- By Emmanuel Ojeifo
“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” - Albert Einstein
I have been on Facebook since 2009, and I can bet that being on social media is a highly rewarding enterprise. The sheer volume of information available on social media, the ease of movement of ideas and the huge traffic of cultured and well-mannered people that we connect with every day on the platform present the enriching side of social media. Social media can also be a huge asset for mobilising people around a worthy cause. Many people still remember the monumental impact of social media in the success of the Arab Spring of 2011. People promoting philanthropic causes today also find social media a blessing in their outreach to millions of people.
But there is another side of social media. Much of social media today is a breeding ground for the dissemination of lies, bad news, scams, pornography and all sorts of obscenities. Some people have read breaking news of their own obituaries on social media when they are still alive. On Facebook, amateurish comedians and wannabe cartoonists have turned humour into a social art for hurting people’s religious sentiments and provoking ethnic prejudices, thereby fanning the embers of hate, bitterness and resentment. Anyone who wishes to retain a vestige of moral sanity will certainly find it an uphill task to safely navigate the murky waters of social media today without being contaminated by the decay of language that has polluted our public vocabulary.
However, the most disturbing aspect of the situation is that many young people today have turned socio-political activism on social media into an art for insulting their elders and for making caricatures of political, religious and traditional leaders. Many years ago, Chinua Achebe argued that if you want to know how orderly and civilised a society is, just watch how people drive on the road. The recklessness and lawlessness that has come to characterise driving on Nigerian roads, seem to me, an apt analogy for the reckless manner in which public discourse is conducted today on social media.
For better or for worse we can now observe the unbridled behaviour of so many people on social media doing indecent things that catch their fancy. The pristine values of discretion and discernment are steadily depleting. The tidal wave of modern information and communication technology has succeeded in sweeping us off our feet. People of all ages now find themselves driving on new technological highways without having the proper formation. If the Internet was already addictive when we were surfing on our desktop at home or on our laptop at work, today we now carry the addiction in our pockets, our smartphones. Interestingly, while everyone is getting a smartphone, the reality of the situation is that not everyone is getting smarter.
The ethical side of the problem is that we are living in a country where there are no common values by which we can all agree on what is right and what is wrong. When you attempt to raise issues with a Nigerian, especially on social media, the tendency is for the real substance of the matter to be lost in the haystack of prejudice. However valid your facts or your arguments, you are quickly labelled as a bigot. It is here that you see how wildly emotive Nigerians can be. The individual may not proffer any superior argument to trump yours, but will simply substitute sound reasoning with verbal gymnastics, casting venomous aspersion on your personality.
In logical reasoning, this fallacy is called “argumentum ad hominem,” a Latin phrase which means responding to arguments by attacking a person’s character, rather than addressing the content of their arguments. This is especially common among people who are intolerant of criticism, and in these days of polarised public discourses, one only needs to follow the trends on social media to get a feel of how much rot and vulgar verbal exchanges have infested our public vocabulary. Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, was right when he said that in today’s world of social media, “Everybody is connected, and nobody is in control.”
On account of the foul language that has infested cyberspace, many people have refrained from signing on to any interactive social media network. While I understand with this category of people, I have always reasoned that if a writer chooses to opt out of public discourse for fear of bruising his ego or for the sake of maintaining a good reputation, he would be failing in his duty to society. In the same way, if good people refrain from entering into social media, they invariably surrender their responsibility to positively influence the use of these media by allowing the bad people to hijack the system for their banal purposes.
I believe that words are very powerful. They have the capacity to inspire and to uplift, but they also have the capacity to hurt and to denigrate. We, therefore, have a moral obligation to jealousy guard what we write and post on social media. Parents, schools, and religious institutions need to teach our children and young people how to talk sensibly and reasonably. Foul language and reckless public behaviour are evident signs of bad home training, poor civics and the breakdown of a sound ethical culture. In conducting public discourse, we can have good reasons to disagree with our leaders, but we have to do that respectfully. I don’t know how young people will feel if their own biological parents were insulted the way they insult their own leaders on social media. The admonition of Saint Paul in Ephesians 4:29 is therefore, the challenge before us: “Do not let even one bad word come from your mouth, but only good words that will encourage when necessary and be helpful to those who hear you.”
Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.
The article first appeared on The Guardian