‘Truth wars’ on social media and the ethicality of sharing
Let us take the example of predictions of death toll made by different research institutes around the world (my google search on predictions of deaths toll due to corona produced 26,400,000 results in 0.46 seconds. Search date 05.04.2021). In one such modelling, a very high death toll was predicted for Bangladesh. The news broke at a time when Bangladesh was at an early stage of the pandemic. Many in my social media list shared the projection. It became a topic of interest, especially when a news portal hosting the news was eventually made unavailable in Bangladesh. Contrary to that, a seasoned senior academician in a TV chat show in Dhaka declined to disclose the predicted high death toll. The situation was interesting because the figure was already out and well known by that time amongst the Internet users.
Occasions such as this and many others (which I don't discuss here) often gave me a pause to think about sharing. As a long-term social media user, and a member of the virtual society, I thought I do have mechanisms to deal with these decisions. I have developed mechanisms to understand what news to share and if the source is credible or not, and most of the time I am on the right side (there are occasional mistakes of course). But I couldn't share that news. What was stopping me? Is it my disciplinary background? Did this have anything to do with my "personality type" (I am of course critical of any static typology although I understand that such typologies may make sense to some)?
While I don't claim to provide a comprehensive answer to this, here are some initial thoughts I think are worth sharing: my initial concern perhaps was that my sharing may create a panic and my general understanding is that panic is not good. Common sense led me to take that decision. As an academic albeit in the social sciences, I have a fair idea of what models are and how they are built. Are they good for sharing on social media for the consumption of the common population? I was not sure. Models are not fool-proof and there is often controversy. Perhaps by not sharing the model, I was trying to avoid a possible situation of unfounded fear. The daily contraction and death numbers announced every day on TV I thought were enough to inform us.
However, as is the case with social media, my individual decision did not matter because many people shared that information (friends, colleagues) and surely with the good intention to alert people and more importantly, the government of the imminent danger of not doing enough. After all, in Bangladesh, if we recall correctly, we were dealing with a government that was somewhat in denial of the gravity of the situation from the very beginning.
In the early months of the pandemic last year, I remember two contradictory sets of reactions on social media when it comes to Covid-19 and the government's response. On the one hand, panicked middle-class netizens were all for complete lockdown and other stringent measures and enforcement. This position at least at the initial stages did not foresee the consequences of the sudden stoppage of everything and the sentiment that had no understanding of the context we were in. And then, of course, there was another group, usually coming from an activist and research background (this assertion is of course based on my social media feed and the algorithm it involved and have limitations; as an academic, I am likely to have a disproportionate number of researcher/activist friends on my list) who foresaw the immediate consequences of a stringent lockdown. The latter group was keen to argue that such measures will bring havoc to the majority of the people, who constituted the bulk of our labour sector (i.e. people who make a living from agriculture, the small business holders, the construction and transport workers, and the rickshaw-pullers, hawkers and female labourers working as house help in middle-class and upper-class households). The contending views of the netizens, among other things, spoke a lot about who the users were and how they made sense of the world.
On questions of what to share and what not to share, ethics take up an important role and there is no one theory or singular answer. And one cannot deny that ethics has never been a forte in our education system. Sharing on social media (a public space) comes with responsibility but that responsibility need not be taken away by the government. That only complicates things and has the pretence of many other unforeseen situations. One needs to think very hard before sharing a piece of information. Our education system needs to invest some time and energy in these questions. Mainstream TV journalism has an important role to play in such situations. But more often than not, due to a political economy we do not have the scope to discuss here, they are invested in Bangladesh's world-famous toxic politics which keeps them busy, and so much so, that from time to time one may mistake a TV anchor to be a party strongman and propagandist from the ruling party. Finally, and more importantly, the level of conversation on ethics needs to be raised.
While we cannot get out of this "wired reality" of social media, I think Covid-19 has given us one more reason to rethink our relationship with it.
Mahmudul H Sumon is a professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University.