The gossip, adulation and cruelty bullying on social media is intense and damaging especially when children are involved. Picture: 123RF/ kho
The gossip, adulation and cruelty bullying on social media is intense and damaging especially when children are involved. Picture: 123RF/ kho

Social media has transformed the human race into beings riven by narcissism when not eaten up by envy. The species, always prone to gossip, adulation and cruelty, has now become addicted to these in hyperbolic mode.

This dark side of the digital world has received some attention, but some of these antisocial trends need to be spelt out.

Bullies, idiots and show-offs now have platforms to widen the divide between dominators and the dominated. Now it’s not just playgrounds or boardrooms that are possible arenas for sociopaths.

Miscreants publish the slightest mishaps on national and global scale. More serious infractions bring shame and stigmatisation more severe than prison sentences. Ridicule has become the new pastime.

Social media, above all, are publishing platforms. They have the power to disseminate information globally.

WhatsApp is a good place to start. One gets "invited" to join a group — a family group, a list of friends, a tenants’ association, a colleagues’ gathering — and already the pressure is palpable.

If you decline membership, you’re antisocial, a spoiler or arrogant. So you join, hoping to keep a low profile. But a lack of participation brings the same charges, so you’ve got to respond, on pain of rejection.

Inevitably, a few figures dominate the "chat". Every member is accorded a status, and their discourse is ranked on a scale, such that the dominators always have their say. Those accorded a low status make comments no-one responds to.

The group’s dynamics obey the laws of group psychology, with the weak forced to pander to the strong. The insignificant fodder who have been invited only to constitute an audience are rendered silent.

POLITICALLY, TWITTER IS THE WORST. THE GREATEST OFFENDER IS DONALD TRUMP. HE HAS MADE THE MEDIUM HIS OWN

The medium appears to be impervious to tone, humour and irony or that cliché that everyone allegedly cultivates, "nuance". Make a joke, and it gets interpreted as a statement for which one has to account.

If it’s not consonant with the group’s prejudices, it’s a notch against you. The joke could be accompanied with appropriate warning signs, emojis, announcing that you are making a joke, which spoils the joke.

If someone posts a mishap, you must express sympathy. You might feel that the mishap is trivial, or something that should have remained private and decide not to respond. In which case you will silently be regarded as unsympathetic, or loudly accused of callousness. The demand to agree, to fall in with the crowd, is relentless.

The dominant sentiments call for a race/class analysis. WhatsAppers often make jokes, asides and sly allusions that confirm the group’s prejudices. Lord help you if your statement challenges these sentiments. You will be met with cold silence, no response, or accused of being nasty, or even worse.

One or probably more of the dominant’s minions will castigate you, which the idiots in the group will "like". A form of bullying writes itself into the group chat. Leaving is not an option, since it brings attention to the leaver — laying them open to the same charges that pressured them to accept the initial invite.

WhatsApp groups appear to suffer from the same pitfalls of "real" social group activities, but seem more real, and posts cannot be expunged.

Instagram flaunts triviality. "Bonang goes to Ibiza", says an icon on a newspaper site, and readers flock to see how celebrities lord it in exotic hotels no-one can afford. It is an exercise in showing off. Celebrities get their pathological kicks from this inordinate attention.

Disapprove and you’ll be accused of envy, which was the original intention. Instagram functions much like glam magazines, repositories of reasons to get depressed for those stupid enough to compare their lives with those of celebrities.

The worst thing about social media is its oft-used capacity for stigmatisation. In SA racists who have been outed will be most inclined to agree with this contention. Nevertheless, one has to sympathise with those deemed villains by owners of smartphones and their networks. Everyone says or does something they would later regret.

The social media moment is one of hypostatisation: it makes an event more real than it otherwise would be, and it disseminates news of shame on a massive scale, enough to ruin lives – forever. Mistakes are not allowed within range of a smartphone. Mob rule has conquered an immaterial space and has in the process become that much more effective and ubiquitous.

Politically, Twitter is the worst of the platforms. The greatest offender, of course, is US President Donald Trump. He has made this medium his own, transforming into a virtue his inability to read texts more than a few lines long, and his incapacity to reason.

With one tweet, Trump erodes the prospects of entire countries, even continents. The tie-up between business indices and social media will have to be studied by social scientists.

These days we see "twars" between half-baked celebrities, and newspapers fan and exploit these ridiculous spats, elevating petty and spiteful exchanges into material for entertainment sections.

The speed with which statements are issued makes for a more volatile world. Speed can be a bad thing. The world, if anything, needs slowing down.

Social media was lauded for making possible the Arab Spring, the rebellion against tyrannical regimes in the Middle East. But these uprisings resulted in failed revolutions, especially in Egypt. Regimes like the newly militaristic Saudi Arabia, have become more autocratic.

Addictions to Facebook have become legend. Users clock up thousands of "friends" who are likely to shame them by revealing innocuous information that, amplified and decontextualised, reappear in crippling mode.

The manner in which these platforms harvest information and sell it to businesses is pernicious, as is the use of this information for surveillance by governments and security agencies.

There will be people who will argue for the benefits of these media. The benefits appear to be outweighed by the dark side, and supposed benefits might prove to be the dark side in disguise. It’s not only the children who are hooked to this digital onanism — adults are too.

But it’s the kids who will live out new cyber-pathologies into "realtime". Years from now we might begin to discern the effects of socialisation by social media. Today’s children are incapable of conversation, of social relations.

Attempts to speak to them are perceived as irritating interruptions from phone-time. They are permanently online.

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