CAN YOU HEAR ME? It’s a silly thing isn’t it? Make your words larger, and suddenly they are more yell than whisper, sent across thousands of miles of signal and wire from one computer to another. It is a natural impulse, borne from primal grunts and updated for the digital age: if you want to be heard, SPEAK UP.
This mode of communication has become an important part of the digital grammar, so entrenched in our culture as to supplant the draconic syntax of yore. To the modern many, the semantics between “your” and “you’re” are near irrelevant. Yet the difference between “hello” and “hello.” in a text is a gulf wide enough to swallow the English lexicon whole.
Such changes are natural, as language is a fluid that deforms and conforms to the cultural constructs we place it in, not unlike a river carving through stone over the decades. But what happens when this process is dangerously accelerated?
Consider the following experiment: take a group of people, give them all megaphones, and tell them to converse. More likely than not, conversational groups will drift away from each other, because at that volume, it’s difficult to hear the dialogue from the din. Now repeat the experiment within the confines of a single room. In this scenario, there are only two options to be heard. First, shout loudest. Second, shout strangest. People will perk up their ears if they catch even a syllable of someone shouting vagaries.
The aforementioned experiment is a tongue-in-cheek manner of describing the definitive means of communication in the 21st century—the Internet. With its growth, the people of the world were abruptly handed megaphones, herded into a digital room, and told to speak. When they were not heard, the people did what comes naturally: they started to shout.
The sobering reality is that in an era when global communication is a button-click away, people are severely ill-equipped to communicate. Steven Covey said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”, and that sentiment is a disturbing reflection of the modern era. The disparity between the crawl of culture and the breakneck-pace of technology has crippled our ability to listen, because to be heard over the roar of other voices is to be singularly-fixed on being heard. More than just an ideological faux pas, the ramifications of this shift are of tangible consequence to people across the globe. And in many cases, the shouting matches our modern interactions often devolve to are matters of life and death.
According to a 2016 Kleiner Perkins Internet trends report, India is the second-largest Internet market after China. An estimated 277 million Indian users, many from rural backgrounds with little prior exposure to the digital world, now log on daily. Between May 2017 and July 2018, many logged on to see a video of a fake child abduction, which sparked mass violence against outsiders and natives alike. In reality, the clip was taken from an informational video by charity Roshni Helpline, but the lie still led to 40 estimated deaths, and over 40 others injured. The altered message was heard loud and clear. But unfortunately, people had not learned to listen to the fatal truth beneath the roar.
In Myanmar, a primarily Buddhist country similarly coming into its own in the digital age, hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities skews popular opinion by virtue of its chosen platform—Facebook. A United Nations panel reported in August that top Myanmar military commanders were responsible for the genocide of more than 10,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. Yet popular sentiment did not lash out against this ethnic cleansing, because popular sentiment is largely aligned with the ousting of the Rohingya, swayed by the loud voices proliferating hate. Despite attempts by Facebook to curb hate speech, Reuters found thousands of posts and comments in August attacking the Rohingya people, as a result of two factors. First, the people often take misinformed hate speech on Facebook as fact. And second, Facebook is woefully unprepared for the global reach it has gained, due to its inability to accurately translate some languages (like Burmese), and its lack of Burmese-speaking employees.
In Western countries, which have had the Internet in some form for decades, there are still stumbles in acclimating to digital communication. Germany’s immigration tensions in recent months have been exacerbated by misinformation, like the stabbing of a man by two Middle-Eastern men that erupted into violent protests. The event was distorted by social media users to ignite two days of protests against the million Muslim migrants escaping conflicts in the Middle East, and led to partisan clashes. In the United States, 32 people were indicted for election interference through “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of government” in a “conspiracy to sway public opinion”, as reported by Aljazeera. The sad truth, though, is that these conspirators did not create some new exploit or flaw. They simply capitalized on existing tensions and weaknesses, foremost of which is the lack of critical evaluation of sources and information presented on the Internet and social media.
Even in less dire circumstances, our inability to listen to anything less than the loudest voice in the room threatens to change our cultural legacies into monoliths of extremism and virality. More and more, our social and economic virtues are fueled by exposure, rather than value. Last year, the Oxford dictionary modified its definition of “influencer” to reflect its meaning in the 21st century, as “a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.” There are now thousands of influencers globally, whose unique followings provide opportunity to expose, motivate, or influence millions of people. While not inherently problematic, issues often come with how those followings are accumulated. Because as repeated ad-nauseum, only the loudest and most extreme are heard in the modern era.
One need only look to the news to see evidence of how the arms race of virality can be dangerous. Last year, a would-be Internet star died during a video stunt when a bullet penetrated a heavy book he trusted would protect him, and struck him in the chest. Los
Angeles police purportedly spent thousands rescuing cliff jumpers who desired likes and followers through extreme posts, only to injure themselves in the attempt. And in China, the viral popularity of “rooftopping”, where users post death -defying stunts from skyscrapers and rooftops, led to the death of a man last year when he fell from the Huayuan Hua Center.
Culturally, the crazed pursuit of “going viral” has shifted how people value themselves and the things around them, and not always in constructive ways. There have been several studies that linked feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression with social media use. Perfectly-posed pictures and photoshopped images have been cited as detrimental to self-esteem, and especially harmful to women and young girls. It’s not such a far-fetched notion—when the world places social value in the size of a digital following, and some of the largest influencers are (arguably) unrealistic standards of beauty or lifestyle, it follows that some will feel less-than for not attaining the unattainable.
This is all properly grim and daunting. So what can be done about it? Well for starters, I would like to make it clear that the Internet and social media are not at fault here. They are a tool, and like any other, are wielded by people. So the root problem lies in us, and how we use those tools.
Which naturally means, to tie back to my earlier metaphors, we first and foremost need to learn to listen through the megaphones of modern digital communication. Many schools now offer courses in how to critically analyze digital media sources, to weed out the “fake news” from honest information, and increasing rates of higher education should help reinforce critical thinking.
For service providers like Facebook and Whatsapp, better moderation tools, especially in minority languages, are essential to humane communication on the global scale. Facebook’s infamous “Move Fast and Break Things” motto sounds cutting-edge, but when it is communities they are splintering, it takes a much darker tone.
On a cultural level, we need to ensure that what we say is valuable is what we truly value. Viral videos and influencers are modern realities, for better and worse, but we need to stop rewarding the dangerous and extreme (including extreme, unrealistic ideals and standards) if the cost is life, limb, or happiness.
When loud wins over nuance or substance, viral over value, people no longer listen— they wait for their turn to speak. More often than not, to shout. But as informed citizens, mothers and fathers, workers and leaders, it is our duty to learn to effectively communicate and listen in the digital era.
In the hope that our words become a bridge, and not a wall.