Mahmudul H Sumon
Sharing news on social media is the newest and perhaps one of the fastest-growing “rituals” of the world thanks to the internet regime. When introduced to the internet nearly two decades ago, an academic relative in the US, whom we would otherwise consider progressive, surprised me once by telling me that the internet for him was nothing but “full of junk”. In response to his remark, back then I was a bit unsure. In the late 1990s, there was a remarkable thrill and anticipation all around with the coming of “information superhighway” and its immense possibilities. But lately, in the wake of “truth wars” that we all have witnessed at the beginning of the pandemic (there is no end in sight though), I wonder if I am also getting weary of social media? As an avid internet user (there was a time we would say avid reader), I cannot deny that during the early months of Covid 19 last year, I often felt that the decision to share information became enormously difficult because of the frequency in which they were refuted or discarded by other theories or approaches or sciences. Sharing often involved other worries too.
Let us take the example of predictions of death toll made by different research institutes around the world (my google search on predictions of deaths toll due to corona produced 26,400,000 results in 0.46 seconds. Search date 05.04.2021). In one such modeling, a very high death toll was predicted for Bangladesh. The news broke at a time when Bangladesh was at an early stage of the pandemic. Many in my social media list shared the projections. It became a topic of interest, even more, when a news portal hosting the news was eventually made unavailable in Bangladesh. Contrary to that a seasoned senior academician in a TV chat show in Dhaka declined to disclose the predicted high death toll. The situation was curious because the figure was already out and well known by that time amongst the internet users.
Occasions such as this and many others (which I don’t discuss here) often gave me a pause to think about sharing. As a long-term social media user, and a member of virtual society I thought I do have mechanisms to deal with these decisions. I have developed mechanisms to understand what news to share and if the source is credible or not and most of the time I am on the right side (there are occasional mistakes of course!). But I couldn’t share that news. What was stopping me? Is it my disciplinary background? Did this have anything to do with my “personality type” (I am of course critical of any static typology although I understand that such typologies may make sense to some)?
While I don’t claim to provide a comprehensive answer to this, here are some initial thoughts I think worth sharing: my initial concern perhaps was that my sharing may create panic and my general understanding is that panic is not good. Common sense led me to take that decision. As an academic albeit in the social sciences I have a fair idea of what models are and how they are built. Are they good for sharing on social media for the consumption of the common population? I was not sure. Models are not foolproof and there is often controversy. Perhaps by not sharing the model, I was trying to avoid a possible situation of unfounded fear. The daily contraction and death numbers announced every day on TV I thought were enough to dictate us.
However as is the case with social media, my individual decision did not matter because many people shared that information (friends, colleagues) and surely with the good intention to alert people and more importantly the government of the imminent danger of not doing enough. After all in Bangladesh, if we recall correctly, we were dealing with a government that was somewhat in denial of the gravity of the situation from the very beginning.
In the early months of the pandemic last year, I remember two contradictory sets of reactions on social media when it comes to Covid 19 and the government’s response. On the one hand, panicked middle-class netizens were all for complete lockdown and other stringent measures and enforcement. This position at least at the initial stages did not foresee the consequences of the sudden stoppage of everything and the sentiment that had no understanding of the context we are were in. And then of course there was another group, usually coming from an activist and research background (this assertion is of course based on my social media feed and the algorithm it involved and have limitations; as an academic, I am likely to have a disproportionate number of researcher/ activist friends on my list) who foresaw the immediate consequences of a stringent lockdown measure. The latter group was keen to argue that such measures will bring havoc to the majority of the people, who constituted the bulk of our labor sector (i.e. people who make a living from agriculture, the small business holders, the construction and transport workers, and the rickshaw-pullers, hawkers and female labor working as house help in middle-class and upper-class households). The contending views of the netizens, among other things, spoke a lot about who the users were and how they made sense of the world.
On questions of what to share and what not to share, ethics take up an important role and there is no one theory or singular answer. And one cannot deny that ethics has never been a forte in our education system. Sharing on social media (a public space) comes with responsibility but that responsibility need not be taken away by the government. That only complicates things and has the pretense of many other unforeseen situations. One needs to think very hard before sharing a piece of information. Our education system needs to invest some time and energy in these questions. Mainstream TV journalism has an important role to play in such situations but more often than not due to a political economy we do not have the scope to discuss here, they are invested in Bangladesh’s world-famous toxic politics and keeps them busy in its ever more circulation, so much so that time to time one may mistake a TV anchor to be a party strongman and propagandist from the ruling party. Finally and more importantly the level of conversation on ethics needs to be raised.
On a personal level, during these trying times, conventional world media and news services proved to be far more useful to me. They seemed more responsible and seemed careful about what news to break and I took full benefit from their work. Of course, the viewership of English news channels is limited to a small class of the English-educated privileged section of our society. In other words, we may safely assume a vast majority of our population has not benefitted from its viewership. In those early days of the pandemic, it often crossed my mind that we needed quality programs on the pandemic in our Bangla TV media. In those early days, I curiously noted that I was spending more time on conventional TV media, watching their special programs on the pandemic, with a clear focus and emphasis on how to take adequate measures to stay safe, etc. Their programs seemed a lot better and their act more responsible. While we cannot get out of this “wired reality” of social media, I think COVID 19 has given us one more reason to rethink our relationship with social media.
(A slightly abridged version is published in The Daily Star)
Mahmudul H Sumon is a professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University. Can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org