Social media accentuates the flaws in our conception of modernity to distort reality
Modernity is supposed to have ushered in the end of magic, with the help of rational thinking and scientific advance. Till recently, we saw magic as staged entertainment, not as a powerful source of desirable change that could be invoked in times of stress when no recourse was on offer elsewhere. Now, social media has resurrected magic, and people are as prone to magical thinking as they were in the 15th century.
Do people turn to magic or to religion when they are confronted with a knotty problem? Western scholars see religion as a way of making holistic sense of one’s condition and of magic as a way to tackle particular problems. Their conception of religion is informed by Christianity. In India, it is not uncommon for people to turn to religion for particular solutions to particular problems as well, promising lavish offerings on wish fulfilment.
Consider some recent social media-driven phenomena. Beyonce had a two-night performance in Stockholm in May, which made Sweden’s inflation tick up by a few decimal points, just by the sheer increase in demand for hotels, tickets, travel, restaurant meals and nightlife created by this two-day concert.
Singapore is slated to witness a similar phenomenon this month, as Taylor Swift performs there for several nights in the first 10 days of the month. Swifties are slated to descend on Singapore from all over Southeast Asia, and probably from Lower Parel, South Delhi and Bengaluru, too, to be bodily present at her live performance, feel her aura, and be seen by others, at least on social media, in that exalted state, and generate their own aura.
Lionel Messi is undoubtedly a football great. But he is supposed to single-handedly elevate soccer in the US from the after-school sporting preoccupation of devoted moms to a manly sport, worthy of major league fuss, after being lured to Miami from Europe. And, thanks to his celebrity, he just might. Celebrity is magic.
At the same time, the Australian state of Victoria has pulled out of its commitment to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games, on the ground of commercial non-viability. Commonwealth sports and games are unlikely to quite be at the cutting edge of excellence and endurance. Almost world-beating is also ran, the world’s best alone is deemed worthy of attention. What is worthy of attention gets adulation. The rest get obscurity.
Celebrity is endowed with the power to alter reality. Ferdinand Marcos Jr is today the president of the Philippines. Before he ran for president, he ran a careful social media campaign, claiming tales of his father’s corruption as president were all fake news, as were those of his torturing his political opponents, even as his wife Imelda accumulated hundreds of shoes and handbags. Filipino voters believed Jr and elected him president. Celebrity can alter the past, change fact into fiction and fiction into fact. If that is not magic, what is?
We see the power of social media as magic in the oldest democracy, the US. Donald Trump came to power on the strength of some strange conspiracy theories that were amplified by his supporters after he became president. The Pizza gate/QAnon conspiracy theory held that a bunch of Satan-worshipping paedophiles constituted America’s deep state, the ring was led by the Clintons, Obama and George Soros, and Trump was sent by God to rid the world of this evil.
Even Indians who readily fold their hands in front of Ganesh idols that are reported to drink or have drunk milk on occasion would find it difficult to believe that millions of people in the world’s richest nation could believe such tosh. But they do. One QAnon conspiracist is today a member of Congress: Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Republicans and Democrats are evenly split among the citizenry, more or less. A majority of Republicans believe that Trump did not lose the election in 2020, and that Joe Biden stole his victory with the help of the American deep state. Millions believe that 5G networks spread Covid-19, just as readily as people in Afghanistan believe that the polio vaccine is a Western conspiracy to make Afghan boys sterile.
This brings us back to the decline of magic, with the onset of rationality and the Enlightenment. Was the Enlightenment truly emancipatory, or did it simply replace old myths with new ones about science, technology and rationality? Why, after all, did the nation with the largest number of PhDs per capita celebrate the rise of the Fuhrer?
God is allowed to make claims, everyone else brings data to support what they say. You hear this in corporate meetings, proclaimed with pride. Only quantifiable things have value, the rest is superstition. This leaves ethics, justice, beauty, loyalty, commitment, love and discipline to an arcane realm of sentiment, unworthy of a man of the world.
Do the certitude of scientific knowledge and its specialized fragmentation steal from us the faculty of critical thinking and holistic comprehension, making us social conformists, eager to subjugate ourselves to extant power structures?
To resist the ability of social media to induce magical thinking, perhaps we need to revise our notion of rationality and enlightenment, in the first place, and seek movement, instead of acceptance of stasis, in the levelling of the distribution of power in society.
This article was first published in Economic Times as ‘View: Social media accentuates the flaws in our conception of modernity to distort reality.‘
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.
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This article was posted by Chaitanya Deshpande, a research intern at IMPRI.