Morality in the Age of Social Media
The evolution of morality and ethics in the 21st century has taken a whole new direction, due to the mass awareness and participation made possible by the ubiquity of social media. Throughout history, there have been discoveries that have changed society in unimaginable ways. Two important developments that have shaped the history of moral evolution can be mentioned here. First, written language has revolutionized the communication of ideas across space and time. Second, new modes of transport have radically transformed social norms by bringing people into contact with new cultures. These two landmark events contributed significantly to shaping and reshaping moral thought across cultures. Yet these pale in comparison to how the internet and social media shape our individual and social identities.
In recent times, starting with the Arab Spring, social media has played a vital role in promoting public opinion on issues of morality, ethics and social justice. In Bangladesh, relatively recent movements calling for safer streets following the deaths of a few students have been fueled, to a large extent, by social media participation. While there have been positive developments in the evolution of public participation in shaping social justice through social media, caution should be exercised and the role of social media should be carefully considered.
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The primary mission of popular social media platform Facebook was to “make the world more open and connected” – and in the early days of social media, many people assumed that a huge global increase in connectivity would be a quite unequivocally. However, lately that optimism has waned somewhat. American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted that the problem may not be connectivity itself, but how social media turns so much communication into public performance. What did he mean by that?
Social psychologist Mark Leary coined the term “sociometer” to describe the inner mental gauge that tells us, moment by moment, how we are doing in the eyes of others. Leary argued that people don’t really care about self-esteem; rather, the evolutionary imperative is to get others to see them as desirable partners for various kinds of relationships. Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers and retweets, has taken sociometers out of our private thoughts and made them public. In 1790, the Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote: “We fear to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in every man is small, and that individuals had better avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. »
Social media put Burke’s words to the test. It causes people of all ages to focus on the scandal, joke or dispute of the day, but the effect can be particularly profound for younger generations, who have had less opportunity to acquire ideas and information. older ones before logging on to social media. flux. Since social media is an open platform, young people are exposed to a barrage of ‘philosophies’ and ‘guidelines’, providing moral justification for almost every little thing, without proper critical analysis and creating moral rules. almost “on the fly”. An example of this is the fact that social media has channeled susceptibility to divisions based on “group identity” into creating a “caption culture”: anyone can be publicly ashamed of saying something well-meaning thing that someone else interprets in an uncharitable way. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “New platforms and media allow citizens to retreat into bubbles of self-confirmation, where their worst fears about the evils on the other side can be confirmed and amplified by extremists and cyber trolls who intend to sow discord and division.”
In conclusion, it must be recognized that human civilization is arguably living in the most peaceful (and perhaps the most moral) era of our species’ existence. Technological innovation and social media have transformed our lives in many positive ways. However, the remaining frictions are worth discussing. As cognitive psychologist, linguist, and author Steven Pinker points out, much of our recent social history, including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralizing or amoralizing of particular types of behavior. Pinker captures this well by arguing that there seems to be a law of conservation of moralization, so that when old behaviors are removed from the moralized column, new ones are added to it. As the tectonic plates of moral evolution shift, so we need to examine the role of social media in our lives and be aware of how we are using it for positive change.
Mahir A Rahman is a research associate at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).