By Reno Omokri
Social media and the technologies that drive it were intended to be a force for social good that expanded the individual’s reach beyond his physical proximity. However, over the years since the emergence of the medium many of its users are beginning to see a negative side of its use amongst young people which must be addressed otherwise it will lead to an erosion of core societal values.
As a youth and young adult, many of those in my age bracket learnt the art of reading people’s non-verbal communications or body language by practising whole body listening and it helped us grow from self awareness to awareness of others and from self management to relationship management. But today, many young adults are unable to develop these vital skills because more of their communication are done over social media. Youths have learnt the art of reading the keypads of an iPhone or blackberry device without looking at it and can even Instant Message a friend while driving without looking at the keypad. The non-verbal language they read meanings to are emoticons.
Psychologists have written that a youth’s social and emotional maturity derives from physical contact and conversation he or she has with everyone he encounters in the course of growing up. We are told that these interactions even help shape brain development and stimulates the parts of the brain that regulates empathy and morality. The less of these kinds of interactions they have the less their ability to empathise.
And so, gradually, our children and young adults are losing the art of relating and gaining the skill of communicating. Relationships teach the growing child how to empathise — that is to understand and share the feelings of another person. Since one-on-one relationships are giving way to social communications via devices that don’t require physical proximity, many young persons are growing to be adept at written communication skills and are missing out on other levels of communications that help them empathise with the other person.
I never knew the level of this problem until this year. Even though the social media age has led to a massive reduction in attention span such that what happened yesterday is old news, some people may still remember that some high profile public figures had health scares this year.
First, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), a former military Head of State, had to go on an extended medical trip to Europe sometime in 2013. Everybody is subject to ill health. It is part of being human. But imagine my surprise when young persons on social media who were on the other side of the political divide from that to which the General subscribes to began to celebrate his ill health and wishing him the worst. I was appalled. I know that politics is war by other means, but even in war you don’t attack the sick. The Geneva Convention expressly makes it a war crime to attack a hospital or any place where people are being treated.
I wondered to myself, where is our humanity? I have never liked Buhari’s brand of politics, but I am able to separate him from his politics and I respect him for the consistently loyal following he is able to command in certain parts of the country. He is first and foremost a human being and Jesus taught us that we do not have to like our neighbour but we do have to love them and to love a neighbour is to wish for them what you wish for yourself.
And then in November 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan was slightly indisposed while attending the Honorary International Investors Council in London and the presidency very proactively informed Nigerians and gave them up-to-date information on the president’s state of health.
And this time, those on the other political divide unleashed their arsenal. Without a shred of sympathy for the humanity of the president, a certain website known for the most sensational headlines went to town with obvious lies about the president. Egged on by certain ex-government officials who themselves have been recipients of the president’s empathy when they suffered recent loss, some young persons took to social media platforms to disparage the president even wishing him the worst.
And then some weeks ago, the news of the proposed bill to jail those who libelled others and incited the public on social media for seven years was at the forefront of the media. The reaction to this proposed bill on social media was an indication that the medium is in dire need of a moral compass.
By virtue of the position I hold, I was the recipient of the angst of many opposition leaning young people. They accused me and the presidency of attempting to muzzle opposition via a bill they considered as draconian. Articles disparaging the federal government were written within the space of a few hours of the bill coming to light and no indecent word was spared.
But after it came to light that the bill which they considered obnoxious was in actual fact the brain child of an All Progressives Congress (APC) senator, Olugbenga Kaka, these same youths switched and maintained social media silence. Their criticism ceased and their anger was stifled. Very soon, the issue died a natural death. It became obvious that these opposition leaning youths, egged on by those who have come to be known as ‘overlords’ thought they had a potent political weapon against the ruling party and when the issue backfired their hypocrisy was exposed. They have no moral compass and cannot be counted upon to resist injustice no matter who perpetrates it. Their ethics are situational and depends on who is involved.
After watching these scenarios unfold and countless others, it became clear to me that many young people are clueless about how to interact with a flesh and blood human though they are proficient in the art of communicating with a digital person they cannot physically see, feel and touch.
In the military, soldiers are taught how to dehumanise the enemy so that they can fight them. They are taught not to see them as human, but to see them as the enemy, the villain, the reason you are in the trench rather than at home with friends and family. It is this dehumanisation that gives many a soldier the Dutch courage to do to opposing soldiers what they would never have thought themselves capable of doing.
I think that social media, especially in the hands of unscrupulous politicians has succeeded in dehumanising public figures to many of our youths so that they see those on a political divide other than the one they support in perhaps the same way as they see a target in a video game such as Mortal Combat.
Why else would some young persons join an obviously bitter man in mocking a man who is praying to his God or erupt in choreographed celebration over the news that a governor has been involved in a car crash?
So, what is the solution to this loss of empathy and a moral compass that is festering amongst our youth on social media?
I think it is time for responsible adults who command any considerable following on social media to use whatever influence they have to introduce ethics into their use of social media. This will have a pyramid effect. If young people see that their celebrities as well as political and cultural icons are guided by a code of ethics which restrains them and keeps them from engaging in actions that are repugnant to the morals they had while growing up in the real world, the ripple effect would eventually reach them and in time lead to a paradigm shift that curbs some of these behaviors I have just described.
So, what would this ethical code be? As one who has read from both the Holy Bible and the Qur’an, I propose that we begin with a principle that both books teach.
In Matthew 7:12, Jesus introduced the famous golden rule “do to others what you would have them do to you”. In one of the most well known hadiths of Prophet Mohammed (SAW), he said “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”.
I suggest that this golden rule should be imbibed by all celebrities as well as political and cultural icons on social media.
And how would it work?
Life on earth is a duality. In most cases, you are faced with an either/or situation. For instance, you either supported President Jonathan in the last presidential election in 2011 or you supported another candidate.
So, let’s say for instance that you supported candidate Buhari. In that case, what you don’t wish for Buhari, don’t wish it for President Jonathan and vice versa for those who supported candidate President Jonathan.
For further example, you don’t have to wish for the success of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) if you support the APC, however, you do have to restrain yourself from celebrating say an unfortunate accident that befell a governor just because he is PDP and you are APC.
Let’s shift away from the politics of bitterness in favour of the politics of betterness. Let’s discard our arsenal of insults and abusive words in favour of an arsenal of ideas and strategies.
If those at the top of the pyramid can check themselves along these guidelines, social media can become once again the force for social good that it was designed to be and empathy and a moral compass can once more thrive amongst our young people as it did when some of us were ourselves young adults.
The youth are the vanguard of our future and if you as a celebrity or political/cultural icon don’t feel the need to help cleanse social media of this malaise, it could be your turn tomorrow. Nobody knows tomorrow, so you do not have to wait until it happens to you before you take corrective action.
As for those elders who stoke such divisive and inhuman tendencies on social media, they may choose to continue feeding the habit of hatred and bitterness, but as has been said time and again, hatred and bitterness are futile for the same reason that it is futile to consume poison and hope that it will kill your enemy. By the time they realise how much damage they have done to their reputation, it will be too late. Let us hope however that these drowning men do not take gullible youths down with them even as discerning youths know that they never courted them when the going was good for them politically.
Mr. Reno Omokri is Special Assistant to President Goodluck Jonathan on New Media.