Toxic echoes of society within social media

Social media is a powerful tool, when it is used properly. It allows individuals from anywhere to share their ideas, express their creativity, communicate with others all over the world, and instantly receive news. It is a platform of freedom where the human race can exhibit the power of sentient thought, the birth of the social media era could have been the beginning of a new Renaissance. You’ll notice I stated “when it is used properly” because by-and-large, we’ve really made a mess of it.

Brown Twitter is a self-appointed name for the community of Twitter users who fit in the category of being South Asian (mainly but not limited to Pakistani, Indian, Bengali, and Sri Lankan users) and that is where I see a typical example of the way society behaves. One of the buzzwords that is so commonly used on social media is “toxic” but societal toxicity certainly did not start here, this is something the human race creates and it is shown in every facet of our civilisation. Before I go further I would state that this is not a form of attack against Brown Twitter or any other community, merely an observation I have taken from my own experiences — as with everything I write. I would also write that I am in no way an expert in any field of social science, the following points that are articulated may be completely wrong and if there is anyone reading this with any education on the matter, I would be happy to discuss this with you.

A group of people never starts out as being toxic, in fact there is an innocent simplicity to it. Like-minded people are naturally able to relate to one another. In my previous article “We don’t have much but we have each other, and that’s enough”, I spoke about my grandparents being some of the many families that emigrated from Pakistan to England in the 1960s, in doing so they helped to lay the foundations for the ethnic communities we have today. It is due to their efforts that minorities can emigrate to these areas of England and quickly find a sense of belonging. When this first happens, certain sensibilities are established, social etiquettes, a level of pre-recognised respect for your fellow community members and most importantly, a hierarchy. The convention of respecting one’s elders is prevalent in ethnic communities due to the idea that they are the wisest. In reality, it’s a method of preservation. In order to maintain particular values within a culture, it’s often easier to learn through a practical example rather than being taught. One that springs to mind is the traditional greeting among Muslims: “Assalamu-alaykum”. We all say it because our parents said it, as did theirs before them and so on — that is something that has been passed down and it will be passed down in subsequent generations.

Being part of such a group like this can provide a sense of comfort and security but that’s usually when one fails to notice certain proverbial seeds of toxicity are being sown. A hierarchy such as this is not governed by a council with a duty to maintain a list of professional standards, instead you have individuals with certain personal agendas. This can be something as seemingly harmless as playing host to a certain event or promoting some point of action among the community but these things are often done for personal benefit. A big example of this is popularity. One could easily equate popularity to power and say that it makes someone seem bigger and more significant than they really are. The principle of popularity is to become more popular, that kind of social power gives a person an influence over an increasing number of people, basically anyone who will listen to them. It is often the case that logic is not followed in certain dilemmas, rather it boils down to whatever is the cultural way of solving the problem. Again, going back to my own experiences, this is something I see a lot within Islamic communities. From my experience and involvement within such groups, I know that Muslims tend go by the word of whomever appears to know more, the solution itself might have nothing to do with Islam but that precedence based on a quantifiable sense of Islamic knowledge is what carries this cycle forward. This is where the toxicity grows. For example, gender roles are still a major issue in both Islam and south-east Asian cultures. I’m nowhere close to being the perfect Muslim but there is a painfully obvious difference between Islam and modern day Muslims, especially insofar as attitudes towards women are concerned. Perhaps the most alarming fact of this is that a lot of women have these attitudes ingrained within them which they then teach to their own children. I would like to state that I am not blaming women, merely stating observations I have personally witnessed.

Differences in gender is a massive point of concern, south-east Asian men are raised with a far greater leniency than women. The archaic idea of a male heir to serve as the head of the family has led to generations of men that have a myriad of problems which manifest themselves in all kinds of negative ways. Rather than being able to recognise those problems, they are often repressed or considered unimportant only for the same attributes to be passed on to successive generations. There are many examples: one would be that it is commonly seen as acceptable for a man to have premarital sex but a woman would be considered promiscuous, another would be that men are not punished nearly as much as women, they are allowed to basically do as they please but women have to maintain a certain decorum at all times (things like not being out of their homes at night — this is so commonly used as an excuse by rape apologists). Arguably the biggest problem that affects both genders is the idea of an outward image. One’s image is an outward perception to everyone. In south-east Asian culture, an image is maintained for the sake of one’s popularity. Any kind of problem is seen as shameful, it’s the reason a lot of people don’t discuss items such as sexual abuse, mental health problems, and usually don’t bother to pursue any interests outside of working, socialising and any religious/cultural obligations. I am aware that all of these problems are not specific to any group specifically however I am unable to speak for groups with which I have had no experience.

Going back to social media, a lot of this is the same. Image matters the most, that leads to followers, the more followers you have then the greater your influence. When your influence is greater than everyone else’s, you’re the one at the top. Brown Twitter is no exception, everyone wants to be known for being socially aware, we all like to share news around and talk in such depth about our love for Islam (Brown Twitter isn’t just comprised of Muslims however the majority of people I follow are), we all like to create an image but when people begin to engage, that’s when the influence begins. Soon enough, certain rules are established and if you’re on the wrong side of those then you are in a very unforgiving environment with very few people, if any at all, to defend you. The only difference between real life and social media is that people are much less afraid to say something to you when they are sat behind a keyboard. Social media takes this one step further, everyone is aware of the problems I have mentioned but awareness of one set of problems is insufficient when others are still perpetuated.

The important example I would give for social media is the Islamic understanding and approach to the LGBTQ+ community. I could not quickly summarise this however it’s so common for Muslims on social media to openly hate them. My view of the matter is as such: If you know how it feels to endure personal and institutional prejudices, if you know what it’s like to watch as the cornerstone of your identity is disrespected through the media and if you think that that has to end then why would you do unto another marginalised group as has been done to you? It’s not fair to them and is not in keeping with the Islamic fundamental principle of peace — I’m not saying anyone has to be a part of that lifestyle but it is illogical to hate something that does not harm you. To reiterate, I am not a perfect Muslim nor am I completely versed in Islamic literature and its teachings. If there is anyone reading this that would disagree with me or wishes to discuss what I have written, I would be happy to engage with you. At the same time, I would address the LGBTQ+ community and say that to those Muslims that are part of that, challenging and reasoning with the religious community to be better is one thing but doing things to change Islam (such as stating that God is gay, which is shirk) is not productive or useful to either side. You can’t expect to change a 1400 year old religion in such a way without there being a negative reaction. By all means, discuss but avoid a fight. That’s the kind of fight where nobody wins and nothing changes. My point of this tangent is to say that it’s not enough to be a progressive society if you are aware of certain problems but you are still encouraging others to happen.

When a group’s sensibilities become de facto principles without any space for deviation, debate or change then it has become toxic. Social media displays this more often than not, cyberbullying is not seen for what it is because people do not dare to question the self-imposed social authority of the most popular person who’s doing the talking. Cyberbullying is only an evil thing when there are consequences then everyone is all so caring and stating that anyone can talk to them about anything until the next person comes along who is an easy target. When you feel as though you cannot publicly disagree with someone out of fear of being ostracised, you are in a toxic environment. It always starts off with a nice idea to bring together your own, but that quickly turns ugly when similarities are prioritised over individual humanity. When specific similarities become requirements for your continued acceptance irrespective of anything else, toxicity is in full effect.

The basic outline, from creation to growth to the rejection of anything different, is not limited to ethnic minorities. It’s everywhere, even in politics, and it is the reason we have institutional and systemic racism. People learn racism from their environment so they continue the cycle set by the preceding generations, this is on an international level. The more populace a group you are dealing with, the more impactful this can be. It is the reason why so many groups (feminists, BLM, etc) are considered radical when they are fighting for equality. When you benefit from the system, you perceive it as having some kind of moral righteousness, anything that questions or differs from that must therefore be wrong. That is the idea behind privilege.

To anyone that reads this, I would like to conclude by saying that culture can be a beautiful thing, it is an expression of life and an art form that varies in so many ways. The expression of the different cultures of the world is the real exhibition of human sentience. It is people that make it into something toxic and it is through them that we often connote a traditional cultural lifestyle with restriction and control. I implore everyone to look to themselves and see how they are a part of that. I am not exempt from this and my efforts will be the same.

Social media is an extension of our current society, on the surface of it you will see groups of like-minded people come together — they form communities online just as people form like-minded communities in real life and just like real life, there are dangers to it. Keep your own counsel and don’t be afraid to stand for what you think is right, even if you think you’re in a losing battle. Society is beginning to change and that involves an inspection of everything, it won’t be immediate and not everything will be changed but we are at a point now where more and more people are speaking up and taking some form of action, myself included. Thank you for reading.

-A.S.

23 - My views are my own