This article is the first in a series in which Chinese researchers share their thoughts on the rise of cyberbullying and the deterioration of the country’s social media spaces.
Earlier this month, as Shanghai’s COVID-19 case counts continued to rise, a friend of mine came up with a list of suggested attributes that will help maintain one’s sanity while living under lockdown.
The ideal lockdown survivor is single with no pets and no elderly family members in need of medical attention. They have no close personal relationships with medical professionals, a landlord who’s flexible about rent, no regular prescriptions or long-term medical conditions, a stable source of food, and — perhaps most importantly — an inexhaustible supply of patience.
As you can imagine, people who fulfill these conditions are few and far between.
I didn’t even make it past the first item on the list. As what’s affectionally known in China as a “cat slave,” whatever free time I spend not vying for groceries or being tested is devoted to worrying what will happen to my pets if I’m sent off to a quarantine site.
According to the World Health Organization, although household animals can contract COVID-19, there is little chance of them passing it to humans. That’s cold comfort for China’s locked-down pet lovers, who have watched and worried as the country experienced a number of lockdown-related animal abuse cases, including some supposedly in the name of pandemic prevention.
Not everyone shares our concerns, of course. As with so many other issues on Chinese social media, the issue of pet protections has become highly politicized, with some critics arguing that, given the seriousness of the pandemic, the most important thing is ensuring the safety and security of humans, not their pets. Accusing pet owners of being selfish, they argue we’re overlooking the potential risks that our pets pose to public health.
Unsurprisingly, pet owners have fought back. While more moderate voices seek to prove that pets, if cared for responsibly, pose little threat of transmission, others have attacked the pet critics as social Darwinists who lack empathy.
At this point, the contours of the debate are familiar enough that the details are almost irrelevant. No matter which Chinese social network you frequent, virtually every online discussion even tangentially related to social issues seems to devolve into the same ad hominem verbal abuse.
It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when people hoped social networks would usher in Marshal McLuhan’s utopian ideal of the “global village”: transcending geographical boundaries and promoting the exchange of information across geopolitical and ideological borders. Today, the evidence suggests that instead of bringing us together, social networks are tearing us apart.
The reasons for this are well known. While the internet has helped people find communities of common interest, it has also hardened the lines between these communities, turning them into polarized cliques that are constantly splitting into smaller and smaller factions. These groups all produce their own experts who analyze events through their faction’s preferred lens, sharing information that confirms members’ biases while suppressing or downplaying anything that challenges their prejudices.
The rise of content recommendation algorithms has also contributed to the problem. Numerous factors determine whether a given post or video goes viral, from its degree of novelty to its entertainment value or popular appeal. But whether a piece of content reflects reality is generally not a good predictor of its potential reach. A Wall Street Journal investigation on the short video platform TikTok, for example, found that its algorithms work by feeding users videos they are likely to watch. Accuracy is secondary to emotional manipulation.
The social media platforms that have mastered this secret are now setting the agenda for all forms of media. Even major news outlets are now often reliant on social media for breaking news, commentary, and other forms of content. But they can’t keep up. In the window of time between when a breaking news event takes place and when reliable sources can verify and report the facts, it’s easy for bad actors to produce unverified, crude content that provokes visceral reactions among users.
The result is the collapse of what scholar Sophia Rosenfeld liked to call “serviceable truths” — baseline facts that members of a society agree not to disagree on. In their place are epistemic tribes, each convinced they are in sole possession of the truth and unwilling to compromise.
This suits social media platforms just fine: fake news items, tin-foil hat conspiracies, and pseudoscientific theories peddled by charlatans are all just grist for the social media mill. It doesn’t matter whether audiences agree or disagree; it all generates views and clicks.
That’s one reason why calls for a return to rationality and civility online will never be enough to fix what ails our society. There are just too many technological and commercial incentives to manipulate users for social media platforms to ever act as neutral forums for debate and discussion.
Instead of trying to travel back to an idealized past — or clinging to dreams of a utopian “global village” — we need to figure out how to make reality serviceable again. As Rosenfeld notes in her essay “Truth and Consequences,” debates and disagreements are a constant. What’s changed is the ease with which we can retreat into our own epistemic worlds and refuse to acknowledge others’ lived realities.
Society is far broader than the confines of any one social media tribe. Since we’re forced to live together, sometimes accommodation and understanding are more important than being right. The truth isn’t monolithic; it’s an ideal that we are in a constant process of pursuing and refining. You don’t to recognize that animals pose little to no risk of covid transmission, just that they — and their owners — have a place in our society.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.