Is The Internet Making Us Apathetic?

The coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, has been ravaging through China and other mostly Asian countries over the last few months with over 75 000 cases having been recorded in mainland China alone and a death toll of almost 2600. Despite the seriousness of the epidemic, the internet, as customary, has found a way to find humor in the rather grave situation that the whole world finds itself in.

Going through Twitter and other social media channels, memes about the virus are rife. Although some are made by those directly affected by the virus to alleviate their anxiety, most are the works of people who are in no way affected directly by the deadly virus but just happen to find the humor in the whole situation, humor that can turn out to be problematic.

Apart from some of the memes being blatantly abhorrent with some racial undertones, they also serve to downplay the impact of a virus which has killed thousands of people. This downplaying of the serious effects of the virus can have a significantly bad impact on the current fight against the spread of the virus.

This instance of the coronavirus is not the first time that the internet has found humor in a tragic situation. It has actually become internet culture to exploit the humor in serious situations. From the disappearance of the MH370 flight to the tragic death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant to Harry Styles being mugged at knifepoint, there seems to be no restraint to how far the internet's dark humor can go.

It seems like nowadays, it is never "too soon" to make a distasteful joke about a horrid situation. Actually, it seems like the sooner one makes the offensive "joke", the better. This then presents a question about whether the internet is making un apathetic to the suffering of our fellow humans, a question which in my opinion can be answered in both the affirmative and the dissenting.

For the affirmative, it would not be incorrect to say that the ego-boosting metrics used on social media networks like "likes" and "retweets" go a long way in influencing users— especially teens and young adults— to "do anything for clout" by being indifferent to the suffering of other people. The way the metrics are set up is that the more "savage" or abhorrent the joke is, the more appealing it is to the audience which then encourages more and more people to make the same or more offensive jokes to also get that clout, creating a vicious cycle of abhorrence and indifference.

For a dissenting argument, however, one can argue that because all these seemingly inappropriate jokes are made mostly for the sole purpose of getting attention on the internet, can we not then take them as harmless internet fun? It is likely that the people who make these horrific jokes are merely Twitter fingers who wouldn't make the same jokes in person so where is the problem, right?

In my opinion, the problem is that when making these jokes, we forget that there are also people on the internet who are related to those affected by those tragedies we freely joke about and hence are indirectly affected by the tragedies. I do not think a relative of someone who was on the MH370 flight would find the joke about the disappeared flight "harmless". I do not think a relative of someone who has the coronavirus would find the humor behind the jokes about the virus, and so on.

One of the core qualities that make us human is empathy, the ability to place ourselves in other people's situations and "feel" for them. This quality makes us understand and appreciate the suffering of our fellow humans but since the rise in popularity of social networks, it seems like this quality is stooping down the pecking order of human virtues. There is nothing wrong with expressing humor on the internet but sometimes—if not all the time really— it is imperative to first try to think about how you would feel if that joke you are making was directed at you or a loved one.

The internet is for most of us a place of solace and refuge from all the world's never-ending problems and challenges. It is on the internet that we can laugh at adorable viral videos and hilarious cat memes. If we forget our humanity when logging on, however, the internet can prove to be a vile and troll infested place that chips away at our empathy and makes us apathetic to the suffering around us.



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