The crowds and the individual: why we should rethink how we debate complex issues on social media
[This is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy NAWA].
Last November, an online discussion between two prominent Syrian writers triggered waves of recriminations across and against both. The accusations and counter-accusations between Razan Ghazzawi, a political dissident and feminist activist, and Yassin Haj Saleh, a leftist political dissident, reignited earlier discussions on the role of feminist struggle in the Syrian uprising and the patriarchal nature of its elites. The focus was on the balance, legitimacy and place of the different intersecting struggles within the uprising: specifically (and most of all) those concerned with gender and class.
The original conflagration was started by an outrageous Facebook post by a young opposition Syrian activist and writer that carried a call for the rape of a pro-regime woman in Gaziantep, Turkey. This was as blatant an example as there could be of the pervasive patriarchy in the so-called secular Syrian oppositional sphere and the ubiquity of symbolic (as well as physical) violence against women in Syria in general.
The comment itself, as well as the cultural strains it represents, is unacceptable and should be condemned, and the failure to unequivocally and immediately condemn it constitutes in itself an issue to be discussed.
At the same time, to view this violence solely from the lenses of gender collapses the complexity of the issue and its intractable link to class, culture and the broader context of violence in the country. Indeed, there are serious, pertinent, and difficult, debates to be had about the intersection of these struggles in Syrian context. This complexity must be taken into consideration if the aim is to bring about a serious cultural transformation in this domain.
Unfortunately, what could have been a significant opportunity for a fruitful (if conflictual) debate gave way to a series of recriminations, personal accusations and counter-accusations that mainly furthered the polarisation. Of course, to ignore the issue was indeed not an option. Moreover, we hope that there is still a chance that what appears now as a poisoned, divisive, and polarized battleground will be translated at some point into a discussion in which different positions can be articulated and some common ground over the issue of women in Syria and specifically in opposition circles can be found.
This is not an attempt to relitigate this episode, but to critically reflect on the underlying dynamics of social networks that contribute to such outcomes. In the hope, perhaps, that in the future similar problems can be contained or partially avoided. Indeed, this is only the latest of many cases on Syrian social media spheres that followed a largely similar pattern.
Our chosen focus on communication processes may seem trivial to some given what is at stake. However, we believe that how, where, and by whom these discussions are conducted can have a huge impact on the outcomes and, therefore, on the creation of a larger consensus or, as in this case, the recognition of what Syrian women have to struggle with on a daily basis.
This last case, among many others, highlights a significant paradox in how we use social media networks and the effect it has on concrete social struggles. On the one hand, the episode highlights a monumental shift in the discursive power enjoyed by Syrian intellectuals before and after the 2011 uprising. This is, in no small part, due to the status that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter acquired as the main sites of discursive struggle in the sphere of Syrian revolutionaries and the site to express contentious politics. Social media networks equipped activists and intellectuals, like Ghazzawi and Haj Saleh, with unprecedented avenues to raise issues of importance for their primary constituencies and their connected networks. In a context of a brutal military conflict, fragmentation and exile of Syrian activists and intellectuals, these nascent spaces could arguably play a significant role in the shaping of new political blocs, opportunities and subjectivities.
On the other hand, engaging with these discussions on social media has a price and presents us with many issues:
One is the inherent individualism embedded in these forms of communication. Social media inevitably place the emphasis on personal authenticity and individuality, rather than collectives and groups. Thus, debates become very emotional and person-centered. Such a mode of communication foregrounds the actor above the issue, and erases the necessary distance between the person of a political actor and the (collective) ideas s/he represents. And thus, it quickly degenerates into the level of quarrel between single individuals, with the underlying political disagreement languishing in the background.
In the example above, this is translated into the activation of the relevant networks of both actors (respective circles of friends and like-minded people) into a defense based largely on personal loyalty and affinity. It is not relevant whether it is a conscious strategy or not as it is an almost automatic process. But it was clear that many people were not expressing solidarity or attacking on the basis of the ideas that were supposed to be at the core of the debate, but rather because of their personal relation with the two main actors of the discussion.
The brevity and the immediacy of a Facebook post or a tweet facilitate misinterpretations and misunderstandings, so that many people are pushed even further to take position on the basis of their sympathies rather than on their knowledge about the topic at discussion. When some longer and less emotional clarifications came, it was already too late, as the machine of comments and insults was already at its peak and the debate was framed only along a “with” or “against” dynamic.
This tendency towards a polarisation of the debate is further reinforced by the clustering dynamics of social networks creating echo-chambers of like-minded individuals largely isolated from other groups. Networks can give us the illusion that we can reach anyone, but we almost always end up reaching the same people with the same convictions. Networks almost never converge into a more heterogeneous movement, because the investment to articulate this process needs other forms of dialogue and organization. It is quite relevant, for example, that the debate around the specific case we are considering here was often divided into two different spheres: one in Arabic, and one in English.
In other words, pro-feminist networks on Facebook or Twitter will meet many difficulties in reaching (and convincing) people who think in a different way. Worse still, when one always frequents people who have the same cultural background, one forgets what is needed to communicate with people who do not share crucial elements of that background.
Another problem is the evasiveness and immediacy of the responses and tools at the disposal of such networks: likes, comments, shares, expressions of solidarity etc. can only sustain attacks on opponents or express solidarity but for a brief moment. After which the actor at the center of the storm is left isolated to deal with the aftermath of what could only be a traumatic episode. The brevity and immediacy with which these tools are used privilege again the emotional short-term response and leaves no room for reflection or organising. It solidifies the in-group but without the mechanisms to produce viable alternative discourses, and cross sectional collaborations and solidarities; it thus leaves both groups even more vulnerable to future challenges.
The political scientist Jodi Dean in her book “Crowds and Party” makes this point very clearly: being part of a collective (like a party or any other structured organization) is also an affective matter. Having a collective around provides one with a shield when crowds (virtual or not) dissipate and disappear. Expressions of solidarity (likes, tweets, etc.) on social media do not provide this shield and leave the individual activist alone to fight the consequences (accusations, insults, acts of “betrayal”). In this context, the psychological pressure and feeling of isolation may be very difficult to bear. Solidarity on social media can alleviate it, but not resolve it.
All these factors should be considered when we engage in complex and relevant debates relying on social media as a privileged medium. To be aware of such consequences is particularly relevant for Syrians, given the prominence that these platforms acquired to discuss and connect people geographically dispersed and often still lacking stronger forms of collective organizations.
Alternatives are always available, but they require another, often less visible, collective labour: collective statements and organized media campaigns; engaging of existing actors to negotiate with them before going public; more centralized and stable networks; and, of course, the establishment of more structured organization. In all these cases, the use of social media comes after a patient collective organizing, and should not be the first step.
Changing the ways we communicate with each other is of utmost importance if we consider the weak and fragmented character of Syrian secular opposition circles nowadays. Such a reflection inevitably involves the leading voices articulating these important issues (gender, class, among others) to take their responsibility in elaborating their positions and points of difference and to seek viable alliances and wider solidarity networks.
These issues, if debated and articulated collectively, offer invaluable opportunities to articulate new subjectivities and political blocs. The patriarchal culture, often hidden and denied, among many Syrian opposition circles is a reality. In order to change that reality, among many others, other strategies must be experimented and this case should serve us as a lesson.
[Main photo: Graffiti in Cairo (Zoé Carle/Permission from author. All rights reserved to the author)].