Death by Facebook

I can’t imagine the pain that the devastating loss of Thivyaanayagi Rajendran, 20, caused her loved ones. She was reported to have hanged herself just this past week after being bullied online after a Tik Tok video of her and a foreigner colleague went viral on Facebook.

Last year, a 16-year-old girl from Sarawak made headlines posthumously after posting an Instagram poll on whether she should die or not. After 69% of responders voted for death, it was reported, she killed herself.

Cyberbullying, which caused these deaths, is becoming all too common these days. Unicef says that almost one-third of young people in Malaysia have been victims of cyberbullying. And according to a study by Dr Vimala Balakrishnan, an associate professor at Universiti Malaya, more than half of all Malaysians have witnessed cyberbullying.

However, many would chalk up suicide to personal failings: “if only he had a stronger will”, “if only she had paid less attention to what other people thought of her”. The problem is, that sort of thinking is dangerously oversimplistic.

First, it belies a lack of empathy for a fellow human being’s suffering. Second, and more importantly, it illuminates a serious flaw in our conception of the tech tools at our disposal. Social media is not a neutral tool. Rather, it’s a potent magnifier, providing a lever that can allow ordinary people to exert outsized impact.

Couple this with the fact that the most outrageous remarks get the most attention, which is often the only currency of value in social media, and its predilection for herd mentality, and you have a dangerous and, as in Thivyaanayagi’s case, fatal concoction.

This is best illustrated using a simple thought experiment: Imagine punching a person in the face. You would hurt that one person and that’s the end of that. That’s the real world.

But now imagine that you have a machine gun. If you open fire, you could seriously injure 50 people at a time. That’s social media.

Unfortunately, we’ve gradually become desensitised to it. Milton Mayer, a renowned journalist and educator, describes how such a gradual process of normalisation made even living under Hitler’s Third Reich feel like no big deal.

To boot, we’re often willfully ignorant of social media’s increasing ills. And even if we aren’t, we don’t care enough to do something about it as social media’s seductive fruits are near-impossible to resist.

We may think of today’s ubiquitous digital platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter – as unadulterated media of communication. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. They have an arsenal of the best minds of our generation at their disposal, and all their formidable abilities are squarely focused on getting you to use their platforms as much as possible, to the detriment of anything and everything else.

Social media sites are designed specifically to be as “sticky” as possible. There are entire books written on how to do this and entire professions devoted to maximising this effect. It’s good business. But what’s good business for Facebook could be, and often is, bad news for you.

Tristan Harris, a pioneering thinker on the deleterious effects of social media and a former Google ethicist, says these companies are in a “race to the bottom of the brain stem”. Instead of invoking the better angels of our nature, they prod and pander to the devilish worst in us.

What about any negative externalities due to our collective obsession with social media? Does it make you want to watch cat videos on YouTube instead of having a meaningful conversation with your partner? Do you prefer to write incendiary comments on a Facebook post instead of concentrating on your all-important project?

Social media platforms don’t care. That’s not the metric they are competing on and are evaluated by. Your inevitable loss of will power and productivity due to social media’s blackhole-like pull is just collateral damage. It’s nothing personal, no hard feelings, they say.

Jeff Hammerbacher, Facebook’s first research scientist, put it succinctly: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads … and it sucks.”

In the 19th century, gold was scarce, so there was a rush to mine and monetise it. In the early 20th century, oil took its place. The 21st century is definitively one where your attention is the scarcest resource – and it’s something tech companies are competing tooth and nail for. Winning it means being able to sell it to the highest bidder and, in the process, rake in billions.

Don’t be fooled by those who say we live in the Information Age. That was 10 years ago. We now live in the Attention Age.

There’s an easy way to find out the truth of this statement. Haven’t you ever wondered why social media sites are free? Probably not. Why question a good thing, right? But remember your dad telling you there’s no such thing as a free lunch? He was right.

Social media sites are free because you are not the customer, you are the product. Their customers are those who would like to harvest your data and advertise to you. These are the Nikes, Celcoms, and Nestles of the world, along with millions of other players. All of them want a piece of your attentional pie – one that’s becoming ever more precious even as it becomes ever more fragmented.

It’s about time we put our foot down and took back some semblance of our sovereignty from these social media sites that are hell-bent on stripping us of it.

As James Williams says in his seminal book, Stand Out Of Our Light, “freedom’s nastiest adversaries in the years to come would emerge not from the things we fear, but from the things that give us pleasure: it’s not the prospect of a ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’ that should keep us up at night, but rather the spectre of a situation in which ‘people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think’. A thumb scrolling through an infinite feed, forever.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.