Tuesday 17 November 2015

Understanding Social Media Solidarity

It used to be said that the lowest form of solidarity was signing a petition. Now you might argue that it's changing your social media avatars so they reflect the topical campaign of the month. It is with this jaundiced and sceptical eye that Camilla Hodgson reviews the phenomenon of millions of people giving their social media a Tricolore filter in solidarity with the French people against last Friday's attacks.

In his Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), Anthony Downs argued that the propensity to vote was an outcome of the probability one's vote is decisive (P) in a given electoral contest taken with the perception that one benefits from your chosen party winning over and above opposing parties (B), minus the cost of voting (C). Both Conservatives and Labour heavily played the PB themes at the last election, each painting the other in blood-curdling terms and aggressively chasing every vote. And because the polls were close, parties and commentators alike expected a much higher turnout. In the end, the latter was up by a blip, and Labour was trounced as bits of its (former) support stuck to UKIP or stayed at home (among other reasons). From the Downsian perspective, the PB-C formula* played out as Labour voters in sufficient numbers thought their vote didn't matter, that there weren't enough incentives on offer from their party, and the cost of ploughing through party literature, watching political broadcasts and TV debates, and finally going out to vote were too high for too many.

What's this got to do with the price of social media filters? Adapted to the world of tweets and Facebook updates, and doing some injury to Downs' formulation, everyone knows filtering one's avi through the colours of the Republic isn't going to have a meaningful impact on the world. Yet demonstrating one's opposition to IS in a way that is cost free makes some sort of sense. The benefit of being seen as a caring soul touched by awful events does not see one benefit materially, except in the sense of signalling one's virtue.

That, at least, is how a rational choice approach might explain why an ocean of red, white, and blue has taken over the internet. And, as such, it shows up the limits of its utility. Everyone here is self-motivated and self-interested, expressions of solidarity and support have an undercurrent of bad faith. It does not recognise that people can be genuinely moved by tragedy. Looking at my Facebook updates, which contains some real people as opposed to the politics weirdos I follow on Twitter, folks ranging across the spectrum of politicisation, from the heavily committed to couldn't-give-two-hoots demonstrated their solidarity and sympathy. And, undoubtedly why it was closely felt in ways the atrocities in Lebanon and Kenya just weren't - unfortunately - is cultural proximity. Most people don't know a great deal about France, French politics, or French society, but they know enough that they are like us. Hence it's very easy to imagine being at the footy, sinking a jar or two down the bar, enjoying a gig and facing the sort of nightmare Paris has been through. Among the outpouring of pity and sadness, as well as rage against the IS death cult, there is a tinge of fear in there as well, that this could be visited upon a British city.

To return to Camilla's New Statesman piece, the point of filtering your avatar is ... well, it varies. There is no point as such, and if there is a consequence it is to strengthen the social bonds, to create a shared emotion; a 'we' in a highly varied, digitally individuated world - just as it is with other outbreaks of social media solidarity.

*Any resemblance between this formula and the arrangement of my own initials are entirely coincidental.


jim mclean said...

Yet when the death figures from Ireland are mentioned they look at you as if your mad, to see tricolour filter over a UVF badge used as a profile pic gave me a strange feeling. I used the French Lebanese Mandate Flag as a badge just to be arset, Tricolour with Cedar of Lebanon at the centre. I did get confused somewhat more when Braveheart pictures of Mel Gibson face painted started to appear as a Scottish French solidarity thing.

Igor Belanov said...

The whole problem with the flags on profile pictures theme is that it turns the affair into an attack on a country rather than the killing of people. However well meaning, the phenomenon is treating the attacks more like an insult on the flag rather than mass murder. Thus this ironically has the effect of minimising the individual suffering and emphasising the defence of the nation-state and the political establishment.

Speedy said...

While we're on the subject, I thought this article in the Independent was among the most despicable I had ever, ever read.


And I'm with you in not transforming my FB profile, though many of my friends did. I felt it was like "we are Charlie" or the "find our girls", it transformed a real tragedy into a virtual one. I understood the "purity" of the feelings of those that did it, so i felt uncomfortable with my own sneer, but it summed up to me our impotence - a saccharin response to a real problem.

The other thing i noticed, was the raft of "don't blame the Muslims/ refugees" shares, less than 24 hours after these kids had been killed. Here was a real parading of virtue - it was all about "me" showing how superior to the mob I am, and of course perpetuating the non-debate that has largely landed us in this situation in the first place.

Soon the hundreds of victims will be forgotten, save for their friends and families, and the "useful idiots" will continue wheeling out the same, tired tropes, until the next attack, and the next one, until one day it happens to them, and they will say - why me?

BCFG said...

I think you get a phenomenon of belonging and the group mentality, I think the word trending is apt. I also think these outpourings of grief and horror are very superficial and very political. We did not have a minutes silence for the Palestinians killed in Cast lead for example. We didn't even get a minutes silence for the Russians killed by ISIS.

I am reminded of the Ice bucket challenge, many people did this just to show off to their friends, it became a leisure activity. The whole charity thing became sidelined to the entertainment value. Much like christian values have became a consumer frenzy around Christmas.

These are the Western values many in the world do not want to aspire to, but seem much cherished by all in the West. If the West spent as much time questioning its own values as it does judging others I reckon we wouldn't have a terror problem at all and we wouldn't need a society fast resembling a police state (only with much more power!).

I think you could make the argument that there is firm scientific evidence that the biggest threat to the future of humanity are Western values.

See here for example:


The context is this fact:

"While the consumer class thrives, great disparities remain. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent."