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Social media, a blessing or a curse?

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Social media is increasingly becoming part of our lives, and many of us feel we need to stay connected with it. But what might be some of the unintended consequences of these new platforms?

The nature of mediums, or methods of communication, have played a vital role in human development. Their importance is demonstrated by their connection to the messages that Allah sent to humankind; from speaking directly to Moses, to ordering Zechariah and Maryam to stop talking, and finally to reintroducing the message of Islam with the word, “Read!” (96:1). Such was the inauguration of the divine revelation to be communicated to all people through a written, recited, and preserved Book.

In an age where human interactions are shaped more by social media than by personal contact, one must wonder what effects this medium will have on humanity. Appreciating the power and pitfalls of mediums in general, and social media in particular, can help us avoid utilizing this new communication tool for evil. The essence of social media is in the features of easily sharing content and reaching any place in the world with an internet connection. These features, unless consciously regulated, have a strong tendency to violate two major values in Islam.

The first Islamic value violated on social media is truthfulness and integrity. Muslims must not spread information without verifying its authenticity and evaluating its potential value and impact. Unverified information is likely to be misinformation or, put differently, lies. In this regards, Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) says the reckless sharing of questionable information is enough sin to condemn someone in the Hereafter:

كَفَى بِالْمَرْءِ كَذِبًا أَنْ يُحَدِّثَ بِكُلِّ مَا سَمِعَ

It is enough falsehood for someone to speak of everything he hears.

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 5

The serious implications in the ability to mistakenly spread falsehood around the world at the click of a button are obvious, to say the least. The other danger of spreading information in this manner is because of its ability to negatively influence people’s thoughts. Social media helps to amplify the power of speech, whether good or bad, so to understand the potential power of social media we need to understand the potential power of speech.

The medium of speech is a means of expressing one’s owns thoughts and also affecting others. Most of our actions are preceded and influenced by something we have heard. For example, the sequence of first being affected by speech and then expressing thought is an important process in the voluntary night prayers. As Allah says in the Quran, listening to Allah’s revelation at night, when there is less distraction and activity, facilitates the meaning of the verses to better settle in the heart and then be reflected upon:

إِنَّ نَاشِئَةَ اللَّيْلِ هِيَ أَشَدُّ وَطْئاً وَأَقْوَمُ قِيلاً

Verily, the hours of the night are more effective for concurrence of heart and more suitable for words.

Surat al-Muzammil 73:6

The second part of the verse implies that listening to speech alters one’s thoughts and after the meanings are internalized, one can reason through them and then utter his own speech in reaction. The speech that is uttered here is a function of not only one’s independent thought process, but also of the words that he allowed himself to hear. When speech is abused by listening to rumors, false information, and lies, it also makes those false meanings settle in the heart.

The ability of ignorant, irrelevant, or vain speech to drastically influence us away from truth is the reason why Allah orders us not to contribute to ignorant speech in any way. Engaging in such a negative discourse is ultimately counter-productive regardless of what we say; our participation only feeds into the false medium. Rather, the true Islamic response is to wish peace upon those sucked into such a negative discourse and to leave them alone:

وَعِبَادُ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الَّذِينَ يَمْشُونَ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ هَوْنًا وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا

The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace!

Surat al-Furqan 25:63

Disengaging from a negative discourse might be interpreted as an act of arrogance or weakness, but as Allah says it is really an act of humility. Often people get involved in such arguments out of concern for their own ego and sense of self-pride, the need to be “right.” Instead, the Prophet (ṣ) advised us to leave such arguments even if we are correct:

أَنَا زَعِيمٌ بِبَيْتٍ فِي رَبَضِ الْجَنَّةِ لِمَنْ تَرَكَ الْمِرَاءَ وَإِنْ كَانَ مُحِقًّا وَبِبَيْتٍ فِي وَسَطِ الْجَنَّةِ لِمَنْ تَرَكَ الْكَذِبَ وَإِنْ كَانَ مَازِحًا وَبِبَيْتٍ فِي أَعْلَى الْجَنَّةِ لِمَنْ حَسَّنَ خُلُقَهُ

I guarantee a house on the outskirts of Paradise for one who leaves arguments even if he is right, and a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lies even when joking, and a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who makes his character excellent.

Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4800

We are not only affected by what we hear, but also by what we say. The power of speech is that it is a precursor to any action. As we humans can only reason through language, our speech is a reflection of our thoughts, actions, and intentions. The Prophet (ṣ) explained that what is in the heart affects what we say, and what we say leads to concrete actions:

لَا يَسْتَقِيمُ إِيمَانُ عَبْدٍ حَتَّى يَسْتَقِيمَ قَلْبُهُ وَلَا يَسْتَقِيمُ قَلْبُهُ حَتَّى يَسْتَقِيمَ لِسَانُهُ وَلَا يَدْخُلُ رَجُلٌ الْجَنَّةَ لَا يَأْمَنُ جَارُهُ بَوَائِقَهُ

The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, and his heart is not upright until his tongue is upright. A man will not enter Paradise if his neighbor is not secure from his evil.

Musnad Aḥmad 12636

Hence, whether we acknowledge it or not, the content we share and consume via social media has a tremendous effect on us. Even passively consuming negative content, without engaging it or posting about it, can end up harming us.

The second Islamic value violated on social media is privacy. Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) advised us to not to concern ourselves with the private lives of others or with what is none of our business:

إِنَّ مِنْ حُسْنِ إِسْلَامِ الْمَرْءِ تَرْكَهُ مَا لَا يَعْنِيهِ

Verily, part of perfection in Islam is for a person to leave what does not concern him.

Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2318

On one occasion, a companion to the Prophet had passed away and a man said about him, “Receive glad tidings of Paradise!” The Prophet (ṣ) corrected the man and he said:

أَوَلَا تَدْرِي فَلَعَلَّهُ تَكَلَّمَ فِيمَا لَا يَعْنِيهِ أَوْ بَخِلَ بِمَا لَا يَنْقُصُهُ

Certainly you do not know, for perhaps he spoke of what does not concern him or he was miserly with what would not disadvantage him.

Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2316

We learn from this tradition that not only can we not be sure of anyone’s ultimate fate in the Hereafter, but also that excessive discussion of what should be private might endanger our chances to reach Paradise. Seemingly benign gossip and exchanging rumors is, in reality, incredibly harmful in this life and in the Hereafter.

On social media, people have the ability to share parts of their lives that should remain private – their innermost thoughts easily made public, reckless statements made without forethought. How many people have lost their jobs and ruined themselves for saying something on social media they should have kept to themselves!

People also erode their own family relationships by publicizing what should be private family affairs. Moreover, people are given expansive access to the private lives of others, whether the information was presented willingly or leaked via hacking. Much of what we see on social media, and in the media more generally, are things we simply should not concern ourselves with. At best it is a waste of time; at worst it leads to destructive sins.

The value of privacy can be easily understood as part of the universal principle of duality in creation; an important concept in monotheism. All things are held together in pairs: male and female are required to birth new life, protons and electrons are needed to hold atoms together, the variation of heat and cold rejuvenates the cycle of life, and so on. In the same way, public and private spheres serve complementary roles in society. The integrity of each sphere is directly related to the health of society. With the erosion of privacy via social media, this natural balance is disrupted and the integrity of our personal relationships, which should be protected in the private sphere, are in peril.

But perhaps the most dangerous part of social media is that it is not conducive to truth. The medium itself has two features that give an edge to falsehood over truth: it is instantaneous and fragmented. Writing by nature is not instantaneous, or at least it should not be. It usually takes some time and consideration for information to be processed before it can be written down. Nevertheless, posting on social media is closer to speech than it is to writing. Social media platforms are based on short sentences, abbreviated words, and pictorial expressions (i.e. emojis) that give it an instantaneous nature. To be successful on social media, the posts need to be as fast as real events to keep up with the day’s latest scandal and freshest outrage. As it is said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

The fragmented nature of social media also lends itself to falsehood. Unlike a book, each post is not required to be consistent with the one before it. Media personalities are always contradicting themselves and violating their stated principles because of the tendency to think in terms of posts instead of continuous discourse.

As truth is both continuous and consistent, these instantaneous and fragmented features of social media will always make the truth more difficult to spread than falsehood. The epidemic of fake news and misinformation currently plaguing the web environment is a direct consequence of the very nature of this medium. This also leads us to a very interesting proposition. Since the platform is usually biased toward falsehood, then maybe the best way to counter false news is not to engage it at all; rather to disconnect!

That said, social media cannot be entirely ignored. We live in an information age that is both beneficial and dangerous. No doubt the advent of the internet, and social media, has allowed the widespread sharing of books and authentic knowledge. However, we need to be extremely careful with the use of these new mediums, as well as any new communication technology to be developed in the future. It has been used to support false narratives, erode our privacy, and even change how we think and relate to each other. Yet social is media is a tool, just like fire. Fire can save lives, but left unchecked it can cause rapid destruction.  The way we use the platform determines what we gain or lose from it. However, due to its instantaneous and fragmented nature, it means we must be very deliberate in how it is used or else its harms will greatly exceed its benefits.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.