At a time when governments and dictators alike are clamping down on freedom of speech and expression in print and on television, social media is seen by many as the last frontier where these universal human rights can be implemented.
Even there, states are trying their best to take control of spiralling conversations. But it is the beauty of the medium that makes their job terribly difficult. Issues and conversations move across platforms in the blink of an eye. Screenshots ensure that deleted posts live on. There is nowhere to hide.
This inability to control the conversation has pushed the people in power to take the next dark step: to launch counter-attacks, both in the virtual and physical worlds. There are numerous instances of people being threatened with violence, rape and even death for something they’ve said or posted online. A few months ago, five bloggers ‘disappeared’ for a considerable amount of time after they had posted what was construed by some as anti-national propaganda. One of the five bloggers still hasn’t been found.
Religious minorities and members of the LGBT community are no better. They are routinely ridiculed and harassed on the pretext of being different and not adhering to what is considered to be this country’s perceived identity. But these are macro matters.
On the individual level, the sheer speed at which issues can be made out of nothing online is astounding. All it takes is a well-written bait in the form of a headline or a blurb. And suddenly, the retweets and the shares begin. What does the spiralling indicate? Does it mean that people actually believe in the content or is there something else?
A recently conducted study states that 59 percent of all links shared on social media aren’t actually clicked at all. This suggests that the share is not based on an actual consumption of or belief in what the post was about.
Why this happens is most interesting. According to the study, there are two key factors at play. The first is low attention span: people read a headline or a blurb and base their decision on that only, without diving into details. The second is sheer effort: it’s just easier to share than to read.
I’d like to add a sub-reason to the first one: a viewer is more likely to share something on social media if it strongly agrees with some preconceived notions they have. In psychology, this is known as a confirmation bias, which is described as the tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs of hypotheses.
So, if a post is, for example, about a politician’s latest corruption scandal and the viewer already believes that most politicians are indeed corrupt, there’s a strong likelihood that he or she will share it online.
There are other biases at play as well. One is motivated reasoning: that we are ‘motivated’ to believe whatever confirms our opinion. The other is naive realism, whereby we believe that our perception of reality is the only accurate view.
It’s like when you see an accident between a car and a motorcycle. The immediate feeling is that it was probably the car driver’s fault. But you didn’t see the accident happen. So why is there a rush to blame? All these cognitive biases are working in tandem to make you think that way.
The rise of social media, fake news and an audience ready to lap up a David vs Goliath story have created a dangerous scenario that people are using to further their own agenda or damage reputations.
Without going into details, a recent case emerged in Lahore where a person made serious and unsubstantiated allegations against another person. What happened next was staggering. The video was posted on a popular Facebook page, with over 400,000 followers. People started tagging others and it started to spiral out of control. At the same time, internet trolls took out personal pictures of the person in question, including those of his wife and children, and started making derogatory remarks.
It has just emerged that the owner of that particular Facebook page had a long-standing issue with the employer of the accused person and has, in all probability, used the accuser as a pawn in his own game. This is an old play that turns Machiavelli on his head. It is routinely seen on social media, especially when religious groups use people to attack minorities.
The person in question is now taking legal action against both the accuser and the Facebook page that was used against him. But the damage is done. The thousands of people who have shared the article or commented on it have already found the person guilty of the crime that he has been accused of. The social media trial has been completed without giving him the chance to defend himself. And the only reason it has happened in the way it has is because the picture was framed in a specific way to ensure that our cognitive biases got the better of us.
With social media operating like a black hole, is there any light at the end? How do we overcome these biases? Do fact-based counter arguments work? In the above case it did. But it was one in a thousand. A majority of the people took the conversation to such a debased level by hurling abuses at the person and his family that it seemed as though the best way forward was to hunker down and rely on the speed with which issues are forgotten on social media.
Unfortunately, as things stand today, this is the best strategy until people begin to realise that they themselves are being used as pawns on someone else’s chessboard.
The writer is a freelance journalist.