Social media is making us fragile, fake and toxic. The impact it is having on our identities is frightening and we need to talk about it.
On any given day, we are exposed to hundreds and thousands of profiles. We observe their lifestyles, activities, fashion choices and even their opinions, beliefs and moral stances. Likewise, we ourselves are exposed to a like number of people and are constantly subjected to their gaze and potential judgement. And amidst this online crowd, we all long for acceptance and are vulnerable to their validation in one form or another, and this is having a lasting impact on our identities and who we are.
An impact so severe – it’s frightening.
Well, it all comes down to how social media works.
You see, to build a successful profile or identity on social media, you need to gain likes, shares and engagement. This is generally achieved by appeasing what your online audience of friends and followers finds popular and conforming to what the algorithm wants.
E.g. If X is popular – you must promote X.
In doing so, your audience will reward you with likes and shares, while the algorithm will further your engagement and push you onto the newsfeeds of others. All of which releases dopamine in your brain and biologically motivates you to continue the process, again and again.
Now this entire cycle, pretty much creates echo chambers online, where people keep posting content that is popular amongst their friends and content which pleases the algorithm.
Failing to follow the process will result in a digital ‘punishment’. Whereby you’ll fail to achieve any likes or engagement and slowly have your online identity become irrelevant. Any attempt to go against the grain within your given echo chamber of friends could then lead to you being outcasted, publicly criticised and in extreme situations, cancelled.
And it is for this reason, social media has seen so many of us carefully curate our online identities to conform to that which is popular — selectively choosing images and pieces of content that will result in a more successful profile amongst our given audience.
And this is precisely where the problem lies. Having a formula that defines a successful online identity based on popularity – is no way to determine our value or worth.
And look I don’t deny that there are profiles and pages that have established a successful online identity to promote good quality content – like OnePath Network and many others – I hope.
But this formula of measuring a successful identity is still very dangerous. I mean, the algorithm doesn’t care if what you’re posting is beneficial or increases people’s spiritual or moral fulfilment. It doesn’t even care about where you stand on the side of a conversation. You could be on the right, on the left, it doesn’t matter. It only cares that what you’re posting is attractive enough to keep people glued to their screens.
You could even be a complete fraud and parade empty moral slogans all over your page, yet still achieve a successful online identity, attracting large audiences and being favoured by the algorithm.
And I still haven’t even touched on the most threatening of all dangers, this formula poses.
Striking research shows that the algorithm has proven to favour content that is more polarising and negative in nature, simply because such content is more popular and engaging. So for us, it’s no longer enough to say “Hey, I like X – so like my post”, but “Hey, Y is really bad” or “Y really sucks”. And we are actually rewarded for such behaviour, with likes, shares and more dopamine encouraging us to continue.
It’s no wonder that we are seeing a rise in anger, hatred and division online. Even amongst Muslim circles. Online, we have become more toxic than ever before – and this is not because it’s in our best interest to be angry people – but rather it keeps people engaged, and help platforms make more money. And it’s nothing new. I mean, anger was one of the foremost emotions evoked by Hitler to further his popularity via the radio, and it’s still happening today, only this time, with the help of algorithms.
The dangers surrounding social media and its impact on our identity are very real, and as Muslims, its something we need to be really concerned about. As Muslims, we are not people who are swayed by or those who randomly follow that which is popular, but instead, we follow the Prophet.
وَمَآ ءَاتَىٰكُمُ ٱلرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَىٰكُمْ عَنْهُ فَٱنتَهُوا۟
Whatever the Messenger gives you, take it. And whatever he forbids you from, leave it.Quran 59:7
The obsession with gaining the pleasure of an online audience and an invisible algorithm goes entirely against our pursuit of achieving the pleasure of Allah. It’s a fragile way to form our identities, and it’s something we should be deeply wary of. Often in the Quran, we see a strong condemnation against that which is popular.
قُل لَّا يَسْتَوِى ٱلْخَبِيثُ وَٱلطَّيِّبُ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكَ كَثْرَةُ ٱلْخَبِيثِ
Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “Good and evil are not equal, though you may be dazzled by the abundance of evil.Quran 5:100
And in another verse,
وَمَآ أَكْثَرُ ٱلنَّاسِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتَ بِمُؤْمِنِينَ
Most people will not believe—no matter how keen you are—Quran 12:103
And of course:
وَإِن تُطِعْ أَكْثَرَ مَن فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ يُضِلُّوكَ عَن سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ ۚ
If you were to obey most of those on earth, they would lead you away from Allah’s Way.Quran 6:116
And this couldn’t be more pertinent than it is today. I mean today, in the age of feeling, where people’s unrestrained desires and feelings define the popular way in which society determines right from wrong, we should be very concerned. We are literally warned about blindly following our desires in the Quran many times, but this is what most people use to define their morality!
This is not to mention the fact that what is popular and deemed acceptable amongst the masses today, can very well change tomorrow. That which will bring you audiences today – can have you cancelled tomorrow.
This is why it’s crucial for us as Muslims to develop our identities without the hidden manipulative pressures of social media. We need to establish our roots in who we are before diving into the wild world of social media audiences and algorithms.
We need to study our religion, find out who we are as Muslims, away from the internet. We are bombarded with so many worldviews, philosophies, opinions and doubts online, we need to be able to understand these as Muslims without being lured down the rabbit hole of finding acceptance amongst an online audience and algorithm.
And look, I don’t deny that social media can also positively impact our identities when used correctly and when we interact with the right people with the right thoughts and ideas, but the dangers are still genuine. And it’s something we need to be wary of.
May Allah make us of those who follow the Prophet ﷺ and not those who are swayed or riled by popularity.