Living in our Black Mirror

Is social media creating a black mirror reality through hashtags? 

The hashtag is perhaps the most iconic emblem of social media activism, a unifying slogan for any cause, for better or worse. But as we navigate this digital landscape, we must ask ourselves: Is the hashtag culture our Black Mirror?

The episode “Hated in the Nation” from the dystopian television series Black Mirror is a good example of the depiction of social media as a dangerous tool. In this episode, the hashtag #DeathTo is used in the way that people can share their anger towards a particular person. However, this digital condemnation has fatal repercussions. Self-driving robotic bees, programmed to follow the hashtag, go for those mentioned in it, sting their heads and cause immense pain to their brains, which results in their deaths. What the audience learns later is that the intended victims were not only the identified personalities but also the ordinary citizens who participated in making the hashtag popular. Overall, by the end of the episode, 370,000 citizens are killed by the same drone-bees, and by extension, the same system they contributed to (Black Mirror).

This is not far from the real life scenario where hashtags turn into weapons for mass humiliation and spreading fake news. In Pakistan, the hashtag #ArrestImranRiaz went viral on X (formerly Twitter) to demand the arrest of a journalist with unpopular opinions. Another example is the #HangAsiaBibi trend that called for the execution of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, which brought international attention and threatened her life. The #JusticeForZainab campaign took masses to the streets after the brutal murder of a young girl and though it put pressure on the legal system to act quickly, it also put the family under public scrutiny and pressure.

Moreover, the hashtag #MeToo has been instrumental in raising awareness of sexual harassment and assault across the globe. While it has helped so many survivors to come out and tell their ordeals, it has also led to situations where the accused is convicted in the court of public opinion even when the evidence is not enough. The hashtag #CancelCulture has become associated with the practice of shaming persons, often celebrities, for certain offenses or to media outlets for instance #BanGeo resulted in serious consequences on the personal and professional level.

The rate at which these hashtags trend is alarming, and there is hardly any time for people to reason with their emotions or even listen to the other side of the story. We are quick to sing the song without giving a thought to the human beings on the receiving end. These digital witch hunts can result in real life consequences such as; harassment, emotional trauma, and in some of the worst cases, physical harm. The Internet makes people more aggressive and less empathetic because it allows people to say what they would never say to someone’s face.

Black Mirror’s story shows how the possibility of social networks can become a tool for dehumanization and negation. It is a reminder that things we do online have repercussions offline. The recent restriction on the social media site X (formerly twitter) in Pakistan limits freedom of speech, but on the other hand, it makes people think about their dependency on social media. It offers a chance to free oneself from the endless stream of fake news, cyberbullying, and insulting hashtags.

In the light of this, the culture of the use of hashtags requires responsibility and empathy as we proceed into this digital age. It is important to consider that each trending topic has its subject, group of people, or problem that should be discussed logically. In this way, we can use the potential of social media for the good, instead of having our society reflect the worst in us.

Is hashtag culture our modern Black Mirror? The answer lies in our collective capacity to use this tool responsibly in a way that our voices will help create a world that is fair and merciful rather than a world that is depicted in dystopian fictions.

Amna Hashmi
Amna Hashmi
The writer is currently pursuing Mphil in International Relations from Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore, and can be reached at [email protected]

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