Social Media Intrusion: The Empathy Myth

By Nurul Fadiah Johari

Over the past few years since becoming more active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, I started noticing a few trends. People seem to “know” about your private life without having to ask you about your day, and people form various prejudgments about you without even having met you. The sudden attention from long-lost acquaintances or distant relatives can be unnerving. To cope, I learnt to draw boundaries and to carve out safe online spaces for myself. Social media, like any other public space, also necessitates its own boundary-drawing and etiquette. However, unfortunately for many of us, it is still quite unclear where these boundaries are. And women bear the brunt of intense moral policing and scrutiny on social media.

I noticed recently that social media can be highly intrusive. Social media only displays images about someone’s life; it is not a window to someone’s reality. I also learnt that social media can easily amplify one’s preconceived judgments about another person. Getting access to information about another person’s life online does not necessarily reduce the level of prejudice that one may have towards the other. In fact, it may build up on the pre-existing prejudices, because of the nature of social media. More often than not, it brings about stalker-like tendencies among people, thus leading to presumptuous and at times, moralizing behaviour.

Social media, despite it being used as a means of documenting information, is ephemeral and fragmented. Therefore, “knowing “certain information about someone’s life does not automatically equate to genuine concern and empathy. Social media, via one’s newsfeed and timeline, merely provides snippets of information about one’s life. It cannot simply be a substitute to a decent human conversation. And that, I think is gradually becoming lost to us, despite the many channels through which we can communicate.

I have had my own fair share of social media prejudgments and intrusion, which is why I feel the need to broach this subject matter. I have been outspoken recently on my Facebook about my traumatic experiences from a mental illness. The subject of mental illness is sadly still a stigma to many, and to hear a former patient speak out against mainstream psychiatry and medication is quite an unchartered territory to many. Soon after my Facebook post, a relative asked me if it was true that I had once been hospitalized for a mental illness. When I replied in the affirmative, the said person started saying certain things that to me, sounded quite like a stereotypical and simplistic understanding of what I had been through. Said person even presumed that I had been silent during family gatherings because “I didn’t want to talk to them”, rather than asking me if I had been alright in the first place. It seems like my speaking out about my experiences is just another ‘story’ or ‘curiosity’ to another, rather than an invitation to greater empathy.

Another instance was when someone tried several times to get me to attend some talks by an Islamic preacher whom I did not favour. The person presumed that because of my views and writings on feminism, I needed to attend such talks, which outrightly dismisses and simplistically demonizes feminism. When I tried to strike a normal “How have you been”, said person did not reply. It is evident that the intent was simply to preach against my apparently wayward feminist ways, rather than to maintain a decent connection.

I look back at these instances in humour. And I admit I myself mustn’t be presumptuous about their “intrusion”. Nonetheless, in an age where people can simply conjure stories about another based on the limited impressions that they get on social media, perhaps we cannot emphasize enough the ever-importance of the basic “How are you?” question.

Read the other posts here: Questions blog series