Why social media doesn’t promote social justice

Recently, Emmeline Skinner Cassidy published a moving and eye-opening piece detailing her relationship with a Syrian family exiled in Jordan. It was an account that described the generosity and humanity that flourished in a terrible situation. Like her, I agree that we should give a voice to individual suffering and hardship; tragedies comfortably forgotten as anonymous statistics on the 10 o’clock news.

Her account gave me pause for thought. Putting a face to the events behind the headlines is undoubtedly important. This task has been facilitated on an unprecedented scale by social media, allowing otherwise neglected stories to be recorded and disseminated. Intuitively, you might think that this is a good thing. Sadly, the intervention of social media is a development heralding bad as well as good.

Celebrated theorist John Berger once made the provocative comment that Vietnam War photography did not desensitize the public to suffering, rather it duped them. Rather than eliciting meaningful change, these photos forced the spectator to reconcile his/her guilt with the horror of the tragedies before them. Confrontation with arresting imagery therefore shifted the attention of the public from ending the photographed atrocities, to dealing with their guilt. By forcing the public to swallow the horror in these photos made the public complicit in the continuation of this horror.

In relation to social media, such a theory fails to account for the many positive and meaningful changes that the online dissemination of injustice has facilitated. Yet Berger’s fundamental point bears consideration, namely that emotions of guilt, indignation and anger are no substitute for making a real difference to the situation that has provoked such sentiment. In short the stories that move us aren’t about how we feel, but about the situation of those in need.

This distinction is crucial in light of the effect social media has had in defining the relationship between our empathy and those with whom we empathize. A paradigmatic case study is the ‘Humans of New York’ stream. The comments on posts that detail hardship fall into two tellingly distinct types. The first type complains about the more general structural, social or political factors that have created the suffering of the subject. The authors see the tragedy as representative of a problem beyond its incarnation in one human. The other half makes the opposite observation. Their comments lament the particular circumstances of the people or person in need. These are the sorts of posts that demand to know the detailed circumstances of the subject in order to help.

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It is easier and seemingly more effective to donate to the plight of one family or person than to change the circumstances that led to their difficulties. This in part explains why the latter reaction is so widespread. But this is not simply a case of shortsighted charity; it can do more harm than good. Having helped the family in whose narrative the donor has invested himself or herself, they can now feel good about themselves. They have purged themselves of their guilt with an emotional pay-off: follow-up pictures of the happy family, reports of how they are now on their feet with jobs and safety. Meanwhile, thousands if not millions continue to suffer conditions similar those of the family that was helped.

The impetus behind campaigns to change the lives of individuals is no doubt well-intentioned, but Berger’s comment seems relevant.  If Vietnam war photos forced the public to reconcile themselves with atrocity, so too does the internet. It purges the guilt of spectators by allowing them to participate in facile short-term solutions that pacify their horror in lieu of creating real, long-lasting solutions. Indeed, the case-by-case solution that social media offers becomes more about making you feel good than about meaningfully helping people. This shortsightedness is not innocent; it ultimately results in a handful of people being generously assisted and the rest often forgotten.

The ineffectuality of distributing charity on a case-by-case basis is in addition perverse in what good it can do. It may reasonably be asked how it is people can still feel good about creating a solution that will ultimately change little. The answer is that we have been taught to understand tragedy precisely through the sort of exception that social media allows. In Hollywood, the dramatization of real life tragedies never tells the story of those who died. United 93 is about the foiled 9/11 hijacking , Captain Phillips is about the captain who was recued from pirates, The Impossible is about the family who survives the Indian Tsunami. Is it not worrying that the way in which social media encourages charity is by telling a tragic narrative, and then allowing you to pay for it to finish like a film? This is not only ineffectual, it is insulting to those in need that they should be helped not as humans deserving of fundamental rights, but as cathartic pay-offs for the delusional sentimentality of the first world.

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This further begs a question. How, and by what criteria, does a stream like HONY decide whose story will receive the salvation of online exposure? Indeed, how does the public decide whose story will be shared enough to change someone’s life? It is almost as if the distribution of the first world’s best intentions is a lottery. This is perhaps the most disturbing point, that the people the internet ends up helping are not helped because of their fundamental, intrinsic human right to be saved from the injustices they suffer. Rather, they are helped because of the pity of self-appointed internet crusaders. This is why we should be wary of how social media has changed the process of putting a face to the suffering: the salvation it offers is shortsighted, unjust and frankly humiliating as a response to the problems of the world.

What about those who comment about the wider problems of which tragic stories are a symptom? While their appraisal is perhaps more appropriate, they, too, are guilty of doing nothing to change the situation. They see that a larger solution is necessary, but provide none. They therefore have two problems. The first is that unlike the other group, this first group has no consensus either about the nature of the problem or how it can be tackled. Their second problem is that unlike the solutions to the problems of individuals, resolving these deeper underlying problems requires resources far beyond haphazard kick-starters and Facebook groups.

The shortsightedness of the first group and the impotence of the second are both symptoms of the same situation. Both are apolitical attempts at finding solutions. The appeal to humanity of the first group avoids ideology, while the lack of unity and organization of the second avoids collective action. Collective action and ideology: surely the hallmarks of politics?

If a political solution is needed, then perhaps this explains why there is currently no solution. It will have been noted that for all the mention of authentic change and action, this article has given no suggestion of what that might be. Truthfully, I do not know. From aid to intervention, the action of political entities (by which I mean democratically mandated governments) will have to find a solution. But first, the deadlock that has characterized the politics of recent years will have to be broken. Not for the sake of the guilt-stricken, but for that of the suffering.