my friend’s comments. His reasoning, once I’d heard him out, was in fact very coherent and sensible. He said something along the lines that with unrestricted access to asylums, the risk of letting in members of sleeper cells and other terrorist organisations increases considerably– because although IS and other affiliates are deplorable and a blot on humanity, they’re not stupid. There are swathes of undocumented asylum seekers crossing borders and it doesn’t take too much effort to smuggle over a handful of terrorists into Europe. Some will rightfully argue, me included, that the call for help of millions of people far outweighs the risk of increased terrorist attacks, but the point is not about the merits of either argument: it is the extent to which one simple social media movement has made so many people completely blind to the fact that there exists another point of view, another opinion, as my friend illustrated, which lies outside of that which has been (artificially) defined as mainstream by traditional and social forms of media. There has been almost no discussion of the aforementioned alternative viewpoint in the refugee crisis and I can guarantee that anyone who has dared venture away from the accepted discourse has faced abuse and insults from ‘social media warriors.’
The main reason, in my opinion, for the phenomenon described above is the impermanence embedded in social media; the fact that every emotion felt is fleeting, every tweet worth your time and attention being followed by a gif of a cat attempting a risky jump and falling flat on its face. Just look at the #BringBackOurGirls campaign for the 270+ abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria. I was shocked to be reminded of this incident during research for this piece, as it had completely slipped my mind. Stories which should unite us in our anger and drive us to make the world a better place are instead buried deep in the rubble that is social media after a few days, weeks if we’re lucky. I’ll confess, rather ashamedly, that there have been multiple times where I have been too lazy to click on a link which I otherwise would and end up taking the headline at face value. All this leads to my hypothesis on our current topic of discussion: that 1) ‘laziness’ or taking information for granted has meant we stop reading articles in their entirety, instead making the sensationalist headlines used to sell papers the basis of our opinions and 2) attacking a differing point of view has become our way of assuaging our inability to help and the ensuing guilt we feel as an inevitable consequence of information overload.
It helps that there is another recent event to perfectly back up my point: the #IStandWithAhmed movement. In the immediate aftermath of the event, there were people & celebrities queuing up as though Apple was releasing a new iPhone to offer their support with that hashtag. No one bothered to delve deeper into the story – the only thing that mattered was that here was a boy from a religious & racial minority, who had been arrested simply because his teacher thought the clock he had made with such dedication was a bomb. The one man who did and ventured into the wilderness, Richard Dawkins, became the centre of a huge controversy and received all sorts of hate on Twitter (admittedly not that uncommon for him). But let’s have a look at his argument briefly: does it really warrant the outrage? Yes, what happened to Ahmed is terrible (and Dawkins has no issues with that) and evidence that racism still hasn’t been eradicated: but his press conferences, with his calm demeanour & smiling face after the supposed ordeal he went through, the setting up of multiple social media accounts with such rapidity after the event at least begs the question as to whether or not this was a calculated stunt rather than an actual mishap. To be clear, I am not suggesting for one moment that Ahmed faked this whole thing (although listening to a 14 year old boy telling me to ‘follow [your] dreams’ really pushes the limits of my sympathy): I am simply asking as to why Dawkins or anyone else is not even allowed to pose the question. This is a perfect example of the hypotheses that I had laid out in the previous paragraph: 1) People saw the hashtag and jumped on the bandwagon without further investigation and 2) I believe that it’s a way for people to lessen their guilt over their inaction & frustration when faced with this problem.
To sum up as succinctly as possible (ironic), social media has fomented & brought about great change in our world, mostly for the better. From initiating the Arab Spring to moments of hilarity like these, Facebook, Twitter & everything else has made so many people’s lives infinitely better. But as is always the case with anything, if it’s too good to be true, it usually is. The ease of circulation of information, combined with our inherent laziness, has meant that many people take news for granted and don’t bother reading the whole article and delving deeper. It also means that there is now a bulletproof way to satisfy your guilt and become a faux activist – by attacking anyone and anything that dares to have a point of view that is different to yours. All I can say to these people is please don’t take things at par value – unless it’s gifs of cats failing spectacularly.
Article by Mihir Choughule