Print Edition - 2015-10-10  |  On Saturday

The spectre of the social media

  • It’s difficult to discern how close the correlation is between facts on the ground and fanatical rantings on social media
- Chahana Sigdel
There is no denying that the online world has increasingly come to feel like a second, sometimes the primary, reality: it has that much power over us

Oct 10, 2015-

The thing about the Internet and the social media is that it can make us feel how we want to feel. You could become a cyberchondriac, wallowing in self-pity, seeking sympathy in the virtual world.  Or you could tout yourself as a self-proclaimed expert, blinded by narcissism, who just can’t see logic in other people’s arguments. For extremists, it becomes a treasure trove for selectively culling points that back their claim, which can then be used to hurl insults at those who beg to differ.

And it is the best weapon to fuel jingoism and dismiss claims counter to yours as traitorous ones.

Many of the behavioural patterns mentioned above have been amplified in the echo chambers of the social media in recent days. The last two weeks have been quite eventful for Nepalis on social networking sites. New hashtags emerge every day—some even trending worldwide.

New media is the latest novel element in Nepal’s latest chapter of movements, and how it is being employed could provide an insight into how technology works in a world marked by the digital divide, amplified human sentiments and polarising opinions.  

The behaviour of social media users in the country reinforces several theories on this form of communication technology—how it drives far-reaching social activism and how it doesn’t.

In what is considered one of the most controversial pieces on social media, acclaimed author and regular writer at the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell, argued five years ago that social media is about ‘weak ties’ between people, ties that aren’t strong enough to motivate them to take risks.

To refute his point, another researcher, Clay Shirky, an American writer and social media theorist pointed out that, “Just because non- committed actors cannot click their way to a better world did not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.”

People in the blogosphere heavily criticised Gladwell’s article, but he made it clear that  he was not against social media, but against the notion that it was responsible for fueling social activism.

Insert Gladwell’s theory into Nepal’s context and it makes sense, to a certain extent.

Earlier this year, a little before the January 22 deadline set by lawmakers for the promulgation of the constitution, things got violent at the Constituent Assembly. Evocative pictures of opposition lawmakers obstructing the meeting hall went viral on social media.

Rumours emerged that the people of Kathmandu had had it. ‘They’ were all coming down to the streets. A typical blogpost read: How can we remain silent against such hooliganism from people who are supposed to represent us?  We have got to do something!

“It’s going to be a dangerous few days. Everyone is angry,” remarked a colleague of mine. A school near my house closed down the day after the promulgation deadline was missed,  because the teachers feared violence.

But except for a few rants on social media, nothing really happened in real life.

“Weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism,” writes Gladwell.  

When the deadline was missed, the people of Kathmandu didn’t have much to lose except their temper. It didn’t affect them directly. Their ties weren’t strong to bring them together. “[Social media] activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” Gladwell writes.

Another case that has led to polarisation on social media is the case of doctor Govinda KC’s fasts-unto-death. KC has become famous for standing up against the unscrupulous professionals and businessmen in the health sector. Earlier this year, when he was on his fifth fast, support for the doctor’s selflessness flooded my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

After seeing such overwhelming support for the doctor, I decided to go to the Teaching Hospital, Maharajgunj, precisely at the time allocated on a Facebook Event.

At the hospital, there were at least two thousand people, a majority of them wearing white coats.  Curious, I talked to a doctor who had been earlier shouting from the microphone. He told me at least 90 per cent of the people were young medical doctors. And I learned that they had not been egged on by others on social media.

The case was similar for the ‘citizenship in the name of mother’ campaign, where a dedicated group of activists relentlessly fought to scrap the regressive provision to be removed. They called for rallies and relay hunger strikes and other forms of protest. While the campaign went viral online, I didn’t see many faces on the streets supporting their cause.

This was perhaps because, I thought, to support a feminist cause looked sexy on social media but it was not a motivating enough issue for people to actually descend to the streets.

It reminded me of ‘Slacktivism’, the act of showing support for a cause that only truly benefited the egos of the people participating in some so-called activism.

The Great Quake

But then, we are not all Slacktivists. Not all the time. It would be unfair to completely dismiss the power of social media.

In a refutation to Gladwell’s piece, Shirky pointed out that the adoption of these tools was a way to coordinate and document real-world action and it had become so ubiquitous that it would probably be a part of all future political movements. “(People) have used social media not as a replacement for real-world action but as a way to coordinate it,” writes Shirky, referring to movement against fundamentalist vigilantes in India in 2009 and the beef protests in South Korea in 2008, which were driven by communication technology.

And the case was the same here in the aftermath of the Great Quake. In the wake of the disaster, there was an outpouring of solidarity and volunteerism, heavily facilitated by social media. It brought out the best in people, who rushed to help and volunteer. Coming together worked because as Gladwell puts it—organised action requires hierarchy—which was present in the operations after the quake, wherein the people leading various rescue and relief missions called on volunteers to help them.

But then, it is important to note that, while the crisis showed how the tool could be used effectively, the Great Quake was not a political movement.

Madhes Movement

Puru Shah, a Nepali currently based in the United States, started a crowd funding campaign on GoFundMe in the aftermath of the Great Quake. Within 48 hours, he got more than 1,600 people to sign it. GoFundMe contacted him and announced that they would donate $250,000 of their fees for Nepal’s quake victims. “It was a great example of how social media can be used,” says Shah, who is the founder of the blog Madhesiyouth.com.

Then came the recent unrest in the Madhes, and he started another campaign. It has been more than a month since, and only 53 people have signed up for Shah’s new campaign.

 “It is the same person who started it, the same network, but it attempts to yield completely different effects,” Shah points out.

During the early days of the unrest, when it did not have such an impact, Kathmandu remained ignorant for the most part.

That was until the economic blockade. Now daily life in the Valley has been crippled. This time, the unrest in the Tarai has hit the Valley denizens where it hurts the most—their comfortable lives. And thus began the hashtag-driven BackoffIndia and DonateOilToIndianEmbassy campaigns.  Very quickly, both on the ground and on the internet, Nepali nationalism reached fever-pitch.

But this is how things work. Our group activities are a reflection of human behaviour, which is primarily guided by self-interests. Netizens use social media to fit their narratives of how things should be.

There is no denying that the online world has increasingly come to feel like a second, sometimes the primary, reality: it has that much power over us. But it can be misleading, especially during polarising times, to use it as the barometer to gauge things on the ground.

While there are small groups representing the Madhesi voices in social media, the groups have been overpowered by the burst of Nepali nationalism in the last two weeks.  

When the people here were busy tweeting ‘#BackOffIndia’ over a hundred thousand times, protesters formed a human chain in the Tarai. It saw the participation of at least a hundred thousand people (some have placed the number at a few hundred thousands) on the ground. These people were mobilised largely without the use

of social media. But guess which got more coverage on the walls and newsfeeds of the people in Kathmandu?

 

Published: 10-10-2015 08:28

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