On Natural Disasters, Social Media Algorithm and ‘Forced’ Empathy

As soon as the Indian subcontinent enters its disaster phase of the pre-monsoon cyclone and flash floods, social media starts overflowing with videos and photos of despair, loss and fiasco caused by these catastrophe.

People living miles away from the affected location get every detail of the disaster. As soon as someone shares accounts and pieces of how the disaster is affecting the most vulnerable, social media users start sharing the ‘post’ and in a few minutes, it reaches million of users worldwide. It is remarkable how a disaster manifests on social media. However, one also need to see if the information ‘sharing’ is genuinely helping the affected parties or trivialising the event in the name of just another social media post.

It is a pattern: whenever something ‘trends’, people start sharing each others ‘posts’ without reflecting on the reason behind the actual cause. For example, a photo from Sunderbans went viral where a group of islanders could be seen holding the nearly broken embankment/bandh during cyclone Yaas so that the water wouldn’t enter the village. A lot of social media users shared the picture with a romanticised, sympathetic note to express their solidarity with the victims.

But everything you see on social media isn’t always what it appears to be. Many a time, old photos of similar visuals are shared on social media to attract eyeballs. Pictures of blazing storms, hurricane, collapse of human property, monstrous tide flushing away coastal villages and the like appeal to the audience and in a way, also reflect how the media interprets vulnerable landscapes like the Sunderbans (as in the recent case) or other coastal areas with frequent cyclonic landfalls.

A viral photo/video on social media acts as a repository of thoughts, actions and ideologies which are seen as normative or are made to be so (by the media). In other words, those not engaging with that particular disaster-empathy discourse online are viewed with apprehension and are often labelled outcasts. Hence, sometimes even the least interested accounts are seen resharing the post because they see their friends and acquaintances doing the same.

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Those working behind the scenes when it comes to social media manipulate users in such a way that they don’t even realise that their worldviews and actions are actually not their own but are, in fact, controlled by the power groups running the platforms.

You must have noticed how as soon as any disaster hits, various social media influencers or individuals with a significant number of followers turn philanthropic and start sharing donation campaigns or relief links from their accounts. Such posts are mostly embedded with a lot of visual elements to grab as much as attention as possible. Viewers then form their individual opinion based on what they see or perceive in those series of posts. While some of these visually appealing posts drive the audience to authentic donation links, there are few which also lead to fraudulent sites. This is the reason why people are often suspicious of the real motive of influencers, even those who don’t have any vested interests.

It must also be noted that many of us, who share those viral videos, have actually never been to that place. Hence, in a way, social media controls, reinforces, and manipulates how we see and engage with non-media landscapes which further constructs a cognitive space and place of empathy and sympathy.

Empathy as defined by several scholars is the ability to understand another person’s behaviour based on one’s own experiences and the characteristics of the other person’s situation and this further poses the question of the authenticity of the emotion one holds while posting or re-posting a message or information. Thus, it is difficult to distinguish the motive behind certain posts, in terms of whether one is empathetic or sympathetic because a viewer’s perception varies depending on their context.

Social media, during times of crisis, often prods its users to feel for marginalised groups who are constantly battling natural disasters. However the oddity still persists of whether one’s social media post is genuine expression or merely validation to oneself of being on the same page with peers who have the privilege of showing sympathy to the poor.

Camellia Biswas is a doctoral student in the department of humanities and social science at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. Her doctoral research focuses on human- nature Interaction in the Indian sundarbans from the lens of political ecology under the larger discourse of climate crisis.

Featured image credit: Pete Linforth/Pixabay