In the recent months, several social media executives have criticized the industries that made them staggeringly influential and often wealthy. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and eventually became the company’s vice president for user growth, told a forum that he felt “tremendous guilt” about how the company had “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” (The Verge) People like Palihapitiya are voicing their criticism of the entire social media ecosystem that has become the dominant online paradigm of our century. Repentant Facebook investor Sean Parker observed: “The unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people . . . it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other.” (The Verge)
The United States opened the Internet to the public in 1995 (the same year that Buddhistdoor was founded by the philanthropist Robert H. N. Ho in Vancouver.) There was an air of freshness to this forward-thinking tool that many realized would become ubiquitous in every aspect of our lives. Almost no one, however, predicted the development of social media and smartphones. Facebook began in 2004 as a networking tool among university students and alumni. A few years later, it had devoured all campus competitors and opened itself to the outside world. In 2007, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs stood before an adoring crowd and declared that the touchscreen iPhone would change the world. The technology certainly did. Thanks to the combination of social media and smartphones, we are effectively connected to the Internet all the time and, as a result, to our social circles and the people beyond.
Research into the social and psychological effects of this ever-present online social sphere is ongoing. Various academic surveys and studies show that mental health problems among girls and young women in England have skyrocketed. The number of times girls aged 17 or under have been admitted to hospital because of self-harm stands at 17,500 per year, up 68 per cent from 10,500 recorded 10 years ago. Is it a coincidence that this corresponds with the rise of social media, considering that the attitudes of teens toward body image can be acutely judgmental and cruel?
A growing number of religious leaders and commentators are realizing that social media, while unprecedented in its capacity to deliver knowledge and decentralize communication, also amplifies some of humanity’s worst instincts. A heartbreaking yet brilliantly animated video by Steve Cutts, which, ironically, continues to be circulated on social media outlets, brings these instincts to life.
Some of the antisocial and psychopathic behavior depicted in the video includes indifference to the suffering and alienation of others. The pained protagonist finds that all around him, superfluousness is elevated into sophistication, and that distraction is preferred over human engagement.
But there is something even worse than apathy—casual, wanton cruelty. Anyone on platforms scuh as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter can become the target of ferocious and unwarranted insults, threats, and abuse. A popular name for these online bullies is “trolls,” people who become unshackled by the seeming lack of social mores online and seek reactions by insulting bereaved parents, harassing prominent women, and just making the most hateful or incendiary comments at whatever culture, ethnic group, or religion they find in their crosshairs.
Recent incidents include survivors of the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, being harassed, followed by pledges by social media companies to take down bullying posts and tweets. British historian and TV presenter Mary Beard reports being abused on Twitter by misogynists and ageists on multiple occasions over the past few years. The examples are copious and diverse.
What most concerns us is the ease with which people behave cruelly or unkindly on social media. There are no consequences to cruelty or forms of social censure since trolls do not have a physical presence when they are attacking. They can behave callously and carelessly as long as they remain anonymous or are untraceable behind a screen or fake account. The real-time, instant nature of commenting or replying also encourages a reactive, unreflective attitude that leads to a vicious cycle of mutual insults and hatred. Even those who do not start out to offend others can be sucked in, often against people they do not personally know.
This age of hyper-connectivity perhaps demands a corresponding type of heightened mindfulness, or hyper-mindfulness. Buddhists should be aware of their state of mind, the moment we log on to our Facebook accounts. If we have had a bad day or are angry with someone, we need to consider the possibility we might be tempted, not even consciously, to act out our negative feelings with impunity on someone’s Twitter feed. As we scroll down our Facebook wall, we should be mindful of the content we are consuming, and whether it is making us angrier and more prone to lash out. We should try going offline periodically, perhaps once a week for a full day. Also, we need to look at how Buddhist principles could help shape social media in a more productive or spiritual way, such as creating as many online sanghas as we can or tweeting spiritually nourishing quotes that may try to counterbalance even the intense negativity of online trolls.
Religious leaders and institutions, which tend to think in centuries or at least decades, have been overwhelmed by the multifaceted social and ethical consequences of the age of hyper-connectivity. The current pace of technological development, which arose in little over 10 years, if one accepts 2004 or 2007 as watersheds, caught almost everyone offguard, from governments to traditional media platforms such as newspapers.
It is time for the great religious traditions to view the ascent of technology and social media as matching the invention of the printing press or the industrial revolution in importance. Buddhist leaders should guide and advise the faithful pragmatically—social media is not going away and few can unplug completely—and with a deep religious conviction in the timeless truths of the Dharma in this new world.
Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society (The Verge)
Sean Parker on Facebook: ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains’ (The Verge)
Stress and social media fuel mental health crisis among girls (The Guardian)
Social media companies block abuse of Parkland shooting survivors online (ABC News)
Historian Mary Beard abused on social media over her comments on Roman Britain’s ethnic diversity (news.com.au)