From as early as the Frankfurt School, dialectic philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) pondered what role technology would play in human emancipation. Conversely, because it was developed within a certain ideological structure and culture, technology itself could be an oppressive form of ideology that contributes to domination more than freedom. Marcuse specifically identified the American culture of his age as one of domination, violence, and consumption as people’s compensation for alienation as cogs in the capitalist machine.
His words resonate strongly in our contemporary age, with social media unquestionably the defining mode of technological communication. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have helped us to effectively integrate our minds with the online world (the fact that the phone is outside of our body is a mere technicality to be leapfrogged with yet more technology). Social media has challenged the way we think about personal interaction, created new ways of establishing movements and businesses, and allowed people to tailor their consumption of media like never before.
However, the misuse of social networking sites also has the power to negatively impact social interaction. Much like the drone strike (which can kill hundreds of people with a single push of a button thousands of miles away and dulls the instinctive revulsion of killing another human being), how much easier on social media is it to do things we would never think of doing to someone’s face: insulting them or delighting in their misfortune, or lying to gain some advantage over them?
The consequences can be far deadlier: last October, a Facebook post triggered an anti-Hindu attack in Rangpur District of Bangladesh. An angry mob set fire to 30 houses following rumors that a Hindu, Titu Roy, had defamed the prophet Muhammad on Facebook. An analysis of the Facebook account showed that it was impersonating Roy to provide an excuse for the attack.
From 30 November to 2 December, a conference on the relationship between social media and social cohesion was held in Oslo, organized by Cultural Conflict 2.0, a collaborative research project by the Research Council of Norway. The project is jointly based at the University of Agder in Norway, the University of Amsterdam, and Kingston University in the United Kingdom. Speakers at the conference analyzed the relationship between social media and mobilization, and current theories of social movements and antagonistic polities. A total of 16 presenters in seven panels shared their thoughts in activist and academic fields, including urban life, public debate, social movements, and community dynamics, and religious and cultural conflicts.
In this respect, cultural conflict has morphed, as Marcuse predicted, into a process of indirect violence that is not engaged in directly, but rather by empowering people to hurt and oppress others in a far more impersonal and easy way. Researchers investigated social relations in culturally diverse areas of large and small cities, particularly in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway. At this conference I presented a paper titled “Exploring the Impacts of the Misuse of Social Media Power on Premeditated Tactics: Threats and Strategies in the Bangladesh Context of Communal Violence.”
The first panel of the conference was titled “Memes, Fake News, and the Far-Right Ascendancy,” which was subsequently followed by the panels on “Cultural Conflict 2.0 Project Presentation,” “Social Media and Social Interactions,” “Social Media and Local Community Relations,” “Conceptualizing Social Media and Social Order,” “Identity and the Politics of Representation,” and “Policing the Social Order.”
In the third panel, Barkuzar Dubbati, professor of English at the University of Jordan, presented a paper on regulating the visibility of Muslim women on social media. I was particularly interested in this subject as I’m from Bangladesh, also a Muslim-majority country. Dubbati's paper examined the visibility of Muslim women on social media by showcasing accounts of high-profile Muslim women, from sports champions to public intellectuals. According to her, social media is used as a disciplinary tool to control women’s visibility, and in the absence of face-to-face confrontations, online users silence or intimidate women through radical and sexist comments, which “objectify women’s bodies as the object of the male gaze or as a battleground over ideologies.” Photos of women on Facebook are “flooded with aggressive messages and comments, which brand her as an ‘infidel’ or ‘slut’ for sharing her photos publicly with people.”
Image courtesy of the author
In my own presentation, I argued that communal conflict is most common in countries where extremists intentionally use social media to create “virtual violence.” I highlighted the Ramu incident of September 2012, which led to the destruction of Buddhist shrines and houses at Ramu village in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. A photo depicting the desecration of a Quran had been posted on the Facebook wall of a Buddhist youth, Uttam Kumar Barua. Yet the photo came from an unidentified pseudonym and I found out that the image was created with photo-editing software by two activists from a radical Islamist party.
The Buddhist analysis of conflict differs from the modern understanding of conflict, which mostly identifies a multiplicity of potential causes of armed conflict, from background causes and mobilization strategies to triggers and catalysts. However, conflict in the eyes of Buddhism is predominantly psychological and arises through physical, verbal, and mental acts, which are known as the three doors. Buddhism recognizes the Ten Unwholesome Acts conducted physically, verbally, and mentally. These are the main causes of conflict.
Buddhism teaches that people live in conflict when they are in mired in grudges, hostility, rudeness, jealousy, stinginess, deceit, dishonesty, malice, and wrong views. Conflict is fundamentally psychological due to greed, hatred, and delusion, the Three Poisons. We must take initiatives to pursue peace by applying the principles of fraternity, mutual respect, and harmony, and by cultivating our mind and promoting the skillful, legitimate use of social media. We can share photos and upload videos that offer nourishing knowledge about diverse religious cultures that encourage the building of understanding and creation of personal, face-to-face friendships among followers of different faiths and none.
Social Media & Social Order (Program Booklet). 2017. The Research Council of Norway. Oslo: Norway.