The gift of sight enables us to see and understand. Human beings are capable, through the exercise of our will, of either cleaning the instruments of our understanding through worship and remembrance of Allah, or inflicting blinders upon ourselves through ghaflah, heedlessness. The sound heart is one that has been cleansed of worldly attachments that can distract from ʿubūdīyah. In the faculty of our physical and moral sight, what is framing? Framing is the act of imposing parameters on some aspect of reality so that a portion of it is front and center and sharply focused, while other parts are systematically excluded. Movies, news media, social media and personal electronic devices all frame. Consider the following example of the power of framing. Figure 3 shows a large outdoor gathering of men and boys in the nineteenth century. They are dressed in formal attire and appear well-to-do.
Figure 3: The framed image
However, the framing of this picture excludes a horrific reality (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: The entire image
This photograph shows the lynching of African American Frank McManus in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1882.
It is also a large outdoor gathering of formally dressed well-to-do men and boys. But in Figure 3, the frame only
reveals the gathering, excluding the lynching. By altering the context, our framing of this picture changes its meaning completely. The way we consume social media today also frames reality in a way that changes its meaning, making our sight deficient. To be sure, all media necessarily frame reality by choosing which content to expose at any given time. This paper frames the research question in a particular way and therefore excludes other relevant issues. Social media framing becomes particularly harmful due to our increasing embeddedness in the virtual world and subsequent abstraction from the real one.
Each of us has experienced or heard of examples of harmful social media framing. Ever since the last presidential election, the idea of the “echo chamber” resounded, ironically enough, on social media itself. In 2015, researchers at Facebook studied 10.1 million users to assess how many news stories in their feeds were cross-cutting, meaning of a perspective other than their own self-identified political position.
They found that despite open access to different sources, users will surround themselves with like-minded contacts and follow and click only on stories that confirm their preexisting positions. Some of this is ‘motivated reasoning’ when, in devotion to our political affiliations, we dismiss alternative conceptions.
However online platforms can cause harm on a substantial scale beyond just moving in our own circles—fostering confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.
According to Pew Research in 2015, 61% of millennials get their political news from Facebook.
One may ask: what’s wrong with that? How does getting one’s news from Facebook affect one’s sight or make one susceptible to the peripheral blindness caused by framing? Facebook is a corporation valued at $575 billion US dollars,
with most revenue coming from advertisements that appear on screen or in users’ news feeds.
While this is the case with all corporate media,
they nonetheless operate under the auspices of agreed-upon standards of journalistic ethics, supervising the proliferation of information to greater or lesser degrees. That’s not the case with social media.
According to an MIT study in 2018 that looked at rumor cascades on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, about 126,000 rumors were spread by roughly three million people, and these falsehoods were tweeted more than 4.5 million times.
According to the study:
False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed… Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news…
While more and more people, particularly millennials and youth, get their news from social media, the dissemination of true and accurate information is not a top priority for social media conglomerates like Facebook or Twitter. Connecting people into networks and followings, and facilitating shares is the priority—whether that share is true or false. The spiritual implications cannot be overlooked.
Speaking on information literacy in Islam, Justin Parrott states that while tools in our information age have their benefits, we have to be wary of their negative consequences and dangers.
Parrott reminds us that: “As Muslims, the verification of truth, source methodology, and the proper management of knowledge are essential components of our religion, which is why scholars, for example, went to great lengths to authenticate what the Prophet sallá Allāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam
really said.” In this regard, we must distinguish credible sources from less credible or false ones. As Muslims, we face a moral obligation to investigate the source of information before believing it, let alone reacting to it or forwarding it.
But is that how social media works? Is that how we use it? The sheer pace at which we consume social media cannot allow time for due diligence towards knowledge and its sources.
Additionally there are other factors by which social media affects our ‘sight.’ Troll factories are workplaces of low-paid workers whose job is to proliferate web content—hundreds of thousands of posts—that influence people’s opinions and flood web searches by topic. The story of the Russian troll factory that professionally produced pro-Kremlin propaganda during the last American presidential election became well known.
In this factory, dozens of workers worked twelve-hour shifts writing posts, replaced at the end of their shift by another set of workers. Their labor inundated social media with propaganda—false information and opinions—around the clock. On the American side, British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used data science to sway undecided voters toward a Ted Cruz victory in Iowa and Donald Trump’s national victory.
They did so through massive Facebook advertising campaigns.
To illustrate the concept that targeted advertising causes mindset shift and behavioral change, let us consider a hypothetical user’s typical scroll on their social media of choice. Let’s suppose this user prefers Facebook, as she is older than most Twitter and Instagram users. Her typical scroll down the feed will include: Mundane caveats from friend’s lives, such as vacations, meals, and hilarious parenting memes;Reports of deadly violence in the form either of news reports or actual footage of war, protests, or police brutality; Retail advertisements specific to this user’s preferences; andEnvironmental justice content, including scientific or agricultural photos, scholarly articles, and editorials.
This content comprises our user’s echo chamber. And if she were to scroll endlessly in either direction, older posts or newer posts, the scroll would never end—itself alarming. What the endless scroll enables is limitless possibilities for distraction and entertainment. What it disables is seeing reality outside her preferences, as well as quietude of the mind without which deep contemplation of our souls and remembrance of Allah the Exalted are not possible.
Deadly unjust violence ought to command one’s action with particular urgency, and ought to call to action;Environmental justice—and the miscarriage thereof—ought to move one’s heart, command attention, and call to particularly urgent types of action;The buying and selling of goods and their advertisement comprise business, and represent good ḥalāl income that is necessary for human flourishing; and Mundane caveats are a beautiful and necessary part of life, culture, and embellishments.
In reality, deadly unjust violence is nowhere near the same degree, qualitatively, as shopping or the cultural production of parenting-related comedy. Allah the Exalted says that whoever unjustly kills a soul, it’s as if he killed all mankind.
To receive news that someone was unjustly murdered, or worse to see footage
of a murder, should affect us spiritually with the severity as if someone had killed all mankind. Quite the opposite occurs for most users: the constant exposure to visuals of bodily violence—in movies, series, news, video games, etc.—desensitizes us to actual bodily violence.
Returning to our hypothetical user, let us delineate the relative values of the various parts of her social media consumption.
Allah the Exalted wants us to enjoy our share of this life in a permissible and beautiful way. But murder and environmental crisis on the one hand, and mundane caveats and retail advertisements on the other, cannot be equated. Social media distort this gap by placing all topics and events in a democratic horizontality. In the endless scroll, we consume them in the same way.
What occurs in our endless scroll—and turns our universe of values upside down—is that values get flattened out, and the natural hierarchy of good and evil becomes democratized. Computers and the internet are often credited with the democratization of information; but the dark side of that accomplishment is that hierarchical values become co-equals. Our user may “react” with a laughing emoji at a hilarious parenting meme; with an angry emoji at footage of an unarmed young Black man shot dead at close range by a police officer; and with a crying emoji at an article about how three billion North American birds have disappeared since 1970 (that’s 29% of all birds on this continent!).
But the only ‘reacting’ our user is actually doing is clicking a button. She is neither laughing nor crying nor feeling indignant with another person. Moreover, users quickly and constantly switch between “feelings”—the events that occasioned those feelings have to be forgotten right away to make space for the next batch within the endless scroll.
Looking at the screen is not actually looking at the world. And this is the gravest misguidance that our screens afford us: we consider ourselves well-informed when in reality we don’t even know who or what is right next to us. Digitally performing personhood is an affront to both our full personhood and our moral accountability.
Figure 5. Still photograph from Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?,” October 2016.