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  • Writer's pictureTRESTLE

Are you a Slacktivist? Social Media and Declining Empathy

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

We live in an increasingly modern and technologically-driven world. From communicating, learning and socialising to entertaining, building connections, and even managing finances, we conduct almost every aspect of our lives over the internet. Social media alongside the Internet of things, in particular, have penetrated almost all domains of our lives; one can not only connect with friends and family from across the world, but one can also engage in riveting debates and dialogues on matters of importance. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have grown so much that every day we see new hashtags trending and new posts going ‘viral’.

Recognizing this power of social media, people of all ages attempt to use these platforms and understand the etiquette of consuming it. While some use their influence for positive change, often by raising awareness, facilitating communication between authorities and the general public, highlighting authentic sources of information, and stimulating civic engagement through projects and initiatives, others misuse their power to bully individuals, attack organizations, escalate conflict, and encourage the polarization of societies. Although it is evident that social media in itself is not a detrimental invention, the question about its negative impact on our interpersonal connections still lingers.

Social media has caused people’s interactions to shift from being primarily in-person to predominantly online. This reduction in face-to-face communication has given people fewer opportunities to practice empathy; people have become less able to read each other’s emotions and hence, less likely to be able to connect with one another. Moreover, according to research done by the International Journal of Reflective Research in Social Sciences, social media perpetuates the creation of multiple false-identities. One may share something totally different today than what they did yesterday in order to fit the larger narrative. “Since we cannot see the people we interact with, we create avatars to represent what we want to be.” This existence of these designed personae discourages individuals from relating and empathising with one another’s online personalities.

Leaving aside practicing empathy, social media has also resulted in the diminished willingness to realise empathy. According to a number of studies, platforms such as Instagram and Facebook promote narcissistic tendencies, often resulting in a reduction in emotional provocation in people. Adding to this, studies also continue to show that narcissism and empathy are antithetical in nature, meaning that as narcissistic tendencies rise, the capacity for empathy takes a steep decline.

Further, in addition to promoting a bubble of self-centeredness, social media has also weakened peoples’ reactions to matters of crucial importance. As ‘liking’, ‘sharing’ and ‘regramming’ became the new normal in people’s lives, responses to domestic concerns, world tragedies, and activism efforts shrunk accordingly. Youngsters limit their responses to issues such as climate change, gender inequality, police brutality and racism by liking Twitter comments and sharing Facebook stories. Similarly, activism takes the form of hashtags and more recently, Instagram and Tik-Tok videos.

And while this social media activism does bring an increased awareness about societal issues, the question remains as to whether this awareness even translates into real change? Is it even activism or have our contributions become superficial enough for us to be considered Slacktivists?

Psychologist Max Ringelmann, studying how joint efforts may be less effective than personal actions, introduced the phenomenon of “social loafing” in 1913. Conducting an experiment wherein he asked a group of men to pull on a rope together and then individually, he realised that each of those men pulled less hard than when they had to pull alone. Taking this observation forward, he stated that individual output towards a task reduces when contributions are pooled. This can be applied to our social media world today. When everybody performs the same task, such as liking a post and sharing a story, it is impossible to evaluate individual contributions, and that too only if there is a real contribution. Therefore, since there is nobody holding you accountable for the amount of work you are doing towards a cause, performing simple tasks reassures you that you have done enough. In other words, increasing the number of people performing the same task diminishes the relative social pressure on each person.

Moreover, as Ethan Zuckerman rightly puts forth, these platforms were not set up for activists, but were introduced for the purpose of entertainment. They attracted attention from activists only because they were hard to block and not because they offered something unique. Therefore, to assume social media activism as the ultimate end result is to constrain yourself to only a layer of possibilities. It could not only limit involvement of the youth, who represent a large majority of social media users and who play a critical role in catalysing transformation of our societies, but it could also slow down the momentum with which things would change, if at all.

Adding to this talk of unfitting social media usage, Tosi and Warmke, two philosophers, proposed the suitable phrase, ‘moral grandstanding’. The phrase considers what happens when influencers or people use morals-laden talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Similar to a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each individual strives to outdo previous orators, leading to some strikingly common patterns. Grandstanders or their so-called ‘moral grandstanding’ tends to “trump up moral changes, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays”. Unfortunately, not only are nuance and truth taken as casualties in this competition to gain some sort of approval from the audience, but the speaker’s intent is also completely ignored causing context to collapse.

Furthermore, with the empathy that is generated on social media, there is some sort of confirmation bias always involved. Here, confirmation bias would refer to people only exposing themselves to “their own thoughts, repeated in recursive echo chambers of increasingly radical and exclusionary thought”. However, this is increasingly unfortunate since this way we are only able to understand and empathize with the people who agree with us. When it comes to people who disagree, the “out-group”, we find ourselves unable to empathize, and all too able to demonize. When people see something they don’t agree with being shared on social media, they are ready to label the individual sharing the content as an “other”. The moral superiority that people feel to this “other” makes it easier for them to continue the attack; after all this individual on the other side of the computer is just a screen name with a trait that they have deemed them to have. Simply put, not seeing the individual causes an inability to empathize with their intentions, their mistakes, or their humanity.

Moving on, in order to tackle this problem of indifference and contempt in the digital world, one must focus on fostering a more understanding approach. One way through which this process can be carried out is global awareness. Awareness and understanding about societies, cultures and communities not only encourages an intimate understanding of diverse contexts but it also enables an empathetic response. For instance, the problems facing all those born in First World countries differs massively from all those coming from different disadvantaged backgrounds. While being homeless in Europe or USA does not prohibit total access to various social services, it results in complete isolation in numerous underdeveloped countries, where even working individuals suffer. Another way in which individuals could make change is through crowdfunding. However, while it is beneficial to a great extent and allows people to express empathy, it does not necessarily build empathy since there will always be people who would rather spend a meagre amount of money rather than spend time and effort. Furthermore, apart from awareness and action, another important aspect one must consider is the reducing avoidance and exclusion of significant social, political issues and the news from their timelines. This is important because exclusion not only disregards but also weakens the fight against these issues.

Lastly, individual consciousness and mindfulness also play an important part in the whole process of acting responsibly. Not only should we, as individuals, embrace every opportunity to challenge outdated views, oppose bigoted opinions and counter prejudiced statements, but celebrity influencers and admired personalities should make sure that the information they disperse to their followers holds merit. Simply put in our founder’s words, “Nothing distracts one from their true purpose in life more than following the crowd mentality. And so, one must always put a price tag on themselves and their values.”

If you find yourself sharing posts and stories without going forward with any real change, it is time to reconsider ways in which you can make an impact!

Realise the difference between Activism and Slacktivism!

Authors: Deeptanshu and Sampada

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