Tuesday 22 October 2019

Sometimes, social media serves a good purpose

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It is common knowledge that social media is often taken over by the worst aspects of human nature: from narcissism in the form of constant (filtered) selfies, to the attempts to portray one’s life as picture perfect (which has proven to lead to depression in those who are taken in by this myth, whose own lives seem disastrous in comparison).  

Facebook, Instagram and, to a lesser extent, Twitter (which has never really had the same impact in Malta) are probably responsible for the upsurge in cosmetic surgery, even in young girls, who look at themselves and constantly find fault at not being pretty enough, slim enough or voluptuous enough in the right places. So they go under the knife, once, twice, numerous times, never quite satisfied with the results, because you cannot be satisfied if your self-image has been warped by comparing yourself to photo-shopped super models. 

Nasty remarks and insults also sometimes take over the cyber-sphere,  by people who seem to think that it is OK to say the worst possible things to complete strangers because a screen and a keyboard absolve them of responsibility and repercussions. 

But then, occasionally, there are times when social media does serve a good purpose.

A couple of stories this week are a case in point.  When a young mother posted that she was appalled by the shabby, unsafe state of her three-year-old daughter’s new classroom, the photos went viral.  

This was during a meeting with parents of children just starting kindergarten and while being given a tour of the school, the parents naturally asked to see their children’s classroom. The teacher showed it to them reluctantly, and it soon became apparent why. There was mould on the unpainted walls where the plaster had fallen off.  It was clear that, for some reason, the maintenance carried out in the rest of the school had not reached this classroom.  

The ensuing debate on FB led to media coverage and while there was the inevitable finger-pointing as to whose fault it was, and whether the mother had jumped the gun by publishing the photos, the end result was that the Minister and the Education Department took action and the necessary work on the classroom was completed over the weekend, in time for Tuesday when the children started school.   Would all this have been accomplished were it not for social media? I very much doubt it.  There is something about the immediacy of how word spreads on FB which is compelling.  Negative publicity tends to spread much faster of course, and this tends to irk politicians who are often miffed that positive developments are not given the same kind of attention, but if the end result is that a classroom which was not fit for toddlers is now ship-shape, then in this case, I say, thank God for Facebook. 

Another development which can be traced directly to the power of social media was what happened at Fresher’s Week at University.  Among the many corporate stands which have now become a fixture at this event, there was the stand set up by environmental lobby group Moviment Graffitti.  This included a few members of the group wearing masks of Infrastructure and Transport Minister Ian Borg, the man who has single-handedly ordered the destruction of so many trees in Malta to make way for wider roads.  

Now, it is obvious that political statements on campus are not only nothing new, but they should be actively encouraged.  Where else should the seeds of political activism be sowed if not at the highest seat of learning? If you do not rebel against the status quo when you are a student, and if you do not voice your opposition to environmental destruction in your late teens and early 20s, then when are you going to do it?  But the University administration seems to have a different interpretation of what tertiary education is all about.  Maybe they see it as just a continuation of the obedience and submission fostered throughout primary, secondary and even Sixth Form, where students are told to sit quietly, fold their hands, shut up and listen.  To this end, an order was given and a security guard confiscated the masks, with the University administration saying that political controversy during Freshers’ Week was “not allowed”. 

It took mere seconds for a post uploaded by Moviment Graffitti about the censorship to make the rounds. They received widespread public encouragement not to back down and in fact they went back the next day, with even more masks, including that of Sandro Chetcuti, the god of construction. University academics issued a statement backing the activists but it is unfortunate that the thousands of students who have started the new academic year were not as vocal.  I find it hard to believe they did not know what was happening, because even if they were not physically present, students (and adults) are invariably seen with their heads down, scrolling through their iPhone.  It is an indication of how much it is ingrained in most young people not to make waves, that many did not express their indignation at the censorship. 

However, on a more uplifting note, the furore on FB was enough to make the University heads realise how truly appalling the censorship looked.  Of course, it should never have happened in the first place, which begs the question, who took this misguided decision? The Education Minister seemed to suggest that the security guard took the decision on his own initiative, which is hard to believe given the University’s initial statement. As with the shabby classroom situation described above, I always wonder why it is so difficult for people to step up and admit culpability when they take a bad decision but try to blame others instead?   

I am not one to make mountains out of molehills, but in cases like this it is important to nip things in the bud and here was a clear example of a certain high-handed attitude which can only serve to browbeat students into silence rather than creating an environment where dissent and vociferous objections are given space to thrive.   

Both the Education Minister and the Prime Minister were quick to distance themselves from the censorship, with the latter describing it as “stupid”.  The point remains that so much attention was drawn to the incident purely because social media exists. 

So, despite the pouting selfies and often nauseating constant craving for validation, there are certain times when social media does serve to bring about much needed awareness, and most importantly, positive change. 

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