OPINION | On Youth Day, we need to leave (anti-)social media behind

The Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto.
The Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto.
Gallo Images

We need to acknowledge that if we are going to have constructive conversations, promote causes and identify and solve issues on a societal or personal level, that it will not happen on social networks, writes Tian Alberts.


If there is anything that Cambridge Analytica and Russian troll farms influencing elections have taught us, it is that even the tech-savvy generations don’t fully comprehend the complexity and pitfalls of the supposed tools that we use online to contribute to the public discourse.

The impersonal nature of social media ensures that fortune will not favour the brave and virtuous, but rather the alliances and hunting packs, however anonymous and artificial the accounts may be that comprise them, that generate the most traffic in a given period. Giant media corporations report daily on the notions underlying social media traffic, leading to conclusions about society in general that are consumed by viewers, listeners and readers who thereupon pick up their smartphones to express outrage and contempt – on social networks.

In their nature, these sequences comprise a positive feedback loop that generates extremely potent narratives — both online and offline — that are difficult to pierce with scrutiny, level-headed discussion, dialectic analysis or even human empathy. This difficulty is compounded by the predictable undesirable social and professional consequences that ensue when publicly posting or expressing views that might not even necessarily contradict overarching narratives, but merely fail to validate all aspects of them.

The harsh implications of all this for our youth is an understanding of the world reduced to superficial, vapid and impoverished narratives and stereotypes flagged by hashtags and trend categories. Nuance, grey areas, empathy and critical appraisal are lost, but at least we can claim that we stood in solidarity in relation to problems that we could hardly understand — and hence never solve.

The tragic and unjustifiable police death of George Floyd in the United States, while rightly and understandably eliciting outrage and pain, also triggered the surfacing of potent narratives surrounding systemic racism, white supremacy and victimisation of black people worldwide. By referring to them as narratives, I don’t suggest conversations surrounding those topics cannot be legitimate, but rather that in their current form they are not conversations at all.

Instagram feeds filled with black squares and concomitant hashtags to signify solidarity with "black people" worldwide, beg the question whether we are seriously labouring under the assumption that our social media platforms and the effortless "post" or "tweet" actions they put at our disposal really contribute to some sort of conversation and solution.

While in the midst of online trends, even some prospective non-participants and especially dissidents eventually succumb under the social pressure to "step in line" and converge towards the core of narratives by posting something validating after all, it is not at all clear that this social media culture of uncritically mustering strings of hashtags and stories together serves the purpose of accurately identifying and tackling injustice at all. The façade that we are "creating awareness" or "keeping informed" again begs the question – of what, exactly?

Hashtags and trends

Given the immense pressure when the entire world seems to be "watching" on social networks, not to mention the rampant cancel culture, it seems a warranted conclusion to reach that we generally peddle and indulge in simplified, half-baked and indeed half-truths – supposed axioms that the world needs to hear, but that represent little more than the unnuanced stereotypes about groups, individuals and the world that are mechanically rendered when thousands submit "post" or "tweet" without applying their minds independently and individually. What does it signify about our youth’s potential to achieve great things, if the content of our public discourse is being moulded (and selectively muted) by the numerical extent to which certain hashtags are replicated – mostly beyond our national borders?

Zaid Jilani, a Pakistani American Muslim, has written recently that although there are discernible instances of discrimination and racism against ethnic minorities in his community, the assumption that ethnic minorities in the USA are "simply virtuous victims, cast adrift on a plank in an ocean of white supremacy over which we have no control" — as the recent hashtags seem to denote — is extremely dehumanising as it strips him of agency and responsibility. The point is not the substance of this contention, but that his contribution is too nuanced, balanced and considerate of different viewpoints to survive the incessant back and forth and hashtag war on social media; it wouldn’t slot into a prominent narrative or bolster an explosive hashtag.

The populism and extremism that can accompany "hashtags" and "trends" became apparent in South Africa’s 2019 general election. If the election results were to have been based on Twitter support for political parties, the EFF would have won the election. In reality, of course, the extremist EFF mustered just more than 10% of the popular vote.

While divisive threads about race, racism and group identity are discernibly rife on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, a Momentum survey in 2019 has revealed that South Africans’ greatest concerns were, among others, unemployment, crime, corruption, poverty, housing, water supply and education. While 72% of respondents regarded unemployment their greatest concern and 41% corruption, a meagre 4% regarded "racism/discrimination" as their greatest concern with even roads (10%) enjoying higher priority among respondents.

A possible explanation for the disproportionate prevalence of divisive racial merchandising on social networks is that, by design, these platforms reward troublemakers, provocateurs and virtue signalling race-merchants with followers and other dopamine-inducing endorsements when humans’ ancient tribal circuits kick in to elicit an "us versus them" response. Regrettably, the nature of these online battles permeates the greater national discourse that will define members of the youth’s approach to problem-solving and collaboration in the future.

'Social networks' seem awfully anti-social

Alberts writes:

The irony that presents itself is that social media isn’t quite social after all.

When half of the Twitter accounts spreading misinformation about the coronavirus are automated bots, and real people often hide behind anonymous profiles while posting slurs that they would never utter in the real social sphere, can we credit a network like Twitter with the notion of socialness?

Given the widespread abuse of the few real individuals with the courage to use their real names when joining in contentious "debate" on social networks, as well as the psychotic manner in which especially teens often seek superficial validation on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, so-called "social networks" seems awfully anti-social. It is no wonder that multiple studies have found a strong relationship between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

Granted, social networks have broadened the horizons of millions of people by exposing them to concepts that are censored in their countries, promoted freedom of speech, enhanced communication and even access to education. These aspects of social networks can be retained without further fuelling the profitable, yet costly mechanisms that pollute the public discourse and cause teens to spend hours to end seeking affirmation and mindlessly scrolling through meaningless content at the expense of their mental health and productivity.

As a point of departure, we need to acknowledge that if we are going to have constructive conversations, promote causes and identify and solve issues on a societal or personal level, that it will not happen on social networks. We should only use social media to animate and build upon real discussions, real connections and real-life efforts – not replace them.

Fortunately, podcasts, webinars and other long-form digital media have proven that a repudiation of social networks does not imply resorting to less modern forms of communication; we must distinguish modern digital opportunities from anti-social platforms that by design divide and give rise to simplistic narratives and stereotypes.

If we are to become the thought leaders that will save the future, we first need to depart from social networks and promptly leave behind the superficial battles, misrepresentations and stereotypes that they stimulate. Grossly simplistic narratives and stereotypes about who we and supposed groups among us are will not enhance the youth’s potential to achieve success collaboratively if not destroy it indefinitely.

- Tian Alberts is editor-in-chief of Nova Mentis and a post graduate LLB-student at Stellenbosch University

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