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Inspirational Posts on Instagram Are Ruining Your Life Without You Realizing It #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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It's Sunday night after a great weekend. You got your halal meat shopping done, took the kids to the park, had dinner at a friend's house, watched some football, and even folded and put away the laundry. As you get ready for bed, you prepare yourself for the upcoming week. You have meetings for an annoying project at work. Things are awkward between two of your co-workers because of an argument they had a few days ago and you're caught in the middle. Your manager doesn't have time to look at something important that you keep emailing her about. And on a larger level, you're simply not happy about the prospect of going back to sit in your cubicle for another week and repeating the same charade over and over. So as you lie down to go to sleep, you take out your phone. And you start seeing stuff like this (and it's always on a sunset).

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Then the thoughts start to drift. Am I as happy as I should be? What are my unfulfilled dreams? How do I achieve greatness?

https://twitter.com/ibnabeeomar/status/763602586654023680

This post will explore the impact of the constant influx of unabashed follow your dreams and unrealistic positivity. It is not simply about envy from seeing others' success and combating it with gratitude. It's a level deeper than that. It's how the current hybrid of success as displayed on social media, modern self-help literature, and a culture of entitlement affects us at a deep spiritual level without us realizing it.

The Secret is Visualizing Your Way to Success

The internet has filled our lives with unrealistic positive expectations. It says we can all be happier, healthier, smarter, faster, more popular, have more friends, live your dreams, and so on. To do this, you only need to follow the advice being dispensed everywhere on how to improve.

What starts with a noble intent of helping us achieve more by being positive actually creates a downward cycle. It really focuses on what we lack.The only alternative to being optimized and maximized and happy 24/7 is failure. This is why exercises like visualization and chanting mantras have become so popular. They say if you just keep imagining something positive to you, it will happen (Dave Chappelle mocked this in a brilliant bit you can watch here [warning: vulgar language]).

They make us hone in on what is wrong, and then try to offer a shortcut to fix it. To top it off, every time we get online, we are bombarded with images of people who are succeeding, having seemingly overcome all the shortcomings that hold us back (see: Jealousy, Attention, and the Social Media Highlight Reel).

This creates not only envy, but stress. In the following Ted Talk, Alain De Botton expounds on this concept in detail (I have put the text of a couple of important excerpts below the video).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSE4rglxbY

Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We're told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. ... we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it's a beautiful idea. ... There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it's a real taboo to mention envy, but if there's one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it's linked to the spirit of equality. ...

The closer two people are -- in age, in background, in the process of identification -- the more there's a danger of envy ... So there's a spirit of equality combined with deep inequality, which can make for a very stressful situation. It's probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn't feel that way. It's made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage -- you, too, could start a major thing.

The consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections ... there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, "You can do it! You can make it! Anything's possible!" The other kind tells you how to cope with what we politely call "low self-esteem," or impolitely call, "feeling very bad about yourself."

...There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious -- about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it's, again, linked to something nice .... A meritocratic society is one in which, if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top, nothing should hold you back. It's a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

Mark Manson refers to this as 'The Feedback Loop from Hell" in his book (which is one of the best I've ever read on self-development). He says we feel sad or guilty about our situation, and then feel guilty about how we feel. Because everything is so perfect (or 'can be' perfect) on social media, we start to think it is not okay to feel any type of sadness, fear, or anxiety.

We get made fun of a lot for having first world problems. Alhamdulillah, we enjoy a large degree of material success relative to others. The problems we have now are more spiritual in nature - and they're exacerbated by what we consume online, often without us realizing it. We live in an age where we can have or know an infinite number of things. Paradoxically, we have an infinite number of ways we feel we don't measure up.

The relationship between material over-abundance and spiritual crisis should come as no surprise. At one end of the spectrum, more and more "successful" people are turning to mindfulness and meditation as a form of, essentially, spiritual heroin to escape savage capitalism. At the other end is entitlement and envy. The commonality on both ends is an obsession with the nafs (self). There is a deep unhappiness underpinning our success, or lack thereof, and it manifests itself as a spiritual crisis.

Alain De Botton explains this in the above Ted Talk:

The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don't worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should; we've put people on the Moon, done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves. Our heroes are human heroes. That's a very new situation. Most other societies have had, right at their center, the worship of something transcendent.

Manson puts it more bluntly saying that most "life problems" are actually "side effects of not having anything more important to worry about."

We stop deriving our happiness from our values, and instead chase what is fed to us. It becomes almost formulaic. We consume all this material online and conclude that we need to fix certain shortcomings. And then once we fix them, we will be happy. So to fix them, we need a magic bullet - a LifeHacker article, another top 10 list from a blog, an expensive course, a book, a YouTube video, a podcast. We are looking for something, anything, that will 'fix' our problem so we can attain that level of greatness we are destined for. A life where everything is sunsets and rainbows and unicorns (in other words, Instagram).

 

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American Idol Syndrome

The first episodes of American Idol would always be the best because you got to see Simon ripping on a terrible contestant. They would take a contestant, and before the audition, do a bio of them. You would see footage from their hometown and everyone there would talk about how this person was in the school choir and how talented they are. Then they'll talk to friends from the neighborhood also testifying to how amazing of a singer this person is. There's no doubt they were created for this contest and will win. This is their dream, and they've been working every day nonstop to attain it.

Then they get on stage and start singing. The judges cut them off with Simon saying something snarky like, 'do humanity a favor and never sing again.' The person is then emotionally devastated. They can't believe what they're hearing. They legitimately thought they were going to win the entire competition.  They start crying, yelling, screaming. They say the judges don't know what they're talking about, and vow to show everyone that they're the best.

Sitting on the outside, we know they're foolish.

On the other hand, they are following self-help advice to the T. They believe in themselves. They're following their passions. They are working on their dream. They will not accept rejection. They vow to be resilient and bounce back in the face of crisis.

They go back to their friends who will no doubt tell them that the stupid judges on American Idol simply "can't handle how amazing they are."

We can see they're delusional.

Yet, if you were to ask anyone who has achieved fame in that industry how they got there, they would no doubt repeat those same cliches. Never give up, believe in yourself, follow your dreams, live your passions, ignore the haters, and persevere.

The delusion and foolishness is actually a result of an entitlement mentality. The underlying theme here is that this person somehow deserves success, or deserves to feel good. So even when they're not actually doing anything, they keep feeling like they are accomplishing something and are on the pathway to their dreams (sound familiar?). They are confident they will become a multi-platinum star despite what the judges and millions of viewers think. Hence the rise of how-to gurus and, as Manson says, "life coaches [who] charge money to help others, even though they're only twenty-five years old and haven't actually accomplished anything substantial in their lives."

We usually think of entitlement in regards to attaining a certain position or some material gain. The entitlement about needing to feel good all the time is a step beyond that. And by needing to feel good all the time, a person ends up in a cycle of narcissism and selfishness (the consequences of which I wrote about in detail here). They're constantly thinking about themselves and how they feel. When something awesome happens, it is because of their awesomeness, and when something bad happens its because people can't handle their awesomeness.

[The nature of] man is that, when his Lord tries him through honour and blessings, he says, ‘My Lord has honoured me,’ but when He tries him through the restriction of his provision, he says, ‘My Lord has humiliated me’ (89:15-16).

This comes about not because people really truly believe they are that amazing (although some do). It is, as Manson says, "because they feel that they need to be great to be accepted in a world that broadcasts only the extraordinary."

We are only shown the extraordinary because Instagram and other social media outlets bombard us with only those stories. They appear immediately achievable. We only need to do what they did and we can have it too. This is also known as Survivorship Bias.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k7jeQQdqPA

People who succeed tend to look at the past with blinders and ignore many important factors that got there (see: Why Bad Leaders Rise to the Top, and Why We Keep Following Them).

Then when we try and don't succeed in the same way we develop envy. We become insecure. When we combine that with entitlement, we believe it is ok to transgress certain boundaries to get what we deserve.

Manson lays out two types of entitlement that play out in a person:

  1. I'm awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment.
  2. I suck and the rest of you all are awesome, so I deserve special treatment.

To constantly make yourself the victim requires the same level of selfishness. We want everyone to know about our problems, and how we are uniquely afflicted with these problems, how they make us feel bad, and how we need everyone around us to stop doing the things that are making us feel bad. Cue Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda saying 'Nobody Cares.' 

https://twitter.com/AbdulNasirJ/status/186576334003249153

It's strange that in an age when we are more connected than ever, entitlement seems to be at an all-time high. Something about recent technology seems to allow our insecurities to run amok like never before. The more freedom we're given to express ourselves, the more we want to be free of having to deal with anyone who may disagree with us or upset us. The more exposed we are to opposing viewpoints, the more we seem to get upset that those viewpoints exist. The easier and more problem-free our lives become, the more we seem to feel entitled for them to get even better. -Mark Manson

In short, we've lost the middle ground. We go to the extremes in our opinions and refuse to see the other side.We see only the success stories. We see only the top most upvoted posts on Reddit. We watch only the most viewed YouTube videos. Read only the most highly reviewed books on Amazon. Our Netflix queue is full of only 4 or 5 star shows. The craziest photos, memes, news. We start to believe that being extraordinary is being normal. This, by the way, is why the greatest casualty of YouTube is the local Imam.

We don't realize most of life is actually lived in the middle of the extremes, and so we feel bad and put ourselves through the feedback loop of hell (especially when all the gurus say being average is mediocre). You can either be super successful, or super miserable. We de-incentivize ourselves to live a life of moderation. We need to be super successful (not realizing that if everyone was extraordinary, it would by definition become the new 'ordinary'). And if we can't be successful at that level, then it's better to show how miserable we are, because at least then we can get attention for how terrible our life is.

Inspiration Junkies

The misery, insecurity, envy, and entitlement creates an addiction to motivation. I haven't gotten my life together like the guy driving a Lamborghini on Instagram, therefore, I must not be motivated enough. So in response, I am going to follow 10 more inspirational quote accounts on Instagram to make sure I keep up my positive energy and vibes.

The khutbah below by Hasib Noor lays out the issue in detail. We keep crying over the same problems over and over again, using spirituality as a way to feed the inspiration junkie addiction. We go from conference to conference without making any tangible change in our lives. We share articles without reading them to look woke even though we don't give that much attention to the actual issues.

Don't misconstrue this to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Pay attention to whose advice you follow via their social media, books, podcasts, videos, and so on. If you're still following the same people and discussing the same issues you were 2 years ago, then it's a sign you aren't progressing. You should be in a state of 'graduating' and inching forward.

We let our worries overcome us without taking any action to create meaningful change. Part of the problem is by seeing so much inspiration, we think inspiration is the answer. So you hear people saying things like, "I'm not spiritually ready to make hajj yet" or "I can't concentrate in my prayer, so I don't want to pray because then I will be a hypocrite." There is a faulty assumption that motivation → action. The reality is action creates its own motivation and inspiration. This is why consistently doing good deeds is so vital, as the khutbah here explains.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5izY3xnolc0

 

 

We learn that our focus really should be about the process. What are your daily habits and routines? What do you do each day to actually close the gap between where you are and where you want to be? Many of us are infatuated with the end outcome, but don't want to put in the daily work to get there.

Inspiration to follow your passions is about trying to eliminate pain. "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" is complete nonsense. When you do what you love, you trade in one set of problems for a different one (just one that you'd rather work on). The real test of what you love is not about the end result, it is about the daily process to get there. The goal is not to eliminate your problems, but rather to upgrade them to a different set of problems.

How many of us want to be Huffaz, but can't put in the work daily? One level of problems is not being able to read every day. Then not memorizing every day. Then it's not revising enough every day. The further you progress, the more you are exchanging one set of obstacles and issues for another. If you can't find satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment in simply reading every day, you will never attain the end result of memorizing no matter how much you visualize it, put it on a vision board, chant mantras, or make a motivational sunset quote your desktop wallpaper.

How many people want to be known as students of knowledge or become famous Islamic speakers, but haven't dedicated the time to actually study for years and years? How many of us want to be entrepreneurs but are more obsessed with having a 4-hour-workweek than actually building a legitimate business? If you don't love the process, you will always fail at achieving that desired result. We want perfect marriages with the exotic vacation photos to prove it, but don't want the daily process of doing laundry, changing diapers, and buying dishwashing detergent in bulk from Costco. It is much easier to say things like, "well I could have done that if I wanted to" than it is to actually dedicate yourself to something.

Who you are is defined by what you're willing to struggle for: People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can benchpress a small house. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who fly to the top of it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it. -Mark Manson

The inspiration trap is not a problem of positive thinking - it is substituting hard work for positive thinking. It is not about eliminating problems, but understanding for what purpose you are working through them.

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Trust The Process

*Shout out to Sam Hinkie

The process begins with identifying why you want to do something. That should be no surprise, everything ultimately boils down to intention. Take whatever it is that you're seeking inspiration for and ask why. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to start a business?

The career aspect of life is an interesting one in this regard. Many people are made to feel bad for having a career because they don't have the same lifestyle as an entrepreneur. Conversations around this topic will be about being 'stuck' in a cubicle your whole life, building someone else's dream instead of your own, being a slave to 'the man', moving up the corporate ladder to buy a bigger house, and so on. And so we feel guilty for being stuck with a 9-5 job and try to become an entrepreneur. Then come the thousand dollar courses, hours spent building a business, time away from the family to sacrifice for the dream, and after a couple of years not succeeding and going back to the 9-5 gig. Cue the feedback loop from hell. You feel guilty for your job, you feel bad about not living your dreams, and then you feel bad because you feel like your life is over.

This is what happens when a person doesn't have a strong why. What is the ultimate goal? Which problems do you want to solve? Do you want to solve the problems that come with a cubicle life but include a steady paycheck, health insurance, and open weekends? Or do you prefer the problems of making payroll, dealing with vendors, and working on your business all the time?

See it's not that one is better than the other. It depends on what you value and then acting accordingly. One person might hate the idea of a desk job and want to be an entrepreneur, and for someone else it is the opposite. The problem arises only when you project your value system onto someone else's life and judge them based on it.

What we value is determined by our faith tradition. Take the debate between career and entrepreneurship. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. The more accurate guiding principle would be this hadith:

The Prophet (saw) said about a man, "If he is striving to provide for his young children then he has gone out for the sake of Allah. If he is striving to provide for his aged parents then he has gone out for the sake of Allah. And if he is striving to provide for himself to avoid being dependent on others then he has gone out for the sake of Allah" [Tabarani].

Once that value is established, then the actions follow in whatever way is best suited for you.

The underlying theme with happiness in this regard is the ability to choose our problems. Many people become entrepreneurs and feel shackled and want to go back to a corporate job - and vice versa. We get down most often when the problems we have are things we feel we can't control. When we choose our problems, we feel empowered. The internet, however, makes you think you can just escape the problems altogether. If we feel that we are stuck in a job against our will, then we feel victimized and miserable.

Strong iman (faith) helps significantly in this regard. There are certain things we know are the decree of Allah and we cannot control. For example, when we are born, who our parents are, when we are going to die, and even how much money we make. Our faith demands that we take responsibility for our actions and our response. That is fully within our control. Manson points out that people hesitate to take responsibility for their problems because it would mean admitting that they are at fault for those problems.

You don't get to pick everything that happens to you, but you are responsible for it.

Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. -Mark Manson

One way to take responsibility is focusing on the actions you do every day. The reason we avoid doing that is because it seems insignificant. Or we have more important things to do.

The Prophet (saw) said, "If a Muslim man persists in two actions, he will enter the Garden. They are easy, but those who do them are few.' He was asked, 'What are they, may Allah bless him and grant him peace?' He said, 'That you say "Allahu akbar" ten times, "al-hamdu lillah" ten times, and "Subhana'llah" ten times after every prayer. That is 150 on the tongue and 1500 in the balance.' I saw the Prophet (saw) counting them with his hand. Then he said, 'When you go to bed, you should say, "Subhana'llah", "al-hamdu lillah", and "Allahu akbar". That is 100 on the tongue and 1000 in the balance. Who among you can do 2500 bad actions morning and night?' He was asked, 'Messenger of Allah, how is it that they are not counted?' He said, 'Shaytan comes to one of you while he is praying and reminds him of something he has to do such-and-such and such-and-such, so he does not remember to do it.'" (Tirmidhi)

We're focused on the end result, we ignore the incremental change that goes into each day. Social media makes this worse because it gives us more and more things to be busy with (see: Dua - The Greatest Casualty in a Socially Networked Life).

Death

There are literally a million things we could be working on to improve ourselves. How do we decide what values will dictate our lives? Faith is an easy answer, but there are a million options even under that umbrella.

Once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death - the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life's frivolous ambitions - we can choose our values more freely...-Mark Manson

In a strange way, reflecting on death is liberating. The Prophet (s) commanded us to reflect on it. It allows us to focus our efforts on what truly matters - not what the internet says we need to care about.

The famous hadith of leaving a legacy, or sadaqah jariyah, talks about a Muslim's goal to live a life that attains good after their death.

When a man dies, his action discontinues from him except three things, namely, perpetual sadaqah (charity), or the knowledge by which benefit is acquired, or a pious child who prays for him (Abu Dawud).

If you look closely at those three examples, all of them are intrinsically linked to your daily process. A child who prays for you must grow up believing, having the consciousness to make dua to Allah, and having positive memories of you such that they remember you. That doesn't come by automatically having kids, it is a daily process to build toward something meaningful.

How Invisible Filter Bubbles Shape Your Social, Political, and Religious Views #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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During the 2008 election, a 'vicious rumor' was spread that Barack Obama was a Muslim. That's old news. What you may not know is that the number of Americans who hold that belief nearly doubled after the election. More surprisingly, that increase happened mostly among people who are college-educated. Why would supposedly smart people believe something so ludicrous?

The answer is what Eli Pariser calls a 'Filter Bubble' (also the title of his book).

Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated. -New Republic

The filter bubble is why Netflix and Amazon know what to recommend to you. It's why Facebook seems to always show you updates that reinforce your existing viewpoints about issues like #BlackLivesMatter, Syria, Colin Kaepernick, or the Kardashians. It's why YouTube shows you ads for Muslim matrimonial sites after you watch an Islamic video, or your Netflix recommendations get messed up after your kids watch cartoons. It's why the trending topics that show on your Facebook feed can differ from your spouse's and create an uncomfortable conversation. And it's why the founder of Facebook famously said,

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa. -Mark Zuckerberg

In short, it explains why people develop more and more extreme opinions online, and no one seems to change their minds about any issue no matter how many articles, videos, memes, or clever status updates you share.

What Exactly Is a Filter Bubble?

It's essentially an algorithm that creates a profile of who you are based on your online activity. Companies like Google and Facebook then use that profile to serve up a personalized newsfeed, search results, advertisements, and other content.

They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you'll want to do next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us - what I've come to call a filter bubble - which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information. .... Your identity shapes your media, and your media then shapes what you believe and what you care about. You click on a link, which signals an interest in something, which means you're more likely to see articles about that topic in the future, which in turn prime the topic for you. You become trapped in a you loop, and if your identity is misrepresented, strange patterns begin to emerge, like reverb from an amplifier. -Eli Pariser

Pariser explains this in more detail in his famous Ted Talk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8ofWFx525s

The allure of the internet was that it removed the gatekeepers. Suddenly we could all be content creators and share our views. This should, theoretically, create a more empathetic and understanding society. You're no longer relying on a newspaper editor or a news producer to shape your opinions for you. In fact, this is the crux of democracy.

Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead, we're being offered parallel but separate universes. -Eli Pariser

The myth is that the gatekeepers are gone. The reality is that they've simply been replaced by invisible ones.

It's not hard to see how there are numerous consequences ranging issues like privacy, public health (e.g. researching whether to vaccinate your kids or not through a filter bubble), politics, financial problems, social issues, and seeking religious knowledge. In this post, we'll look at some of the broader effects that contribute to those issues.

What Shapes Your Filter Bubble?

One of the greatest criticism of these filtering algorithms is that it is not possible to go out somewhere and retrieve your own profile. In other words, you don't know what identity they have formed about you. There are signals though, that indicate what shapes your online profile.

via Tech Crunch

These algorithms have been the source of controversy as of late.

https://twitter.com/zeynep/status/770355317666418689

https://twitter.com/cshirky/status/770383020163465216

https://twitter.com/fredbenenson/status/729679839976919040

This quote from Gizmodo from earlier this year highlights the human element and one of the underlying problems.

In other instances, curators would inject a story—even if it wasn’t being widely discussed on Facebook—because it was deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news. “People stopped caring about Syria,” one former curator said. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.” That same curator said the Black Lives Matter movement was also injected into Facebook’s trending news module. “Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,” the individual said. “They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.” This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook, and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence. -Gizmodo

The data points that shape your profile number in the hundreds. It is about your location, what kind of computer, web browser, phone, what you search, what you click, what you watch, what you highlight on your Kindle, who your friends are, and so on.

Here's what it looks like in action. The image below shows posts about Barack Obama and it highlights what liberal and conservative outlets are showing. You can generate similar comparisons for topics like guns, abortion, ISIS, and Donald Drumpf by visiting the Wall Street Journal's Red Feed Blue Feed.

 

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Here's another example of the juxtaposition of two different filter bubbles.

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You might be wondering where the middle ground is in all of this? The answer is, the middle ground usually disappears.

Filter Bubbles and Friendships

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said a person can be judged by the religion of their closest friend. That concept takes on a whole new level of meaning beyond just keeping good company online.

We put our opinions on social media with the intent to engage (the magic word for all online interactions). Ideally, we should be sharing our opinions, and understanding others' viewpoints. Some evidence seems to suggest that most people do not change their views because of what they read on social media. Others take it a step further unfriending people because of their views. Many think social media isn't the appropriate place to talk about these issues, and to put it succinctly, there's just a lot of judgment being thrown around back and forth.

For somebody to get up there and run for president and say some of the things that Donald Trump has said, and to not only get media coverage but have people be enthusiastic about it, you couldn’t even imagine before. But we’re in such a divisive society now that people jump onboard these two extremes.

I remember when I was younger and worked with people in the Congress and Senate, I worked on both sides of the aisle with people I thought would make a difference—and always kept it private. But I’ll tell you, they used to get together like 15 years ago and fight like hell on the floor of the Senate and then they’d go have a beer together. They were still friends and felt their principles. Now, if you have lunch or even talk to anyone on the other side, you’re evil. How do you resolve anything when we’re that polarized? -Tony Robbins

The filter bubble creates an intellectual safe space where we retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with our own. This diminishes our ability to see things from someone else's point of view - i.e. it kills our ability to empathize.

The news feed is designed, in Facebook’s public messaging, to “show people the stories most relevant to them” and ranks stories “so that what’s most important to each person shows up highest in their news feeds.” It is a framework built around personal connections and sharing, where value is both expressed and conferred through the concept of engagement. Of course, engagement, in one form or another, is what media businesses have always sought, and provocation has always sold news. But now the incentives are literalized in buttons and written into software. -New York Times

Part of the issue with social media is the focus on now. We scroll through our feeds quickly liking and commenting on the things we, well, like. This systematically makes us more and more entrenched into our existing viewpoints, and shapes what gets served up to us on our next visit. This is why pages focusing on spreading viral content have millions of fans. And it is why the news is no longer the news.

A great example of this is the Brexit vote. Many of the interviews with the day after the vote showed people in shock. They simply never believed this could happen. And why would they, when every time they opened their phone, it seemed like everyone was against it. Check out this tweet from someone in the "pro-remain" camp.

https://twitter.com/steiny/status/746352702284771329

This is the problem when our activism is reduced to re-sharing witty memes.

From a user’s point of view, every share, like or comment is both an act of speech and an accretive piece of a public identity. Maybe some people want to be identified among their networks as news junkies, news curators or as some sort of objective and well-informed reader. Many more people simply want to share specific beliefs, to tell people what they think or, just as important, what they don’t. A newspaper-style story or a dry, matter-of-fact headline is adequate for this purpose. But even better is a headline, or meme, that skips straight to an ideological conclusion or rebuts an argument. -New York Times

Filter Bubbles and The News

The echo chamber is not just reinforced by your friends and connections, but mass media in general. Just as individuals often do what they're incentivized to do, so do businesses (shocking). In the case of a business, it is to make money - not inform the public. Taking the example of Brexit above, it's much worse than an echo chamber - it is an alternate reality.

Because personalized filters usually have no Zoom Out function, it's easy to lose your bearings, to believe the world is a narrow island when in fact it's an immense, varied continent. -Eli Pariser

Issues important to you might not even register on anyone else's radar. The filter bubble makes it so they never have to see this issue in their feed. Take this from a different angle. What motivation would there be for a new organization to interrupt a Congresswoman speaking about personal privacy for news about Justin Bieber?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtcucHPkFkg

 

This creates a cycle in which our filter bubbles makes news organizations cover issues a certain way. That rhetoric and coverage then begins to inform the political process, and in short, you end up with what we have now. The news will provide whatever the people want to consume.

"If traffic ends up guiding coverage," The Washington Post's ombudsman writes, "will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they're 'dull?'" Will an article about, say, child poverty ever seem hugely personally relevant to many of us...? -Eli Pariser

There are a lot of things we want to consume, and a lot of things we should consume. That's the difference between what we binge watch on Netflix versus the documentaries that have been sitting in our queue for months on end. Our bias to the present influences our actions. Important issues will catch a rush of quick publicity, like #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls, and then quickly fade away.

Nuanced and deep thought cannot thrive in this environment. In his book The News: A User's Manual, Alain de Botton writes,

The financial needs of news companies mean that they cannot afford to advance ideas which wouldn't very quickly be able to find favour with enormous numbers of people. .... What levels of agreement, what suppression of idiosyncrasy and useful weirdness, will be required to render material sufficiently palatable to so many...

And when complex issues are covered, they are done so in a shallow manner.

The habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run though our societies. -Alain de Botton

For the news to help us tackle these issues, it has to help guide us to the problems, and find ways to develop a common ground to tackle them. The filter bubble, by creating that polarizing effect, instead incites rage. We jump from crisis to crisis. We mimic the same soundbites as the talking heads on TV without any principle.

We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt we cared so passionately about only hours ago. At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity, we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression. -Alain de Botton

To make money, you need to get people's attention. To get their attention, you have to simplify things into basic components. By taking complex issues and dumbing them down to the lowest common denominator (i.e. the most amount of traffic), people begin to expect the solutions will be at a congruent level of simplicity. Then when major problems cannot be solved, or others refuse to see things their way, it turns into frustration. Some people take out this aggression by trolling and shame grenades.

Others respond to this frustration by shunning the news and such issues altogether. Their intellect, thought, creativity, and energy goes into other pursuits such as entertainment, sports, and video games. It's simply easier to play fantasy football, watch the games, and track the stats, then it is to immerse yourself into understanding something like why we have issues of systemic racism and poverty. Or understanding the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

By design, it is difficult to grasp these subjects.

...confusing, boring, distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganized, fractured and intermittent way that a majority of the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.

A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colourful antics of murderers and film stars. .... The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news. -Alain de Botton

We change our profile pictures on Facebook to highlight the colors of a flag every few months to make it look like we're woke. It's letting  yourself get taken for a ride by the dictates of someone else and in the end accomplishing nothing at all. It is to retreat into a carefully crafted universe online made just for you, one that defines your own reality, without any context of a larger picture.

It is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only way to neutralize the influence of the newspapers is to multiply their number. -Alexis de Tocqueville

Filter Bubbles and Learning

The biggest trap of the filter bubble is that the further we get into one, the more we think we are learning by depth. In other words, we have a sense of naive realism in that we think all the information is available to us, and therefore the conclusions we make are automatically the most informed ones.

It's like someone saying that just because they have access to all the hadith of the Prophet (s) via the internet, that they have a more informed understanding of the sunnah than scholars from the past. Access to information doesn't create understanding or insight.

Personalized filters can upset this cognitive balance between strengthening our existing ideas and acquiring new ones. First, the filter bubble surrounds us with ideas with which we're already familiar (and already agree), making us overconfident in our mental frameworks. Second, it removes from our environment some of the key prompts that make us want to learn. -Eli Pariser

The red feed blue feed example above highlights this. Consuming information built on a premise we agree with is easy and enjoyable. But consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways, Pariser notes, is frustrating and difficult. The partisan divide grows deeper and deeper. The ironic thing is, educated people tend to consume news more in an effort to stay informed. Thus, they become mis-educated - explaining why more and more college educated people believe Obama wasn't born in the US. The same is true of religious partisanship as well. We often tend to consume information that only comes from a certain school of thought, or only from certain speakers.

We not only form our opinions from the filter bubble, but we become invested in them. Take sports for example. On a close call, people can watch a replay in slow-motion 100 times, and still reach different conclusions about the right call. Everyone has a bias to make the call go in the favor of the team they support. It is even more so when a person is emotionally invested in the team they support.

The more we formulate our opinions out of these bubbles and biases, the more invested we become in them. That makes it that much harder to change.

Experts have a lot invested in the theories they've developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere. -Eli Pariser

A good example of this is stock analysts not being able to identify the oncoming housing crash. Or career Islamophobes who have literally no incentive to change their mind. Why would they sit down and try to talk and empathize with a Muslim when their filter bubble only exposes them to people who are getting more and more extreme in their hate?

When I was in high school, I took part in speech and debate. One of the greatest learning experiences of that was each year, we were given a topic, and had to learn both sides of it. This meant that you affirmed the topic one round, and went against it one round. The 'case' you ran in support of the topic was often the same for almost an entire year. Yet, if another team ran that same case, you had to be ready to tear it apart. You were forced to learn both sides of the issue in-depth.

Learning occurs when we are presented with an information gap. We have to come across something we don't know or understand. It could be engaging a co-worker on colleague on a topic and having to sit and hear what they have to say rather than shunning the conversation and seeking refuge with like-minded friends on Facebook.

To truly learn, you need what Pariser calls a 'radical encounter.' It's the same way we wish Islamophobes would sit and talk with a Muslim and get to know us. We fail to realize though, that we rarely do this from our end and try to empathize with people we disagree with, or don't like. If we don't have the motivation, why do we expect it from others?

Personalization is about building an environment that consists entirely of the adjacent unknown - the sports trivia or political punctuation marks that don't really shake our schemata but feel like new information. The personalized environment is very good at answering the questions we have but not suggesting questions or problems that are out of our sight altogether. -Eli Pariser

This isn't to say we should always be seeking out the contrarian opinion to everything, but we do need a healthy dose of alternative information to better ground ourselves.

How To Fix the Filter Bubble

The most essential step is simply identifying that you have your own filter bubble.

There are some tactical steps, like what developer BJ May suggests:

  • Find highly active accounts run by people who are wildly dissimilar from me, or who have had wildly dissimilar life experiences. These people must be talking frequently about the issues I hope to understand.
  • I will follow one of these people every day for thirty days, and I will keep following each of them for no less than thirty days, regardless of how much I dislike what they say.
  • I will not engage with the owners of any of these accounts. I will not debate them, I will not argue, I will not interact in any way apart from just reading.
  • I will engage in self-study when I encounter terms or concepts that are foreign to me.

There are also some bigger picture things that need to be done that may not be so systematic that you can put them in a checklist. We all need to seek out conversations with people who differ from us. Different upbringings, backgrounds, ethnicities, and so on. Those conversations need to be intentional about the intent of getting to know and understand someone. You can't empathize with someone if you don't understand their story.

Start making more intentional choices about what to consume. This doesn't mean that you suddenly start watching Fox News for an hour a day, but it might mean diversifying the outlets you follow online to such an extent that there is enough there to challenge you and make you think.

Lastly, we need to stop and reflect. We don't need to just diversify our consumption, but we need to lessen it as well so we can have more time for introspection.

It is never easy to be introspective. There are countless difficult truths lurking within us that investigation threatens to dislodge. It is when we are incubating particularly awkward but potentially vital ideas that we tend to feel most desperate to avoid looking inside. And that is when the news grabs us.

We should be aware of how jealous and adversary of inner examination it is - and how much further it wishes to go in this direction. Its purveyors want to put screens on our seat-backs, receivers in our watches and phones in our minds, so as to ensure that we will always be connected, always aware of what is happening; never alone.

But we will have nothing substantial to offer anyone else so long as we have not first mastered the art of being patient midwives to our own thoughts.  -Alain de Botton

Recommended Reading

Muslims Online Seeking a Religious Spouse ... or Illicit Hookups? Or Both?

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Most people are aware of the difficulties Muslims face in getting married, and the rapid rise of matrimonial websites is no surprise. There are matrimonial sites now catering to all crowds - those previously married, those just looking for another Muslim, all the way to sites like DoctorSeRishta.com and SecondWife.com. Over 10 years ago, sites like HotOrNot.com [current iteration of the website is not representative of what it used to be] were all the rage - you could simply view someone’s photo and then give your immediate fatwa on whether they were hot, or not. Tinder is a more sophisticated version of that. It uses your location and gives you potential matches near you. You can look at a profile and then swipe right if you like them, or swipe left if you don’t. If you both swiped right - it’s a match and you can start messaging.

From an Islamic perspective we see the obvious issues with this tool, and on a larger scale the “hook up” culture in general. Internet technology is making zina easier and easier for everyone. That includes those people with nice and tidy profiles on Muslim matrimonial websites. A sister who is a family friend of ours shared her experience-

When the Muslim single arena feels like a desert, and your friends are all celebrating marriage anniversaries and kids’ birthdays, social media seems like the obvious solution to finding a potential life mate in a “halal” way.

From Shaadi.com to Half our Deen to Ishqr (previously Hipster Shaadi) to Salaam Swipe (a Muslim Tinder, if you can imagine), it seems like there are plenty of choices to find a spouse. Yet, match after match, I am being met with the age-old questions about my net income and my ability to roll a perfect roti.

Then one day, I get a potential match on Half our Deen; let’s call him “Ahmed.” Ahmed has a job! And a personality! And he’s a practicing Muslim! So naturally, I Google him to make sure he actually exists.

His Facebook wall is questionable at best, with too many female friends posting comments. I consider giving him the benefit of the doubt, but feel unsure how to proceed. We continue to talk on our “halal” site, him preaching modesty and urging me to change my ways to follow a more conservative path. Maybe he is trying to better himself?

Of course, the benefit of the doubt doesn’t last long when I discover he has a profile on Tinder. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, as I was until now, you simply “swipe” right or left to decide if you want to “meet up” with someone based on their picture – and the number of miles away they are from you. I suppose Ahmed was not only “seeking a modest wife,” but also looking for some nights of fun within a five-mile radius. Curious, I started cross-referencing my other matches from matrimonial sites. “Farhan” was married in real life, and using Tinder to find someone on the side (this was posted openly). Then there was “Bilal,” who on a previous site claimed to be a shy, humble engineer who just wanted to settle down. Using a pseudonym and anonymous photo (I used a picture of my shoes), I messaged him on Tinder to see how a shy man functions on a hook-up site; and was met with what we’ll call a rather graphic and off-putting response to someone he thought was a stranger.

I thought I had the upper hand by being able to do some more research through the Internet and social media; but what I found was even more surprising. Finding someone in a halal way through social media hasn’t made marriage any easier, especially in a world where you can be rejected by a simple screen swipe. You are provided with match after match, option after option, and then a new service comes along, completely distracting you all over again. Not only are single brothers and sisters navigating a challenging new world, it seems harder to sustain a marriage with these options only a click or swipe away.

Next time, think before you swipe.

Social media is directly impacting marriages - both inside and outside the Muslim community. Facebook is becoming more and more popular as a cause of divorce.

The rishta process has been transformed. I was helping a relative with managing proposals, and it is amazing how much you can find out about a person (even if they're not your friend, and even if their profile is private). A number of people were suggested, and then summarily rejected within minutes because of their profile - and they'll never know that was the reason.

What the sister shared above about matrimonial sites and things like Tinder are a real issue in our community. The 40 hadith collection on social media directly touches on a number of the problems here - being two faced, publicizing your sins, lowering your gaze, and just flat out being dishonest (not to mention adulterous for some).

Have you had any experiences with this? What can be done in our communities to help solve this issue?

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#BringBackOurSanity Guide to Recent Internet Debates

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White House Iftar. Tariq Ramadan. Dr. Jackson. Zionist sponsored trips to Israel. RIS. ISNA. Abu Eesa. The list goes on. Everyone has seen the debates, and everyone is posting about them all over social media. In this post I want to unpack what I find to be good about these debates, along with some personal observations about the barrage of arguments.

1. Apathy

People in the smallest of local masjids are frustrated about why their board acts without regards to their interest. For many places, the root cause of this is apathy. People may complain and raise issue, but few care enough to keep up any kind of sustained efforts. In the end, general apathy from the community at large is what kills any hope of change. People may continue to advise those in leadership, but they're still left to their own devices.

Public accountability is the only form of checks and balances that is viable for community work. This is for your local masjid as well as the largest of Islamic organizations. If people don't care enough to exercise their right to accountability, then they can't expect their needs to be served.

This is why all these recent debates actually make me optimistic. It means we finally care. It reminds me of this from Sh. Hamza Yusuf:

https://www.facebook.com/ShaykhHamzaYusuf/posts/10151678503501544

To move forward, more people have to care. They have to feel a vested interest in community affairs. That's finally happening - and despite some bumps in the road, I strongly feel like we're on the right track. It wasn't too long ago we were criticizing everyone for being too caught up in entertainment and 'dunya' to care about the religion. Now that people care, let's cultivate it.

2. Sustained Empathy

Caring is good, but we have to keep ourselves from letting it get too erratic. There's a great article in Foreign Policy - Turn on, Retweet, Tune out - explains this concept in light of recent events like #BringBackOurGirls.

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Simply put, people don't have the patience to sustain activism over a particular cause. The internet enables a rapid fire approach. Click here, click there, feel accomplished, then move on to the next task. To get more real about the issue, think of it this way. Remember the whole #FireAbuEesa controversy? How many of the people who so vociferously blasted him in public in the name of fair treatment, equality, marginalization of women, and so on, are still fighting for those causes? How many of the people who piped in with their "me too" support against him to show they stood on the side of women are still advocating for that cause?

There are two kinds of opportunism. There is opportunism in using an event to raise awareness and start a discussion. Then there is opportunism to convince people you care by jumping on a bandwagon, and then moving on and waiting for the next issue. The problem with this is that people care less about the cause, and more about making themselves look like people who care about causes.

This is not to say that everyone is insincere or posting just to get likes. What it does mean, as an intelligent consumer of information, you must be able to sift through the flood of status updates and try to figure out the context of why people are posting, or why they are advocating a certain cause. There is a world of difference between someone who unnecessarily manifests outrage at every opportunity, and someone genuinely affected by and posting about something like #FreePalestine.

On a personal level, we have to become okay with not speaking out about every cause. Just because everyone else is speaking about something doesn't necessarily mean I have to as well. Pick the causes that you care about, and be active about them within your sphere of influence. Your sincere care and concern will give you the sustained empathy needed for success.

[blockquote cite="Urban Dictionary" type="left, center, right"]Manufactured Outrage: A falsified righteous outrage at things that are basically unimportant and meaningless, frequently employed by politicians, political activists, or the media. Politicians and talking heads use it to garner support for their causes, to claim the moral high ground and to tar their opponents; the media often just uses it in a cynical bid to increase ratings.[/blockquote]

3. Breadcrumbs, Manners, and Double Standards

Everything you have ever posted is accessible for someone to find. Positions you previously held and statements you made years ago can and will be dug up.

It is easier now, more than ever, for people to hold you accountable for that which you advocate. This is of particular importance given the nature of Islamic debates on the internet. There are always two discussions going on-

  1. The actual debate over the issue
  2. The parallel debate over adab, personalities, and intentions

It's not enough to refute a position, we feel compelled to also refute the manner in which the position was presented. The more we do this, the more we create the expectation that we ourselves will be held to this same standard.

Be conscious of your own etiquette first and foremost. When things calm down, we never regret making a point. We don't usually regret speaking our mind. But we do often regret the manner in which we did. To see an example of raising an issue, and then writing a response with good adab see Tariq Ramadan's post, and Dr. Sherman Jackson's response.

There are obvious forms of bad adab (manners) such as foul language and ad hominem attacks. There is another one that's a little more under the radar that must be highlighted - double standards.

Take a look at this example of someone identifying what they perceive to be a double standard based on previous internet debates:

https://twitter.com/AimanofArabia/status/498530093447512065

The problem with calls to adab (and this is something nearly everyone is guilty of) is that we want the scholars we respect, and the positions we take, to be treated with respect. When we hold an opinion, we want others to be tolerant of it. When someone criticizes a scholar we love, we want it to be done in a respectful manner. The problem is, many people apply these standards of respect *only* to their own scholars and positions without extending the same courtesy to people of different backgrounds or ideologies. Don't expect the benefit of the doubt if you can't extend it to others. Don't expect tolerance for your opinion by labeling the opposing positions as automatically intolerant.

Another extension of this issue is the debate over whether or not things should be criticized in public. We cannot assume that someone posts something in public without having privately discussed it first. We feel okay making that assumption about others, but get offended when given the same treatment. This is not fair. We also need to progress past this point of naive notions of naseehah. Yes, personal advice is meant to be given in private. Public issues, issues of concern to the community, are by definition - public. The discourse about them will be public, and it is necessary that they be made public as a means of accountability for leadership.

If my friend leads prayer, and mispronounces surah Fatihah, I will advise him privately. It is a private issue. If I post a note on Facebook about it and tag him, that is inappropriate behavior on my part. If someone posts a picture of themselves at the White House Iftar, then they should expect to be criticized. It is a public action, and it will warrant public discussion.

People will post a photo like that, and then hide behind statements like "I'm not making a political statement LOL, just got invited bro, had some good food" when criticized. This is disingenuous because by claiming to steer clear of the political issues, they actually are making a political statement.  It is a weak display of  trying to straddle the fence while hiding behind your own passive-aggressive behavior to avoid critique. One of the ironic things about passive-aggressive updates is that they often call into question a person's intentions. We know that it's terrible character to call to account someone's intentions, but we do it anyway to try and prove a point. This is ironic because questioning someone's motives actually weakens your own arguments.

Passive aggressive updates (or sub-tweeting) is quite possibly the worst offender in the category of bad adab. I've been told that young teenagers often post song lyric excerpts as a way to comment on a fight, their parents, or something like a recent break up to express their emotion without having to actually discuss the issue. We are becoming the same way. If we aren't ready to speak clearly on something, let's leave it aside.

The issues outlined here are the contextual issues surrounding the actual debate of issues - these are the issues that cause us to lose our sanity. Avoiding this (and avoiding shame grenades) go a long way in making the internet a happier place for all of us.

4. What's In It For Me?

Everything boils back to the basics of our religion. Foremost is intention. What is my intent in choosing to consume the debate in the first place? No one forced you to read everything about RIS. You chose to for a reason. I remember back in the early 2000's, Islamic message boards were en vogue. People spent their time arguing and refuting scholars. I personally know of a brother who within weeks of starting to pray 5 times a day immersed himself in these forums. A few months later, he no longer had any connection to the religion. These debates take a spiritual toll. Make sure you have a productive reason to follow it or partake in it. What value do you receive, and what value do you provide? If someone comes back and sees your feed 8 weeks later, what would their impression be?

Leave alone what doesn't concern you. This is a fundamental principle in the 40 Hadith on Social Media. It is difficult to leave alone issues everyone is talking about. Be as discerning as possible. Some of the issues are big, and they do require attention. Others, not so much. Some issues are worth the investment of time to educate yourself, and they are worth the time to use your personal platform to educate and share with others. Some issues will blow over, and you would have been better off doing something else.

Debate issues. Personalities will always change. Just because someone has a different ideology does not make it acceptable to transgress their rights as a human or your Muslim brother or sister.

Be active. Social media has empowered everyone. The fact that someone like me can reach someone like you is proof enough. Utilize the tool to its best benefit.

Make dua. I'm including this at the risk of sounding cliche. Whenever these issues flare up, sincerely ask Allah (swt) to guide you, guide our community, to help show the truth, and to enable us to be a means of benefit to those around us. Make dua that you and those who you disagree with are guided to the truth, and that despite disagreement He puts love in your hearts for one another.