City City Bang Bang, Columns

Social media: Breeding the toxic?

The tools of a new world create new kinds of problems. Social media access creates opportunities but also gives rise to consequences of a kind not imagined earlier. The controversy around Atul Kochhar, much awarded Indian chef, whose tweets about Islam caused much outrage and led to his losing his restaurant in Dubai is a case in point.

As is common on social media, the controversy was triggered by a tweet that was completely gratuitous. There was absolutely no reason to respond to Priyanka Chopra’s tweet, which was an apology issued for causing hurt to those outraged by the fact that one of the episodes of the American serial she acted in, involved showing some Hindu terrorists. Her tweet was neither provocative, nor inflammatory; on the contrary, it was a garden variety let-me-say-nice-things-in-a-soothing-voice celebrity apology. But it got the good chef’s goat and he let fly. Armed with basic factual errors, he attacked an entire religion (of the country that he lived in and off). Then, as the inevitable started happening, he apologised, not for his remark, but for getting his facts wrong. More mayhem followed until he issued a grovelling apology, but by then it was too late. The hotel in which he ran his highly rated restaurant acted and bristling with the kind of indignation that private corporations summon up when their profitability is threatened, parted ways with the enthusiastic tweeter, by issuing a statement full of ‘we have always believed’ kind of sentences.

Of course, on social media things did not just end there. The outrage about his statements continued unabated. This outrage was matched by anger on the other side. What about Kochhar’s freedom of speech? What did he say that was wrong? Why did liberals protest so much when the same thing happened with Aamir Khan, when he was sacked as a brand ambassador for a website after his remarks on intolerance in India?

Much has been said, and deservedly so, about the bigotry on display here, but more needs to be said about the stupidity. Why would a well-known individual, attack the religion of the host country in which he runs a successful business, and believe that he would not get into trouble for it? And why would he do so without any provocation whatsoever? And why apologise in a manner guaranteed to infuriate the receivers of the apology? Even if one happens to harbour hateful thoughts about another community, people running businesses know better than to advertise their bigoted views. This is why PR departments exist- to protect leaders from themselves.

There is something about social media that encourages this kind of gratuitous sharing. The act of tweeting feels very casual, no different from posting Shubh Prabhatam in seven colours on WhatsApp. It is a thought bubble that unobtrusively floats out into the outer world, and for most part is treated with studied indifference. For famous people, there is always some reaction, but by and large of a predictable kind. Once in a while, things explode, and when they do, it is with alarming speed and disproportionate effect.

The interplay between the private and the public, between the gentle act of typing out thought and the explosive crater that it can potentially leave behind can be very confusing. Social media amplifies both the benefits and the costs of communication and does so unpredictably. The individual can be lulled into believing that there are no consequences of their actions and that they are insulated from the effects of their own ideas, however extreme they might be. In real life, we are aware of the fact that our actions and words have real world consequences. We are careful about expressing opinions, and are mindful of how others might react. This is why we back-bite (and not front-nibble) and why gossip is whispered, not shouted or broadcast. But on social media, we lose this self-imposed restraint, because of an illusion of detached distance.

Two opposite forces of roughly equal intensity are colliding, giving rise to many unresolved debates. On the one hand, the opinions we hold about the world are becoming an increasingly central part of our self-identity. We feel the need to express a view on virtually every major event in the world and hold strong views on things political and otherwise. On the other hand, the consequences of holding these views are also multiplying, precisely because of the power of social media. In a world where virtually no belief or value enjoys universal currency, every strong opinion is likely to find support as well as attract venomous anger. It doesn’t matter if one is the bigot or one is fighting bigotry; the consequences can be similar.

The consequences of expressing opinions can take a material form, or can present themselves as abuse or threats of physical harm. A single tweet by a celebrity can make a company lose a billion dollars in valuation, ask Snapchat. Companies are acting more swiftly to minimise losses, as evidenced by many instances of employees getting fired or contracts getting annulled, because someone tweeted something inappropriate. Equally, instances of persistent abuse and casual death threats are pervasive on social media today, as many popular journalists can testify.

Only people with nothing to lose win in this scenario. Social media is tailor-made for trolls, precisely because their opinion comes cheap, and carries no reciprocal cost. Looked at this way, it would seem that in the long run, the cost of being on social media will almost certainly outweigh the benefits. In this case, the person bearing the brunt might have invited it upon himself, but for every shade of opinion, there are people waiting to be offended. Increasingly, social media invites, breeds and multiplies toxicity. There is no escape from it as the comments section of any post, however sweet and innocent, shows. It takes but a few reactions before something hateful pops up and hijacks the conversation. Eventually, on social media, hate dissolves everything else.

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