Is it Digital or is it Real?

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Is it Digital or is it Real?

By Javairyah Kulthum Aatif

 “Those who own and control the most powerful digital technologies will increasingly write the rules of society itself. Software engineers are becoming social engineers. Digital is political.” – Jamie Susskind

Javairyah Kulthum Aatif

Perhaps digital media platforms were only seen from some sort of an economic model before, but the post Elon Musk Twitter says otherwise. Politics and polarization has caught a heightened momentum on digital platforms, and the best examples to quote happen to be Twitter and Meta.

 These digital platforms started as ungoverned spaces for people to reduce the geographical distances and engage with communities beyond them. This also accelerated a sort of globalization of multiculturalism while at the same time the emergence of “influencers” became prominent. As Renee DiResta writes, “The friend or follower count was prominently displayed on a user’s profile, and a high number became a heuristic for assessing popularity or importance.”

With humans moving into this metaspace, they take with them things attached to them such as beliefs, ideologies, values and here we see the once glorified platforms of communication, becoming a sort of demonized platform of polarization instead.

The conversation then quickly moved on to digital platform owners not regulating content, or endorsing political campaigns and much more. At the same time we see how the social networks started to develop, expand, and even splinter with the increased usage of people. On top of that the Algorithms maneuver this spread of information and often dictate the content we consume by sort of leaving a bait for users to jump in. The technicalities of the subject are in one place but the expanding socio-political dimensions of this phenomenon are worth studying through the lens of digital anthropology.

Digital platforms at first were a space for every kind of voice despite the good or bad attached to it. It became a place of activism to support the oppressed, to call out the oppressors as long as the business models were not impacted. Then comes in preferred content regulation to shadow banning content and/ or removal of content or accounts. For many countries the digital domain quickly became a potent source of information but on various occasions an endless pit of misinformation, fake news and disinformation. Some states and the unions created rules and regulations, some took control for their own sake. As generic as this discussion is, the subject itself requires in depth focus and research to understand the emerging digital realities that are intertwined with the tangible world.

In Pakistan we saw political polarization in the shape of hashtags like #ImportedHakoomatNamanzoor and political parties funneling money to get their agendas pushed; on another spectrum we see India utilizing the digital space to push its Hindutva project by inciting communal violence through digital campaigns for electoral gains. We have seen the digital space play an important role in the Russia-Ukraine war with each trying to influence and assert agency on the narratives of the ensuing war. While on the same spectrum we have also seen the digital spaces being utilized by big corporations as a solid marketing space to push their products regardless of the impact it may have. For example Meta (Instagram) was seen pushing advertisements for products related to eating disorders causing young girls to adhere to that content. The algorithms flooded weight loss and body type images content which influenced many teen girls who then ended up with mental health and physical health issues, that often led to suicide. 

On such a broad scale the impacts are hardly mitigated, but perhaps the recipe to this predicament lies in understanding, researching and opening up to the digital world. This is barely the tip of the iceberg, but a step towards a sustainable digital future means to reconstruct and redesign our approach to it.

Javairyah Kulthum Aatif The writer is a Digital Media and Policy Advocacy Specialist at IPRI. Her research interests include, Digital Transformation, Eurasian Geopolitics and Great Power Competition. Twitter: @JavairyahAatif