“Muting” as Bystanding and Insulation in Social Media Environments

We all have that person on Facebook, Twitter, or any of or other social media websites. You know the one: the person who can’t seem to stop rambling on about their wedding, children, or something. The possibilities are endless. After weeks or even months of scrolling through your feed and seeing this person posting the same things over and over again to the point that you feel personally victimised, what do you do? Delete them? Try to continue ignoring them until you stop using the website altogether in trying not to burn bridges? Or, as I do, use that handy mute-feature offered by Facebook and Twitter that hides posts by specific people while leaving the silenced social tyrants none the wiser. Seems brilliant, right? Whichever intern came up with that idea better have been hired on full time, I say. But, unfortunately, not all of these circumstances are as innocent as this.

How many times have you ignored or silenced the social media presence of those who constantly publicise their political, religious, or moral belief systems? You know these people too, preaching in the hope of…what? Converting the Twitter polis? Simply sharing the ideas of their chosen institution? Or constructing an identity for themselves on social media, as no other platform allows for such easy dissemination of information to one’s peers. Whatever the end goal of these concept crusaders, they meet the same end as the new parents and newlyweds: muting. Arguably as innocent, ignoring another’s deeply held beliefs has a bit of something else to it. A feeling that, in the simple and timeless act of turning the other cheek, we have found a way to, on microcosmic scales, silence the other.

Now, I’m not trying to say that ignoring your Uncle’s racist rants on Facebook makes you an awful person outright. Everyone at some point allows themselves the pleasures of like-company,  the comfort in shared understandings, the illusion that “my way is the right way.” What I do wonder though, is what effect this ease of silencing has on at a systemic level? To what extent does the ability to insulate ourselves from outside opinions or beliefs blind us? To what extent does it propagate harm? I once had a Professor in my undergrad who said something along the lines of “this age of ‘do what you want, I don’t care’ is just as if not more harmful than stunting another’s beliefs or actions: at least, in that case, you’re doing something.” I find myself thinking about this a lot. Especially as I scroll through Facebook or Twitter to see another racist or Islamophobic post, or another rant about how women are already equal to men, ignoring it and thinking, “well, at least they aren’t hurting anyone.” We’ve seen the harm that words can do directly in the wielding of derogatory terms to hurt others. But those words that harm covertly, that nip and nick at the minds of those they hope to oppress, those words that your cousin might use on Twitter to poke fun; these words lurk in the corners of our social existence. Away from the spotlight of social or traditional media, prejudices and anger grow. Away from our ears and eyes, violence brews behind the curtain of the mute function.

On January 29th, 2017 in our purportedly non-violent and gun-free Canada, a Québec City mosque, the largest in the municipality, was attacked by a 27-year-old gunman, leaving 6 dead and at least 19 injured. Since the attack, news outlets across Canada can’t seem to get away from one glaring issue: the perpetrator’s social media presence. Daniel Leblanc of The Globe and Mail cites RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s “warning about ‘non-classic’ terrorism that feeds on hate and controversy on social media” in the wake of the attack, setting the public eye on internet presence as a site of investigation and prevention of heinous crimes. Paulson seems to imply here that awareness of “non-classic terrorism” present in social media must be carefully monitored in cases such as this in order to prevent another atrocity. Surely, he is right. But what can we do about it? Or, more disconcertingly, what have we already done?

In an era where social media posts become breaking news, specifically Donald Trump’s 2AM blasts of Saturday Night Live, it’s hard to imagine that the mute function has very much effect. However, as we have seen in so many socio-cultural issues, what is out of sight has greater effect than what we can easily see. We need only think back to Orwell’s 1984 or Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for evidence of the effects of standing by, of taking for granted, and not questioning the world around us. What is interesting about this “muting” in social media is the active rejection of others’ views. While bystanding has been frequently offered as a passive reaction to an ongoing event or circumstance, it has been proven time and time again that ignorance is an act in and of itself. The silencing of others through social media is merely a concrete example of what has occurred systemically: the denial of others’ views in attempts to reinforce one’s own.

Traditionally, the bystander effect as been used to explain he indifference of direct or indirect witnessing of atrocity. Often cited examples are the international and national wilful ignorance to the Holocaust and The Rewandan Genocide among other countless tragedies. In this context, bystanding effectively silences victims and shields perpetrators of violence. This kind of effect is arguably more difficult today, as social media and the internet, ideally, allows for all people to post. However, the mute function and a general silencing of posts on social media denies this luxury to those who may desperately need a platform such as Facebook or Twitter. The result of this silencing is isolation: of those who are trying to speak, and those who don’t want to hear them. Now, the segregation of online communities through a simple function of muting may seem like a bit of a stretch, and the muting of a friend or family member on Facebook isn’t going to perpetuate violence and racism alone. However, the ease of stifling the communication of  differing ideologies and beliefs is a powerful and dangerous reality. As most of our communication and culture comes in the form of online content, it is imperative that we become aware of the information we do and do not take in. The onus, for seemingly the first time in human history, is more so on the consumer of media than its producers, as the ability to “change the channel, “”close the tab,” or “mute”  becomes a means by which we regulate it. This power is both a blessing and a danger. As the masterful English poet John Milton said of censorship in his Areopagitica, “give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties.” Allow yourself that liberty. Allow others to speak in allowing yourself to listen.

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