Lies”R”Us: Think before you ‘like’ and ‘share’

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Social media services - Graphic: Wikipedia

Among those who ‘share’ posts on social media, how many bother to check the authenticity of what they are sharing, wonders Mary Chin.

When Scott Peck wrote People of the Lie, little did he foresee that virulent button marked ‘share’ so compelling. When he wrote The Road Less Travelled, little did he expect the road that lies travel today and how that reflects a person’s interior.

It is excellent technology that we have in social media, and it is timely. Although we still have a long way to go for free speech, Malaysians today dare to say a lot more than we used to, without being detained.

Have we done well with this new technology and freedom? Or do we behave like kids being given a pistol? Do a quick take and we shall find more lies than truth, and more porn (‘inspiration porn’ – to be elaborated later in this article) than most are aware of.

For some, social media offer much needed alternate channels for expression. Some exceptionally quiet personalities suddenly become exceptionally expressive – only on Facebook. It is a bit like those particularly gentle personalities who suddenly becoming particularly aggressive when they get behind the wheel, where they grab that rare opportunity for expression by cursing fellow drivers mercilessly.

Originality, creativity, accountability

Most content on our social media are second-hand. Although some feel so clever and great with the self-exposure, there is in fact no originality in sharing or liking a post. Besides sarcasm, wicked cursing and self-advertising, there is hardly any originality and creativity in most first-hand contents either.

Whether first- or second-hand, we ought to be mindful of the accountability involved, even in cases where those sharing seem to have the best intent. The mid-September floods in Penang are a good example. By evening, as the standstill began to ease, a warning started making its rounds in both text and audio. The announcement was in Bahasa Malaysia (meant to be ‘authoritative’) but mentioned neither the authority nor the date. Everyone was to stay at home to avoid the worst ever storm set for that night. Some even picked up the post a day or two late and went on to circulate it as something new.

Among those who ‘shared’, how many traced the roots and checked the authenticity of that ‘official’ announcement? Is this lack of accountability benign? Do we just shrug it off saying it was done with good intention anyway?

Facebook and blogs have a common feature where what everyone sees is more important than what someone saw. The most recent post takes precedence over earlier ones. Past content or earlier posts are not easily searchable — almost designed to be unrecoverable. Updates and posts are not organised by topics. Consumers are coaxed to be forgiving in terms of recording, documentation, traceability and accountability.

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We are continuously swarmed with myths eg that microwave cooking is toxic, this and that food either cures or causes cancer. People seem to think they can know better than those who devote a lifetime of dedication to cancer service and scientific research. Citing journal papers is meaningless unless and until one is able to review and argue on controversies scientifically and to put the highlighted papers in the context of other papers.

Every direct seller and pusher of health supplements I know names a professor or doctorate so-and-so to be behind their product. This is simply not the way the scientific community operates. Sorry to say this, but those posts are all junk – and they are propagated by our exclusively learned middle class, who claim to be the cream of our society.

At this time when almost everyone runs a publishing house, how many have ever considered the journalist’s creed?

Sensitivity

Social media is where people get used to trumpeting to the whole world the same message, with the same tone and in the same context. Given the size of the audience, chances are at least someone would be grieving a loss. That someone’s screen would be splashed with cheeky posts that are somewhat unnecessary and inappropriate – stuff we don’t say in a gathering where someone is mourning. Such are the sensitivities that were once used to benchmark our maturity and balance.

Meanwhile, my birthday greeting to you is seen by 3000 friends, and each day I see each of these 3,000 friends wishing 10 different friends, “Happy birthday!”

Next, 3,000 friends, their friends, their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends’ might see a photo of my friends and me dining in a posh restaurant. And then you hear someone asking, “How did you know where I dined last night?” The answer is, “The whole world knows, except you.”

Inspiration porn

The lack of consent and the breach of privacy become serious in the photos of ‘poor things’ – that old folk with Alzheimer’s disease, that disfigured OKU and that limping dog – they can actually move around, amazing! Those of reduced cognitive facility by definition are not able to give consent.

People who post, like and share – even self-professed defenders of human and animal rights – have not sought consent from any of these ‘poor things’. By the way that OKU does have full cognitive faculty – would anyone honour this fact by asking for his consent?

Gaining more likes and shares makes one feel popular and confident. By circulating posts guaranteed to attract attention, reaction and sensation, that old folk, that OKU and that dog are thrown into the circus ring and the colosseum for a spectacle. People circulating the posts cheer on and in the process, feel so great and compassionate.

A child specialist in Malaysia shared on her Facebook that Rowan Atkinson couldn’t speak properly his entire life due to a speech disorder, and that is the reason why we don’t hear Mr Bean speak in his shows. Truth or fiction, look at this and figure it out yourself.

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This is a post shared by someone who by profession diagnoses developmental disorders in children. A civilised society could have stripped her of her licence to practice and blacklisted her across the medical profession.

Coined ‘inspiration porn’, the behaviour has been covered by some good journalism:
Disabled people aren’t here to inspire you;
Paralympic athletes’ least favorite word: inspiration;
The world needs to know that I don’t ‘suffer’ from Down’s syndrome.

Rest assured that people who call those ‘poor things’ strong and resilient really and genuinely mean every compliment. But what everyone else finds most natural and complimentary, the ‘poor things’ find most annoying and reducing.

Recall the Refugee Olympic Team. Quoting Elizabeth Wright, “… they are looked at with a mix of awe and pity. Their stories of fleeing … of terror and fear, eclipse their sporting prowess, just as the disability of Paralympians comes first, then their identity as elite athletes.”

‘Inspiration porn’ may be a new term to some. It is good to be aware of what is on the other side of the coin. There are different ways of looking at this antagonism.

We can say that each of us has the freedom and right to interpret what and who is inspirational; nobody can bar us from calling anyone inspirational or bar us from looking at certain people in certain ways.

We can also say that this is exploitation and abuse. We can also call these lies if those poor things themselves don’t even believe in being strong and resilient. Strength and resilience are the virtues enshrined only in self-improvement books popular among the self-serving middle class.

I don’t think strength and resilience are virtues as such, not from any religious or spiritual traditions that I know of, anyway — except in the context of being strong in one’s principles, conviction and belief system, which is quite the opposite of being absorbed in one’s self, having nothing to do with self-achievement.

If A describes B as inspirational, strong and resilient, that description tells us about A’s needs more than it tells us anything about B. If one needs to draw inspiration from even a limping dog … oh well. That could just be a psychological need conveniently projected on those perceived as weak and inferior. Those perceived as weak and inferior become easy magnets targeted for psychological projection.

The avenue of social media turns out to be less of a communication platform, more of a platform for psychological projections.

Under- and over-estimating our influence

At this time when the disease of self-righteousness infests our nation, we might have over-estimated the moral merits of sharing and liking ‘righteous’ posts. Many seem to be either campaigning for or boycotting something – and they make sure their stand is made known in front of as big an audience as possible.

We become more and more disillusioned into believing that by liking and sharing green campaigns (and condemning others for not being green), we will look green and become green. Check the lifestyle, however, we find smarter-than-thou characters buying new gadgets rather than repairing old ones (who is so stupid to pay more), preferring Uber or Grab to Rapid (because for some trips it is cheaper), and preferring Uber to walking (because short distances cost next to nothing — most drivers loathe this, by the way).

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No green mileage gained here, sorry. Ride-sharing is supposed to economise on present resources. We turn the noble idea upside down if a ride-share company puts new cars on the road (instead of putting existing, idle cars to efficient use) and rents them out to drivers (we are back to square one where the driver gets only a small slice of what the passenger pays).

Just as there is a tendency to over-estimate the moral mileage from our clicks on social media, we tend to under-estimate the damage we cause. Nobody verifies before sharing and liking anyway; everyone does that, so we think we are quite safe in this big, nearly universal pit of lies.

Let us say I pull that like/share trigger and splash a post on people’s screens, each of my friend then shares with my friends’ friends, each of my friends’ friends then shares with my friends’ friends’ friends, … Assuming 1000 read and share each round, we hit a million by the second round, a billion by the third round. World population is 7.6 billion. That’s what ‘going viral’ means.

In case we later discover that the post is a lie, what shall we do? We may try contacting all our friends, but then it is unlikely that everyone is contactable. Among those contactable, only a fraction would bother to make any attempt to contact all their friends. Our reach dwindles as some would be not contactable; others wouldn’t bother; still others wouldn’t go on Facebook for weeks or months and when they finally do, they are not going to see posts posted so long ago. There is practically no way to undo.

This leads us back to that story about the chap who just can’t help gossiping. He asks the guru how he could atone for the sin.

The guru suggests that he cuts open his pillow and distributes the feathers to as many people as possible.

The chap ventures out as far as his feet would carry him, giving a feather to every soul he could possibly reach. Finally, he returns to the guru and reports proudly, “Job done. Mission accomplished.”

The guru then tells him, “That was part one. Now, go back to each one you handed a feather to, collect each of those feathers you gave out and bring them all back.”

That’s how irreversible the damage done can be.

There’s a computer game called Solitaire that people who ‘do not play computer games’ play. Solitaire has a close cousin called Minesweeper, where clicking on a good tile opens up a whole new and informative world. Click on a bad tile, however, a ‘bomb’ detonates leading to an instant game-over.

Those ‘share’ and ‘like’ buttons can sometimes be a bit like that.

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Mary Chin

Dr Mary PW Chin, an Aliran member, is currently an independent scientist in Penang, having previously served in the UK and at CERN, a leading centre for scientific research. A medical, radiation and computational research physicist by profession, she spent her free time combing the poorest area of Canada street by street – a supposedly dangerous neighbourhood.

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