After an Iranian cleric smashed the “wicked culture of sufficing to two children” in a video which went viral on the social media, Iran Wire ran a cartoon by the well-known Iranian artist Touka Neyestani. The cartoon, which was faced by much passionate reaction on the social media, depicted a man crouching on a bed and holding a chador-covered woman over his head. The posture of the man resembled pointing a personal missile launcher at a target. In fact, utilizing the headboard of the bed as a cover, the man was shooting babies out of the woman’s vagina. The babies left the frame, supposedly mocking the cleric’s public invitation to “kick off the 14-children operation tonight in the name of Shia holy figures”.
The video was not an isolated incident. On October 2013, the Supreme Leader of Iran suggested that the population of the country can be increased “reasonably and rationally” to one hundred fifty million, from the current figure of around seventy five million. In fact, it is well known that the rulers of the Islamic Republic have started a campaign of denouncing the population reduction measures adopted by Iranian governments in the past years. This video was, to many, the most ridiculous step in that long walk.
While there are some valid arguments for the legitimacy of the plan to increases the population of Iran, it was obvious that the body language of the cleric in that video was going to stir up angry reactions. His unpleasant grin while discussing “making babies” smacked of sexism and condescension towards women as “baby-machines”. One Facebook user commented “we are talking about making babies, not popsicles”. Another one asked how he can meet the cleric’s sister “in order to start the operation”.
Minutes after Touka Neyestani’s cartoon was published, reactions started on the social media. A list of concerns complied by Iran Wire, based on comments received on the social media, suggests that “the cartoon is offensive to Iranian women the same way that the cleric was”, that “it ignores the agency of women”, and that “it forges stereotypes”. Another comment suggests that the cartoon is as offensive to men as it is to women and that it is a “cheap piece of work” which is “sexist” and “violent”.
The impacts of the social media on social and political engagement are not characteristically specific to Iran. Numerous books and articles discuss the negative impacts of the Internet on pro-democracy movements. This is a paradoxical situation, as a significant volume of such activity would have been practically impossible if the Internet was not around. This love-and-hate relationship between the possibility of mass interaction on the Internet and the development of social capital in a context similar to Iran requires deeper deliberation and a conscious rejection of any romantic attitude towards the web. A first step in establishing this sober relationship with the web is to advise a public review of the literature, including Evgeny Morozov’s take on “the dark side of Internet freedom”. His analysis in The Net Delusion provides a critique on the popular perspective which suggests that the Internet is a definite path to emancipation. “To salvage the Internet’s promise to aid the fight against authoritarianism, those of us … who still care about the future of democracy will need to ditch both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism”, Morozov argues.
While the Internet is praised as a mechanism for mass communication in the global world, there are strong indications that the cyberspace is in fact composed of many isolated islands. It is a well iterated observation that the “unfollow” and “unfriend” buttons in the popular social media in fact make it convenient for people to assemble a group of “friendly friends”. This group will always be friendly towards anything that the user produces and will only post friendly pieces of content. The fact that content in the social media is in fact hand-picked by algorithms trained to only return “notable” content allows any user to in fact erect a virtual island in which her assumptions and prejudices are always approved. In other words, the social media has allowed us, more than ever, to search the most remote areas of the planet for people who would approve us. Facebook is the opium of the masses. It enables a sharp descent into deep harmony with an artificially filtered world, to a world in which everyone agrees with us.
Touka Neyestani’s cartoon can in fact be better understood in light of a model of Facebook in which individuals seek agreement. What this cartoon accomplishes is to allow the inhabitant of one island, to which the artists belongs as well, to ridicule those on another island. The fact of the matter is that this cartoon only serves as another brick in the huge wall of misunderstanding between groups of people. In an analogy to “information cascade”, this effect may be addressed as “prejudice cascade”, i.e. a homogenous group of individuals who sanction each other’s presumptions and stereotypes and reiterate their common prejudices, thus strengthening their common ignorance. One may argue that this group fails to become a part of what ten years ago James Surowiecki addressed as “The Wisdom of Crowds”.
While the culture of “I like, therefore I am” and its effects on the citizenry is the elephant in the room, the impacts of this strong force on reshaping the behaviour of social and political activists may be greatly underestimated. It is convenient in the case of the “offensive” cartoon, to blame the artist or the editor of the online magazine. But a closer look reveals that the smoking gun is in fact in the hands of the audience.
Facebook is a gigantic machine of neurotransmitter injection which we have allowed in our lives through the smartphones that we carry around. Every time we are mentioned, every time we receive a comment or a like, and every time someone sends us a message, we receive a tiny jolt of excitement through vibration that we feel on our skin. Imagine a Facebook-celebrity, one of those individuals who receive hundreds and thousands of likes and comments on their posts, and try to remain sober underneath this shower of pleasure hormones. Any one of us who has enjoyed her 15 minutes of Facebook fame can attest to the difficulties of acting objectively while these numberless needles pierce the skin of our better judgment.
It is sheer blindness to ignore the important contributions made by the social media in the shadow of the harm that they have made to the cause of humanity on the way. In fact, in many parts of the globe, the positive impacts of the social media are too evident to be dismissed. However, these massive platforms of engagement and conversation must be analyzed soberly and rationally. The relationship between the humanity and Facebook has come to the point that we must be able to take a break and objectively tabulate the gains and the losses.
The social media has modified the attention span of its user-base. The bigger these virtual communities grow, the larger becomes the portion of the population of the planet whom don’t have the time to read anything which is more than a paragraph long. We have become consumers of cheap content. On the other side of this equation, the incentive mechanisms built into the social media affect the producers. In effect, Facebook has trained all of us how to perform effective marketing for content. We now know how to pose in a picture, who to write a status message, and in what time of the day to share a link in order to gain more “like”s. This strong wind has been blowing on the faces of the major producers of content on the social media as well. Swimming in an ocean of rapid gratification from their audiences, producers of content on the social media are incentivized to utilize cheap stereotypes which are “like”d more. This phenomenon pushes producers away from more complex concepts, for which no one has the time on the social media.
In effect, in the recent cartoon incident, the victim is the producer, the publisher, and the audience, all at the same time. The winner is Facebook, as its share prices go up while humanity succumbs to “how can I articulate this, so that more people like it?”
About the writer
Arash Abadpour (http://abadpour.com/) holds a Masters of Science from the Mathematical Sciences Department, Sharif University of Technology, Iran, and a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from University of Manitoba, Canada. He has been a blogger since October 2004, under the pen name Arash Kamangir. His Persian blog Kamangir (http://persian.kamangir.net/) has been ranked among the twenty most-read blogs in the Persian blogosphere based on different statistics. Arash is regularly consulted and interviewed on matters related to the circumstances of the Internet in Iran. He provides commentary regarding the Persian blogosphere and the social media and has been involved in a number of research projects related to the relationship between the Iranian users and the Internet.