July 17, 2020

“You can’t say anything anymore!” Welcome to the era of call-out culture, where someone holds a person or organisation accountable by pointing out wrongdoing through a loud announcement, typically in an angry tweet or Instagram story. Oftentimes, such behaviour gets mistaken for (or confused with) cancel culture—the social practice of labelling a person deserving of hate when they have engaged in problematic behaviour or demonstrate controversial opinions. But ultimately, who is really in the right? And do positions of authority hold more weight than the layman? Regardless of the crime committed, the rise of social media has birthed both a bombastic cancel culture and a transparency-seeking call-out mechanism.

In the last decade, there has been a seismic shift in how we think and express ourselves. The majority of our day, even before the global pandemic, is spent looking at screens for work and entertainment. An average person spends two hours and twenty-three minutes on social media a day, and by 2021, more than three billion people are expected to be on social media. Apart from connecting with friends and sharing experiences online, it’s not easy to relinquish a tool that not only empowers once-silent voices but also reaches out to a wide audience. Hashtag movements like #MeToo have mobilised and opened up important and widespread conversations, allowing society to develop a vocabulary and a space to talk about the importance of consent. 

Yet, despite having a medium for accountability, there are also grey areas where conversations can quickly go south—turning into an unregulated black hole of nasty behaviour. Users of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter sometimes take things to the extreme by engaging in what some call radically censorious attitudes, with a holier-than-thou air. And you’re not spared offline either. Anyone with a smartphone can record your words and actions, and upload them online for public scrutiny. During Singapore’s circuit breaker, multiple photos and videos on Facebook and Reddit of individuals not wearing masks, or standing too close, were met with a barrage of online condemnation.

With the divide between our private and public lives increasingly shrinking, we’re now the subjects of a self-imposed panopticon. And the convergence of these two spheres means that everything is fair game. When the world went into lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19, many turned to social media to quell anxiety attacks brought on by the stress of uncertainty or to release pent-up frustration at being cooped up at home. Deprived of real-life interactions, the need to feel acknowledged and heard became a virtual “exercise.” Suddenly everyone was armed with a false sense of superiority, ready to find fault with someone or something, fuelled by the protective veil of anonymity behind a screen. In Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin examines social media’s colosseum culture of throwing people to the lions, how punishing strangers is a risky endeavour and the anonymity of the internet that shields the person who punishes the stranger. Hence, intense discussions involving polarising opinions of hard topics, sensitive issues and current events tend to unravel and escalate faster than simply leaving an angry reaction emoji on a post.  

Unfortunately, the reductive nature of social media obscures the significance of causes and draws attention away from the core issue. Millions of Instagrammers posted a plain black square on #BlackOutTuesday in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, what was initially a demonstrative effort to show hope and support, quickly morphed into a trendy thing to do. As black squares eclipsed vital information about protests, the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM that went along with it, cluttered organisation donations and evidence of police violence. In Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, Trick Mirror, she observes that “in the absence of time to physically and politically engage with our community the way many of us want to, the internet provides a cheap substitute.” Partaking in social media activism is easier and more convenient than doing the hard groundwork for change, with the added benefit that everybody, from your primary school classmate to your grandma, knows (and sees) how much of a virtuous person you are.  

Despite the surface-level consumption and interaction on social media, the number of comments and likes has the same lasting effect of a newspaper’s headline. These platforms are never intimidating for a user, which is why people cast judgements hastily without ascertaining the truth and make mountains out of molehills. Problems arise, too, when people misuse, misunderstand and misconstrue the information online. And it doesn’t help that the internet immortalises laxity and rarely presents a complete picture, thereby creating confusion. 

Decades-old badly-written skits, thoughtless Halloween costumes, careless interviews are the kind of fodder for online fury. In the lead up to last week’s Singapore General Election, representatives from both the majority party and one of the opposition parties were subjected to online and legal scrutiny for past behaviour. Over in the U.S., the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine, Adam Rapoport resigned after a racially insensitive photo resurfaced from 2013 and biased treatment of food editors were revealed on Instagram Stories. Both TV show hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have recently apologised for their blackface sketches that they performed decades ago. And a twitter feud erupted when cooking personality Alison Roman ruthlessly shamed Marie Kondo and Chrissy Tiegen as sell-outs in an unfiltered interview. Netizens were quick to lambast her as a hypocrite, asking her to check her white privilege and recognise that her sense of superiority is a product of a system that allows her to use her ‘innocence’ to bad-mouth and dish out uninformed remarks. 

These types of sentiments aren’t new and can’t solely be attributed to the provenance of social media sites. To be criticised is part of everyday life, and everyone must deal with the haters at some point or another. But round-the-clock notifications and the monetisation of psychological desires like wanting to be liked have put all our interactions under a microscope. Every digitally literate person is meant to analyse the sample and opine even when they don’t know what they’re really looking at, because the image is out of focus. Saying something becomes an end in itself as opposed to having something to say about what meaningful change looks, sounds and feels like.  

Beneath the kerfuffle, we lose sight of the bigger beast we are tackling within ourselves. Boycotting Harvey Weinstein films to admonish his sexual crimes becomes the same as hating on Pete Davidson for performing an insensitive joke. Our collective meter for what is irritating versus what is deplorable is defunct—proportionality, a long-forgotten myth. When hurling insults out into the vast internet remains unchecked, we normalise fruitless and mean behaviour. How can we continue to interrogate ideas while respecting each other? How do we deconstruct oppression, whether it manifests as power-drunk executives or culturally entrenched behaviour, while still practising empathy and encouraging growth? 

Aaron Sorkin once said, “You are too good to think that people who disagree with you are your enemy.” Our discourse is supposed to lead to edification, not heedless cancelling. Now more than ever, we need openness and inclusivity to be the pillars of our conversation. The resurrection of digital etiquette is a long-overdue necessity that will facilitate the progression of our collective social consciousness. To recenter our toxic relationship with social media, we must remind ourselves of its initial purpose—that it connects us, not tears us apart.