Cats be damned: Social media and social responsibility

Published : 30 March 2013, 01:32 PM
Updated : 30 March 2013, 01:32 PM

"Is your country on the verge of a civil war?" asked a meticulously dressed diplomat.

I was confused for a second, thinking this person may have thought that I was from Kenya, or may be Somalia.
Then I realised that she was asking me about Bangladesh. Her understated French accent did not blunt the dire insinuation of the question.

So I took a deep breath and asked her calmly what gave her such an idea, as Bangladesh has long had a steady relationship with volatility without going overboard, without falling off into the abyss of a civil war.

She simply replied, "Facebook."

Apparently (according to Facebook, shoddy news outlets, Former Dictator turned 'Moustache' model HM Ershad, and one reputable human rights organization, that is), Bangladesh is on the verge of a civil war. I was surprised to learn this.

In my idle time, I mimic the acrobatics of a Facebook addict and go through the posts that inhibit, coerce, bewilder and engulf my online time with videos that range from cute cats to political violence. In the last six weeks, I have seen a sharp drop in cat videos, proclamations of personal excellence, selfies in front of Hatirjheel; and a steady rise in talk of an impending civil war.

The mood of the online mob has shifted, from trivial to toxic. They say we are on the verge of a civil war, (cats and data) be damned!

However, civil war does not just happen. There is a booming and ever-expanding research tradition in war theory about the causes of civil war. As civil wars have been so destructive these last three decades, they have garnered a lot of attention from war theorists. So when we hear of impending civil wars, we do not simply sit around and frown, we pull out our data sets, look at our predictive models, and dissect the common/necessary/sufficient conditions of this phenomenon.

Civil war starts with a rebellion. So the emergence of a rebel group that has no vested interest in the status quo tends to be one of the major indicators of an impending civil war. A group of people disinterested in the system or against the prevailing order plays a role but requires some level of substantive influence (in the form of numbers or otherwise) to move a country from peace to civil war.

The war theory concerning this matter stems from a structural understanding of nation-states. "Greed versus Grievances" is what theorists like Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler suggest to explain how a civil war starts. While there are disagreements on the matter like any other science, it is still a foundational theory with much explanatory power. So a lot of the literature that has come out of the field came out using this explanatory model. With it, we are more able to understand and explain civil war than we were before, when war was viewed mostly as an inter-state phenomenon as opposed to an intra-state incident.

The Greed versus Grievances model has been used as a jumping off point for many theorists either trying to prove its empirical assessment or to disprove it. However, if we look at the evidence on the ground, some of the major reasons why a country falls to civil war remain fairly consistent across the board.

First and foremost, ethnic cleavages play a prominent role in starting a civil war. In cases like Bosnia and Rwanda, such cleavages ended up being the precursor to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Poverty also plays a major role. It is consistently present in countries that eventually succumb to civil war.

Ethnic identity and resource scarcity coupled together contribute to ideas of ethnic victimhood and fuel hatred of the other (religious, social, ethnic differences become amplified during this process). So countries that have severe identity issues like Pakistan and Iraq are always flirting with disintegration.

Now, enough theory…how about Bangladesh? What does the projection data suggest? Are we on the verge of a civil war? Is Facebook right? And should we care if our friends in both high and low places think we are reaching a tipping point?

Let me first confess that being Bangladeshi, I have a certain bias that is entrenched within my own psyche. I like curried eggs, cricket during the monsoon, and despite having no real religious attachment shut off the stereo when my father is praying. So obviously, part of me would never want to admit that we are reaching a point of no return. So I was extra careful when I started looking at the data to see where we might stand in the progression of failed states. In the scientific circle we call it covering our behinds.

Well, I am happy to report that we are nowhere near a civil war. After examining all the general indicators, from food security to small arms ownership, I find that the data suggests that we are firmly in the bosom of a volatile democracy, with most of the population heavily invested in the idea of Bangladesh. The economic indicators along with sociopolitical indicators suggest a period of upheaval, but not total collapse. Our history (despite being a small part of the projection models) also suggests that this system of ours has previously seen similar amounts of upheaval — and even state-sanctioned violence — without ever reaching a point of no return.

So shall we all breathe a sigh of relief and ignore the media and social media which have been painting a picture of a country on the verge of a complete collapse, like Central African Republic or DR Congo? We should not. Despite general indicators, media and social media play a prominent role in instigating perceptions that may or may not be true. If we are lax in terms of rejecting myths, the myths start polluting the collective psyche to the point where people start believing the myths. So this constant barrage of civil war talk is not only factually wrong but also factually dangerous, and it serves vested interests that would rather have fear dictating our discourse than rational, transparent thought.

So to sum up, no, we are not having a civil war, stop suggesting we are, as that is not helpful, and you may very well start one with your myths and gossip. After all, this is the same country that had a religious riot in Ramu because some halfwits were told that someone insulted the prophet on facebook. So I expect responsible people to do their job as in act responsibly because the irresponsible portion of our population has been consistently and predictably quite irresponsible.

Back to the story with the diplomat, which ends with my telling her emphatically that we are not on the verge of a civil war. I said that as a matter of fact, with certainty, with no data to support it at that point. I knew the answer in my heart first and double-checked the data afterwards.

Being skeptical about the information we receive will serve us well. We have been bamboozled enough by many a con artists who have seduced us with the grandeur and shortcuts of hatred and division, while promising clarity or purity. The time has come to question every little assumption that is being thrown at us, assumptions without data, without rational thought, assumptions that are product of blind acceptance of religious 'purity'. If there was ever a time to rely on data, not hearsay, this would be it. Bring back the cats!

Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a war theorist and a visiting researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development, Harvard University.