keyboard warriorOctober 27 — Social media is often touted as a democratic space that allows everyone to say whatever they want to.

Ideally, it should be a marketplace of ideas, full of diverse views where people are free to listen to each other and to engage in robust discussions.

However, the insane amount of content online has reduced us to consuming information in bite-sized pieces, scrolling through headlines and videos less than two minutes’ long, Facebook and Twitter timelines, photos and stories on Instagram and Snapchat, not to mention stuff (usually more headlines, “viral news” and irritating inspirational quotes) in WhatsApp groups.

Our attention span is now much shorter and our tolerance for alternative opinions (meaning, any view that contradicts our own) has shrunk accordingly.  

Rather than expand the marketplace of ideas, social media has instead made it smaller by only showing us what we want to see, the viewpoints that gel with our own, and news that confirm our beliefs. It’s not the fault of corporations, of course. What company would sell products its customers didn’t want?

If we want to read on Facebook viewpoints that we don’t subscribe to, we have to actively look for them and click “like” on the particular page or post so that similar posts will appear on our timeline. We also have to resist unfollowing people or pages that promote opinions we dislike. It’s a hard sell.

The only reason why I follow on Facebook people and pages of conservative leanings is because I’m a journalist. Even then, I sometimes have to remind myself to be open and resist unfollowing certain “conservative” people who are not public figures.

Receiving only information that corroborates our existing beliefs seems to make us intolerant to alternative points of view. This applies to both liberals and conservatives.

While it seems that religious conservatives often lodge police reports at the slightest offence, liberals often demand for police action too whenever they are offended (just that the authorities appear to take action more frequently based on the former’s complaints). However, perceived favouritism doesn’t justify calling for criminal prosecutions against someone who offends you.

Not many Malaysians seem to understand the concept of free speech — that it simply means having the freedom to say whatever you want (as reprehensible and offensive it may be) as long as you don’t advocate harm, i.e: freedom from State action and, I would argue, from loss of livelihood like job terminations.

Beyond treating offensive speech as a criminal offence, we are quick to publicly shame people who offend us. Facebook and Twitter make it easy to launch thousands of angry tweets and posts against someone over a racist, sexist or politically incorrect remark.

This isn’t a uniquely Malaysian phenomenon, of course. America, too, has many cases of Internet outrage ruining a person’s life over an offensive tweet or Facebook post.

The Internet mob is vicious and constantly looks for the next victim to feed our insatiable demand for public shaming disguised as entertainment. The latest victims here are a woman who questioned soup kitchens in Kuala Lumpur and a popular Twitter user who defended Quentin Tarantino’s silence on Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting over 50 women.  

Most of us have likely jumped on the bandwagon to hate on someone over an offensive remark on social media.

I have probably been guilty of that too, but after I myself became the target of Internet outrage over a Facebook post criticising a Rohingya street demonstration, I learned not to quickly join the mob against any offensive person.

I only do that with politicians mostly because they are the ones making policy that affect our lives. And even then, I keep it to a minimum and express criticism in my column instead of jabbing away angrily at my keyboard on social media. 

Writing an article hundreds of words’ long forces me to be methodical, while the instant gratification of Facebook posts and 280-character tweets promotes more emotional responses.

When did we stop appreciating the fact that people often have opinions different from ours, and more importantly, stop engaging with each other?

If we want to get someone to understand our point of view, then we should talk, rather than shut them down either through State action or through online condemnation.

And such discussions should preferably be done offline. Even simple questions on the difference between sexual harassment and flirting, for example, often end up in long angry Facebook threads that makes you wonder how people have the time and energy to be so furious on the Internet.   

We just can’t be civil in our disagreements on social media, probably because Facebook and Twitter were never designed to provide the space for in-depth discussions about socio-political issues. 

Things like sexual assault and discriminatory business practices can’t be explained away in just a few tweets or Facebook posts. Threads on social media are messy and hard to keep track of too.

Instead of being so quick to judge others over a single Facebook post or tweet (especially if they are people you know in real life), why not call them on the phone and talk about it? Wouldn’t that help us understand their point of view better? Or even to personally message them (if they are strangers) and ask what they really meant?

Or do we prefer to be ignorant because it feels so good to be part of a collective hating on someone whom we think is worse than us?

I dislike the terms “social justice warriors” or “political correctness” because once, sexism and racism were socially acceptable.

Now they are not so, and even if some may go overboard in insisting on so-called politically correct speech, we should remember that women, transgender people, ethnic and sexual minorities still face plenty of discrimination around the world.

“Social justice warriors”, too, is a term that doesn’t do justice to some people who may do actual work fighting for minority rights. 

Having said that, seasoned activists should know better than to mindlessly join an Internet mob to attack someone perceived as going against what they stand for. Instead, they should lead the way in showing us how to persuade other people to come around to their stance.

Muslim preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin posted on Facebook about how he had a meal with Shahul Hamid and talked about the Penang-based preacher’s alleged remarks in a YouTube video, which has since gone viral, that it was “haram” (forbidden) for Muslim women to get haircuts from non-Muslim women.

In their discussion over tea, Wan Ji said Shahul was surprised that his remarks became an issue since it was a years-old video. According to Wan Ji, Shahul also told him that he was ready to apologise to non-Muslims who were offended by the video and that he did not intend to offend anyone, as he believed he was only expressing the Syafie school of thought. 

Wan Ji said he had also shared with Shahul the views of another ulama who said it was fine for non-Muslim women to cut the hair of Muslim women, which Shahul apparently received “with an open heart.”

It is not that difficult to have an open discussion with someone of a different political or social ideology. Wan Ji said his discussion with Shahul took almost one and a half hours.

We spend far more time posting and reacting in long Facebook threads. Sometimes, days.