Social media has recently emerged as “Villain No. 1” in the eyes of governments all over the world especially when it comes to a question of “protest” against or “dissent” from them. The UP police blamed the use of WhatsApp for the mobilising of the anti-Agnipath agitation. It was the same during the Shaheen Bagh movement and the nationwide farmers’ stir.
But it is not always about politics. Last week, following the death of 22-year-old wrestler Hana Kimura, Japan declared online humiliation a punishable offence. Kimura took her life due to bullying on the Internet over her role in Netflix’s Terrace House. The incident reminded me of the suicide of the teenage son of an acquaintance. I still remember his remark made with a blank look on the face: “I lost my son to social media.” His son had been waging a lonely online battle to prove that being a Muslim does not place him in the category of being ‘anti-national’.
Social media, with its own pros and cons, pluses and minuses, has become a ‘one more shot’ addiction. It is a space ruled by the ‘selfish giant(s)’ of the Oscar Wilde story who show off the bounties of their garden to viewers.
No doubt, social media can emerge as “Hero No. 1”, too, playing a role in organising an Arab Spring, a #BlackLivesMatter or a #MeToo, leading to “E-Democracy From Below” as Jay G. Blumler and Stephen Coleman have dreamt of. Could it give rise to a ‘digital democracy’ for the Facebook generation? On occasions, it has provided a perfect platform for collective grassroots action beyond mediums controlled by the Establishment.
But shrewd as they are, political leaders have usurped the power of social media. They have embarked on a journey to use different social media platforms to spread their various narratives amongst people. This happened especially after the success of the Five Star Movement in 2009. The anti-establishment, pro-people, environmentalist Five Star Movement was the first political party to use social media to reach its voters. Engaging direct participation from citizens, Beppe Grillo, its founder, used his blog set up in 2005 asking supporters to adopt social media to hold local meetings. No wonder, the use of social media by the BJP in the 2014 general elections yielded profuse dividends but have turned Twitter and Facebook into battlegrounds.
Can we really afford to ignore the impact of social media? Is there any aspect of our life that has remained untouched by its presence? We are watching housewives doing their daily chores (while their own work is being done by a domestic help or lying there unattended), and we are hooked on seeing slim, young Korean girls polishing off tonnes of food in mukbang videos (secretly envying them and wondering “how could they”), listening to various religious sermons spitting spite and fulfilling political agendas, and puffing up our chests and filling our vanity boxes with alt-truths and fake news from WhatsApp University, considering ourselves well-informed, nay erudite.
Is it any wonder that within no time we have had songs such as “Follow Me”, “Hit Me on Twitter”, “Follow U on Twitter” filling the ether waves? What’s more, with the present figure of 376.1 million social media users in India in 2020, we are expected to cross 448 million by 2023. In number of Instagram users, India is second only to the US and it ranks third among TikTok users. So what if we have finished at the bottom of the Environment Performance Index-2022 released recently by the World Bank? Please don’t bother us with such trivial issues. We are busy waging a war of words on Twitter to earn the coveted title of patriot or radical.
As far as I am concerned, I have enjoyed an on-again-off-again relationship with social media. During this time, I have also observed situations which have convinced me as to its pervasive reach, and influence. For instance, my domestic help, who is unlettered, I overheard saying on the mobile, “No I wasn’t invited but I came to know about her marriage on Facebook.” It was a “statue” moment for me which you can blame on my absence on Facebook/Instagram, etc., at the time.
Its potential benefits notwithstanding, social media has opened up a world of opposites, a binary dunia, this or that, devta or rakshas, Right or Left, hot or not, nationalist or anti-national. There is no middle path, no pause left to breathe and consider. The word ‘social’ has acquired a new meaning — navel-gazing and isolation. The race is now on to win online friends and followers. That has become another marker of success. A number of actors have recently complained of not getting roles because of less numbers of followers. The selfie culture has opened a Pandora’s Box of insecurities while having a social media presence has become a major obsession for the younger generation.
In a way, the real ‘candies’ of life are ‘crushed’ under its wheels. There are so many Angry Birds out there. We have become children in the playing field — are you on my side or not? No? Not talking to you! Period!