The fun of being in an echo chamber ends the moment we realize it distorts our knowledge of the world. It could take some time and a lot of reflection before we recognize how our online experience is filtered by biases which could prevent us from making good use of the power of the web. We might even think of the bubble as a safe space that reinvigorates our spirit amid the decay in our offline relations. The internet has many uses and one thing it conveniently offers is the boosting of individualism while rebranding it as a platform of empowerment. It poses unique challenges for community building and the pursuit of activism.
Any internet user would find it useful to connect with those who share his or her views and they can mine the web for evidence, memes, and links reinforcing their beliefs. Overwhelmed with googled data, it becomes easier to ignore contrary perspectives. The pleasure of confirming what we know is more appealing than verifying information that appears on our newsfeed. We think we are gaming the system by identifying the tyranny of the algorithm but our digital footprint exposes the user who thrives in the ‘ako chamber’.
What are its features? The spotlight is always the self. A commentary begins and ends with the self. Memes for self-promotion are disguised as a template of dissent. The world wide web is tweaked to make it appear that it is a puny space obsessed with the whims of an individual. How many harbor the illusion that reality in the virtual is triggered by our log-in activities and vanishes the moment we put down our screens?
Anonymity is trivialized as the refuge of the wicked. Yet, the right to be anonymous has fueled the rise of powerful collectives. The internet itself became possible through the linking of networks. The digital infrastructure is a legacy of shared enterprise only to be commandeered by tech entrepreneurs and influencers. Admittedly, the visible self is a more credible profile compared to bots and mindless cyber armies polluting the web. If this empowers individuals and allows them to name what is wrong in the present with the hope of changing the future, then this should be set as our standard when we go online.
But what if the focus on the self does not go beyond the self-serving presentation and the real aspiration consists of nothing more than projecting a spectacle that claims to offer a deeper meaning? When does amplifying our relevance ends so we can begin mentioning the Project, the Cause, the Event? The internet lures us to be enamored with our voice that we tend to forget how advancing an agenda without drowning other voices is possible, and even desirable.
Self-aggrandizement is normalized internet behavior and this alters our perception and methods of doing politics. We adopt tools and develop habits that aim to generate metrics validating visibility, attention, and audience engagement. Political impact is equated with virality. Trends are concocted via sensational hashtags mobilizing individuals to crowdsource a campaign.
There are outstanding examples of how online activism produces a real impact in communities, especially if bureaucracies are persuaded to implement reforms. However, these successes are hard to replicate. Convincing internet users to do more that can disrupt the dynamics of power is even more difficult. Indeed, the influencer wannabes might ask: Why should they persist with others if as individuals they have already made their point? And what’s the use of collaborations if these will blur their unique contributions?
What kind of politics will survive if it’s reformatted into what is viable on social media? It isn’t enough to combine online and offline formulas. We should probe the assumptions that underpin this so-called new type of political organizing. We have to emphasize that not all our activities should end up in a meme, hashtag, category, or trend. The reach of politics cannot be reduced into something that can be counted or predicted by artificial intelligence. Our work is not to inflate attention especially to ourselves and echo what is already known and popular. It is often or it should be about the relentless struggle to define and fight on behalf of what is unnamable, uncategorizable, and even a taboo in the present.
It is a painstaking learning and unlearning process that will take time before results are known. It can never be an ephemeral trend that can appear and disappear but made no difference in the lives of many. It is certainly not about building an army of influencers whose excessive love of self is anathema to our notion of making democracy work for everybody. It eschews selfish individualism and superstar syndrome in favor of an ethic promoting less of self for the emergence of selfless empowered individuals who diligently connect with others in order to build multiple networks of resistance.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: email@example.com