Thursday, March 23, 2023
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Social media has been indispensable during Covid, but it is a double-edged sword

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I am stuck in a loop of uninstalling and reinstalling Instagram every week. Most of us who do not have to bear the brunt of the pandemic physically or get financial opportunities to use these platforms to live the influencer life, are taking  responsibility by coming together to help arrange for plasma donors, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, food and raise funds.

While few of us continued creating content for livelihood, another set of people could not retreat from mobilising political violence online. The anti-vaxxers emerged with their misinformed movement as if vaccine hesitancy in the country was not already something to be tackled.

This pretty much sums up what has continued to anger, inspire, irritate and please me at the same time for over a year now and has caused the two phases of my weekly mood swings, regarding digital content.

Phase one: Inspired and pleased

The actors and institutions in a democracy reflect its strength. Despite having dismal civil liberties score and being termed as a flawed democracy by the democracy index of EIU, India has a satisfactory political participation score.

The pandemic materialised social media into an effective tool for citizen participation, from fighting against racially motivated violence and online climate strikes to dealing with the Covid crisis globally. It is helping the young generation of the country to develop a sense of civic duty. The active engagement of my peers in finding, curating and sharing the lists of verified leads of Covid medical supplies has sprung a ray of hope amidst the crisis. Digital participation has evolved into a tool for spreading information regarding scarce resources to achieve efficient allocation and distribution.

The involvement of the leaders and the government organisations through their social media handles has made governance, in at least some states of the country more transparent and accountable. The social media handles of Kerala Police and department of Women and Child Development in Kerala incorporates humour, satire and popular culture to spread awareness about Covid-19 and aims to break the stigma attached to gender roles and mental health, which signals the functioning of welfare state.

Instagram has also become an income generating source for small businesses. It has fostered a spirit of entrepreneurship among the youth by opening new doors to innovative ways of doing business online. All of these contribute to a growth in earning population and promotes inclusivity.

Instagram made me optimistic last week but why then I chose to uninstall the app this week.

Phase two: Angered and irritated

When an article in The New York Times declared that the dominant feeling of 2021 as ‘Languishing’ and Twitteratis introduced me to the word ‘doomscrolling’, all I could think of was this quote by American economist Herbert A Simon: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.

The infodemic we have been dealing with since the onset of the pandemic has proved Adam Smith’s homo economicus (economic man who behaves in a rational manner) to be cognitively biased.

Representative heuristics is another phenomenon that clouds our judgment as we are manipulated into thinking that what we double tap on and share on our stories are true because fake news is assumed to be the outlier.

It is surprising that while it never takes these social media platforms much time to remove ‘mischievous’ hashtags to curb public dissent, their tolerance for spreading hate is exemplary.

The situation of post-poll violence in the country turned even worse when social media became a playing field for political propaganda. The spread of fake news and misinformation on these social media platforms have caused vaccine hesitancy among few.

Social media bullies also irritate me as they troll and harass even children. The medical students who took time out to post an incredible dance video also received trolls that accused them of ‘love jihad’. Paying attention is the price we have to pay for the information we consume everyday which sounds simple but isn’t easy.

I have realised that my emotions conjure disutility while I am doomscrolling every alternate weekend. I am fickle-minded but turns out it’s not just me as digital literacy was never a part of our curriculum.

According to UNICEF, digital literacy is an important skill that a person requires for school, work and life as it teaches how to communicate information digitally and how to distinguish between fake and reliable information.

Using personal data for public good in a commercialised digital environment for evidence-based policy making have also led to concerns regarding privacy. Regulation of digital content should not restrict free speech and should recognise and support the civic engagement of people online so that both production and consumption of digital content pleases and inspires everyone and lead to real offline conventional citizen participation.

Anagha Vinod is a student of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar School of Economics, Bengaluru

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