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Social Media and Commodifying Empathy in the Covid-era — by Dr. Amrita Ghosh

This article traces various social media expressions during the ongoing pandemic and asks the overarching question: how should one understand,…

In early March 2020, when the world was awakening to steady news of a virus causing havoc in Wuhan, China, I embarked on a three-week trip from Sweden to the United States to visit home. The Covid-19 panic had not set in yet fully. Still, the sight of the usually swarming, yet now sparsely-peopled Copenhagen airport, felt ominous. A Danish immigration officer joked as he stamped my passport, ‘We Vikings are not scared of this virus! Have a safe trip home, see you when you are back!’ The flight to New York was far from full, but flying without a co-passenger beside me, the access to all three seats (almost a bed) felt more like a stroke of luck than an eerie premonition.

Within a week, America closed its borders. The whole world followed, shutting down bit by bit, borders first, and then with increasing devastation came the schisms of religion, class, race and xenophobia. The virus disrupted us corporeally from the self in extraordinary and unprecedented ways. As human subjects we found ourselves dismembered from our own touch – our hands, human breath, spaces and surfaces, everything around us became potentially dangerous. Increasingly grim news emerged of rising deaths in Italy, the lockdown in China spread, and incessant rumours of quack cures never kept the virus at bay. People who could, took to social media to understand and express what life in quarantine looked like. Grappling with spreading gloom and fear, social media became the predominant means by which millions now inhabited ‘public’ spaces and maintained psycho-social contacts. And then burst a new trend: policing how to behave online during the pandemic. In this essay, I review this phenomenon and explore the intersections of the rhetoric of empathy and social media during Covid-19.

In the initial weeks of the pandemic, adjusting to isolation and quarantine globally, people both participated in and fed on steady cycles of online representation of life with fetishized objects, riding and documenting wave upon wave of popularized fads. The initial delirium came with paper rolls. Then Dalgona coffee. The hunt for yeast and homemade bread. Pictures of sourdough were uploaded, some amateur, some with fancies, frills, and elaborate décor. An effort at ‘normalcy’ manifested in a flurry of cooking photos, drawing on unused recipes as part of nostalgia for times gone by, and of traditions and celebrations that inform the texture of human identities. Next came post after post of nature photography, flowers and birds; artfully edited videos of people singing or dancing, snatched moments of joy in quarantine; photographs from when ‘we’ were twenty, celebrating beauty, youth, vigour and hope – all determined efforts to affirm that life continued, as a death ticker haunted us on news channels, relentlessly reminding us of the thousands of deaths in countries far away, and then closer, right there in our own cities and neighbourhoods.

At the same time, socio-political structures of inequality began to implode around us. Social media channeled a hope for solidarity and concern – dare one say global compassion – as, rightfully so, growing critiques began of governments’ mishandling of the pandemic, whether Trump’s response in the US, or the horrifying news of migrant workers’ plight in India. There came a cry for connectivity as we became intensely, helplessly aware of our own mortality. We turned more and more towards symbols and activities of social habit in an attempt to construct a semblance of meaning during an experience that questioned and threatened both materialist and ontological ways of being.

Soon, however, something differently virulent was unleashed: an untrammelled critique of people’s online representation of their everyday lived experience during Covid-19, framed as an erasure of the reality of the pandemic. Commentary ensued about the lack of compassion shown by the apparent flaunting of elite, neoliberal lifestyles via social media posts of food, flowers and nature. Observing this critique, I found myself secretly chiding my growing obsession with my bougainvillea plant (blooming well despite Covid-19) and stopped myself from posting a photo of the flowers, concerned that it was uncompassionate to do so while we inhabited this moment of massive grief and collective trauma.

This binary thinking finally brings me to the question of how concepts like empathy became embroiled in conversations around social media as both a source of hope and proof of neoliberal non-sentience? At a time when empathy has become a catch-all word, what does it mean to be ‘compassionate’ when all activity on social media is open to policing of standards of behaviour as ‘too little,’ ‘too vain,’ ‘too elite’? Does the distress of others on a large global scale require continuous visual proof of our collective and individual grief such that we stop expressing our daily strivings towards a modicum of hope and signs of normalcy? Or does the latter mean we are flaunting privileged existences that nullify the hardships of certain communities? How does one really ‘behave’ in the daunting new reality of the pandemic that makes us ‘rightfully’ human?

Lauren Berlant, in her book, Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (2004) cautions against the use of empathy in ways that create hypocritical politics, one which reifies the same objects that it wants to critique. Berlant studies different kinds of compassion and its politics that demand a certain kind of sociocultural obligation from people. She concludes that ‘there is nothing simple about compassion, apart from the desire for it to be taken to be simple’ (7). Her book is a cautionary reminder to understand compassion in political and cultural contexts and not reductively sever the emotion from complex dynamics of power, suffering, witnessing and privilege. The question of ethical practice of compassion on social media has always been relevant. Social media spaces have been used to mute, debate or mobilize people towards certain causes and raise awareness of structural inequalities that demand social justice well before the pandemic. In this moment, we are left with similar questions about how to grapple with unmitigated suffering around us. But something unique has taken over social media during these unsettling months. We are participants in a rapid discourse of affect that often tilts to a phenomena of performative compassion, ‘a thrilled vindication’ as yogesh Parmar states about social media posts, where everyone, at all times, is on high alert to find fault in others and vie for the position of ‘most compassionate’ (‘Life Lessons on the Road’). Ironically, there is a clickbaity, sterile race towards ‘competitive performative compassion,’ as one’s response to the pandemic plays out on an affective plane, assessed to be more valuable than some others.

Mette Mortensen and Hans-Jörg Trenz also investigate a phenomena of social media morality culture in a study that explores the dynamics of social media ‘which can constitute a significant site for the construction of a moral order’ (344), one that leads to a ‘collective process of generating meaning, constructing casual chains and calling for action’ (Mortensen, Trenz 344). Using Luc Boltanski’s work on ‘moral spectatorship,’ Mortensen and Trenz point to an emergence of what they call a new ‘publics of moral spectatorship’ and ‘impromptu publics’ in social media, framed by a morality that is ‘mediated by public discourse’ (345) online. These ‘impromptu publics’ work towards creating awareness, a concern towards and for others and sets a context for global justice, belonging and solidarity in the space of social media (345–46). Their work is important and laudatory in ways that inform how social media can inspire or mobilise commitment or taking action towards an ethical worldview, even if the concept of ‘action’ may not be defined in the traditional understanding of the word. While this is a powerful way of building transnational solidarity in times like the present, I am somewhat concerned that the limits of this code of online ethics can also become a dubious spectacle if they solely reside in a vindictive either-or space during this pandemic time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a surreal, dystopic time for most people, and what we are finding, increasingly, is, perhaps, a commodified limit of compassion – a strange evocation towards establishing a social media morality, a moral universe where one size fits all. Dire charges await, at best of an elitist lack of concern and at worst, of privileged escapism. And yet again, as Berlant reminds us, we shouldn’t readily do away with registers of com- passion as responses of self-worth or righteousness, because ‘sentiments of compassion are [not] at root ethically false, destructive or sadistic’ (Compassion 7); rather, she critiques the ‘honourable sociality of response’ where there is a compulsion of ethicality produced (7).

It is rather tragic that during this pandemic, the urge towards an ethical practice of compassion contrarily becomes the virulent judging of social media posts, how to emote, how to behave online, and what is supposed to be the ‘right’ kind of post. The inexorable fear and dread of the virus slowly coming closer and closer is a real one. So is the feeling of intense vulnerability when colossal changes are taking place rapidly and breaking down most of what ‘we’ knew as ‘normal.’ The pandemic has produced a moral universe within social media frames, in which compassion is a superficial, fetishized category, when only card-carrying expressions of affect signal to ‘rightful behaviour’ that one has to produce to be a part of this universe. As the pandemic rages on and structures of inequality burst open in every space, the treatment of compassion on social media results in the very thing that the expressed compassion was meant to counter.

Once again, as I prepared to cross borders to return to Sweden after a two-month lockdown in the epicentre of the pandemic in the US, a friend drove through the night just to leave a sealed mask outside my door; another gave away a bottle of sanitizer and a pack of medical masks – rare commodities at the time, to ensure I could travel safely. I was reminded of the value of hope and real compassion, one that does not need advertising on social media posts or demand an automatic initiation of guilt for ‘counterintuitive’ posts.

Perhaps, there is a lesson here for us in belonging, outside of constant manufactured connectivity or guilt. To be sure, this is not a call towards being insentient, or supporting lack of compassion or erasure of the suffering of others. Social media posts requesting help for those affected by the cyclone that devastated West Bengal, India and parts of Sundarbans, or posts on understanding and reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement (and why it must not be framed as the old and weary All Lives Matter), and the need to rethink gendered spaces and the home during the lockdown, are only few examples that are undeniably vital. They help us in rethinking the status quo when the old normal has failed us in myriad ways. But one wonders if this pandemic is the best time for that, when vindication becomes the go-to affect, when demands for same affect (online) are not met. Perhaps, there is a compassionate space on social media for posts both of one’s culinary experiments and activism that helps move hearts towards social justice.

Compassion is dead, long live compassion!

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Amrita Ghosh

Amrita Ghosh has a PhD in postcolonial literature and theory from Drew University, USA. She was a lecturer and taught at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, prior to moving to Sweden for a postdoc at Linnaeus University's Center of Postcolonial Studies. She is currently finishing two book projects: "Kashmir's Necropolis: New Literature and Visual Texts", Rowan & Littlefield, Lexington Books (2020) and "Tagore and Yeats: A Postcolonial Reenvisioning", by Brill Publications, UK. She is the Co-Founder Editor of Cerebration.org and a visiting researcher at Lund University's South Asia Network (SASNET). She tweets at @MsBiryani