Our Problem with Social Media

Rym Tina Ghazal

AFP photo: Chandan Khanna

“I hope you die.” “You are disgusting.” “Scum.” “You are so ugly.” “Hell is waiting.” Those are just a few of the abusive comments social media influencer Dina Torkia received after she announced recently that she would stop wearing the hijab fulltime. Earlier this year, the 29-year-old British Muslim posted a 47-minute, non-stop stream of abuse she had received from her “followers” on social media that showed a frightening degree of hate.

The outpouring of misogyny and hatred – from erstwhile fans of the fashion adviser no less – exposes a breakdown in civil conversation on social media, in which people are indulging their worst tendencies at the expense of normal human relationships. Technology is shaping our societies in ways we barely understand.

Torkia, a mother of two, has a following of more than 1 million people on Instagram, who are attracted to her tips on modest fashion and hijab styling. But recently, she announced she had decided to remove her hijab because, in her words, “the hijabi community [is] starting to become like a toxic cult.” If that community wanted to prove her wrong, the avalanche of insults and even death threats had precisely the opposite effect.

Over the past decade, offensive and generally toxic comments on social media have become the new normal in a public discourse shorn of filters and any sense of decorum. Far too many people seem to feel that their opinions – on anything and everything – absolutely must be shared.

It is entirely Torkia’s own decision whether she wears a hijab, and indeed how she wants to live her life. Her social media profile and the attention of so many followers have bestowed upon her a degree of fame, which certainly has boosted her online business. But such attention is a double-edged sword.

Social media is now associated with a number of health problems, including everything from increased rates of depression and anxiety to extreme isolation. But cyberbullying and trolling belong to a whole different category of pathological behavior, with multiple studies finding a strong correlation between cyberbullying and sadistic personality profiles.

Other research has analyzed online communication factors contributing to the “toxic online disinhibition effect,” i.e., the loss of inhibition in cyberspace leading to hostile or vulgar language and even threats. Among three factors contributing to the effect – anonymity, invisibility and the lack of eye contact – the last was found to be the chief contributor to negative loss of inhibitions. Apparently, people are often much nastier when they do not have to look someone in the face.

Regionally, research that specifically focused on Saudi higher education found that about 27 percent of students reported they had “committed” cyberbullying at least once, while 57 percent had “observed” another student being cyberbullied. Gender was also a factor, with male students involved in cyberbullying more than female students and, interestingly enough, single students more likely to be cyberbullied by people that they knew. The gender bias, of course, comes as little surprise.

Taking a step back, social media has empowered that character type – we all know one – who is always prying into neighbors’ business and gossiping with anyone who will listen. But whereas we used to have the option of simply closing the door, now the noisy gossip can beam right into our living rooms, often with hurtful consequences.

In short, the internet panders to our baser instincts, allowing people to attack each other – in Torkia’s case over supposed “shameful” behavior – without an ounce of self-reflection. That lack of inhibition is often reinforced by anonymous or fake profiles that shield trolls and bullies from the consequences of their statements. However, when people post “I hope you die” attacking a woman about her clothing, it is incontrovertible that they are revealing far more about themselves than the targets of their vitriol.

There is also an obvious attention-seeking element in such online behavior. An insult certainly provokes a reaction far quicker than a reasonable argument or engaging in conversation. While the quality of the interactions suggests elements of sadism, trolling and bullying often seem equally to reflect a craving for recognition and validation, even in the form of scorn or revulsion.

Seeking that sort of short-term gratification also suggests profound isolation, in which actual human interactions have been replaced by screen time and bite-sized messaging. The impact of social media spills over into our “real life” relationships, with substantial research pointing at greater tendencies toward antisocial behavior and dysfunctional communication, with the quality and depth of communication suffering.

We have all laughed at photos showing couples on dates, group of friends or families gathering around the dinner table, with each person’s eyes riveted to their smart phone. Those photos have gone viral on social media precisely because they strike a chord with so many. Smart-phone penetration in most countries is skyrocketing with typical users checking their devices every 10 to 12 minutes. That picture of a group of friends sitting together, looking only at their phones, is compelling because we recognize the resemblance.

Of course, that does not mean everyone is a troll telling people to die, but in some ways social media is prying us apart, not building communities as its advocates say, but actually replacing interactions that are needed for a healthy social life.

Put down your phone for a moment and think about it.

Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.