When Wael Ghonim founded a Facebook page in honor of a young Egyptian who was tortured to death by the police, he had no idea that he was about to cause a revolution. The uprising he sparked gave him the confidence to anonymously collaborate with activists, outsource ideas from the common people and organize peaceful protests against the then Egyptian Government. All of this, through a social media page, which he had no idea would change his life. Social media can be a monumental tool, but at what price? Today, in his fascinating and a little chilling Ted Talk, Wael describes how social media is shaping our lives, our decisions, our emotions and even, our freedom. “To liberate society” he says, and I quote, “people say we need the internet. But I think to liberate society, we need to liberate the internet.”
Today, the internet is held hostage in a nasty and noisy media landscape which is ruthless, and takes pleasure in humiliation.’Followers’ are gained by rumor mongering. These followers feed on gossip, which, worst of all is permanently accessible. The easiest way to get a million views on your post is to throw out sentences brimming with anger and through exchange of heated words . Accusations hurled across this media landscape may even be baseless, but people strongly stand behind it due to their emotional appeal. This leads to more comments and posts as thousands others hop on the bandwagon, jumping to conclusions. We increasingly see this trend as shallow comments have replaced deep conversations, discussions have turned into angry mobs and polarization of societies. Rumors and selling of privacy have made people’s lives a living hell.
Invasion of privacy, cruel jokes and public humiliation haven’t spared anyone from a commoner like the smart, 18-year-old young man Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the Washington bridge after an intimate video of him went viral, to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, whose icloud account was hacked to publicize her nude,private photos . Monica Lewinsky, in her breathtakingly personal and courageous talk reveals how she almost lost her life to shame, only because the digital media wouldn’t show her any empathy. Shaming, as a blood sport needs to stop, she says as she describes how such stories gain momentum and a huge fan-following, simply because people are naturally attracted to juicy stories and angry, emotion-filled condemnations. We, as a society have become numb to the feelings of the actual people behind this line of fire. We can’t let the internet become a one-stop shop for such stories and cyber-bullying, simply because we have the ability and freedom to do so. Even though we may not realize it, we ARE indeed the social media. We are not passive entities of the society anymore. Every click we make, every page we visit, every ‘Like’ we do is shaping the social media today.
Websites and other forms of media are making money out of these stories, because this is what gets traffic to their sites and makes gripping TV. The internet has also been blatantly misused to sell illicit drugs, through websites that are a string of meaningless numbers and characters. Personal and sensitive information is clinched from people without their knowledge as we are entering a phase where secrets aren’t secrets anymore. Recently, there was news about a famous retail chain being able to tell that a woman was pregnant before she even told her parents about it and could recommend buying options to her based on the vitamins she bought. The mysterious God sitting in the internet can now infer our desires before we even have them and buy products for us before we even need them.
However, we have known social media to be a channel to connect people, reunite lost relatives and to save lives. It has caused a lot of positive change in homes, cities and countries. Social media is shaping our landscape, our culture and our lifestyle and we can put it to best use by tackling problems in diversity, eliminating bias across the board and helping people recreate and restructure our world. An initiative taken by peoplemaps.org shows how we can create a map of San Francisco based on how people with different interests are dispersed across the city. While Hip Hop took to the far South corner, ‘Twitter users’ represent the North. Well, atleast now we know Twitter isn’t into Hip Hop!
Can we actually liberate the internet? Can we free it from the tyranny of unsympathetic and foolish social media? Instead of blindly hooking on to rumors and angry abuses fired at people, we can help gain better access to facts and deeper discussions. Before posting hateful posts on Facebook and rejoicing at the sight of 10,000 similar opinion-based comments, we can think about who the post is actually impacting and if it is reaching the right audience. We can show users how visiting a page or hitting the ‘Like’ button could impact her and how her information can be gleaned through this. We need to realize the massive impact of a single click and stop adding to the traffic and ratings of websites that thrive on public humiliation and gossip. We can help free the internet, lest the tool we built for the very purpose of enhancing our freedom enslave us and encroach upon our lives. Let us try to make the the world with the internet a better place, better than the one described in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”