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Part II: Social media sway: Decoding the cult of online worship


Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

                                                ­_T.S. Elliot, The Rock (1934). As cited Simon Winchester

When influencers and public figures flood social media platforms with an array of content, often without any filters or sense of moral responsibility, could Basotho in the digital age be at risk of suffering from moral decay as a result of the global trend of online worship? This unfiltered content, ranging from personal confessions to bold political statements, has an undeniable sway over people.

The consequences of this dynamic are multifaceted. On one hand, social media lets more people share their ideas, allowing voices that were previously marginalised to be heard. On the other hand, it has also created an environment ripe for misinformation and manipulation. The ease with which people can be influenced raises concerns about the erosion of critical thinking and the potential for social media to perpetuate harmful narratives.

‘Makamohelo Malimabe, a mother and a counselling psychologist temporarily licensed in Michigan, USA, is a decolonial mental health specialist and currently a project lead on mental health for Public Health Lesotho.

In this interview with Nicole Tau, she unpacks “The Cult of Online Worship.” Here are the excerpts from Tau’s Interview with Malimabe.

Tau: From a behaviourism perspective, how would you characterise the dynamics of influencer culture and its impact on individual behaviour?

Malimabe: I think it starts with unpacking what influencer culture is. I found an article on that explains it as the growing trend of individuals gaining fame and influence through social media platforms. These influencers, often ordinary people, create content that resonates with a wide audience, turning them into digital celebrities. Now, from an individual behaviourism perspective, it becomes a case of, “who are you following and what are you consuming behaviourally?” such that if you follow a certain social media influencer, part if not all of what they endorse finds its way to your behaviours and meaning-making processes. This can be both good and bad, depending on “who are you following?”

Tau: Can you elaborate on the psychological mechanisms that contribute to the phenomenon of blind allegiance among followers of influencers?

Malimabe: FOMO ‘fear of missing out’ is a real thing. I usually chuckle when I notice that the reason someone starts following an influencer is because they amass a huge following. Not because there are significant benefits affiliated with the consumption of the influencer’s content. The other one can be Social Identity Theory which posits that people want to belong to groups. On social media, those groups sometimes come in the form of religiously following influencers. I suppose it becomes a case of blind allegiance when followers are not able to filter the information to best suit their needs. Or, when they endorse something that goes against their beliefs just to seem cool and relevant. Or better yet, to be in alignment with their favourite influencer’s everything. I perceive this to be the side of social media that poses negative effects.

Tau: In your experience or knowledge, what role does reinforcement play in perpetuating toxic behaviour within online communities led by influencers?

Malimabe: I wonder if influencers are aware that what they tend to do is laced with reinforcement of sorts. I wonder what they can do differently when their awareness is heightened. They usually leave it to the ‘followers’ discretion to take what they take out of it and leave out what does not resonate with them. Which for me says the influencer has some sort of authority, and with power comes responsibility. I have come to realise that behaviour is perceived as toxic depending on the person/influencer in question. We have done away with the semantics of social norms, right or wrong. We are basically swinging it on these social media streets. An influencer can allude to surviving on water and workout and there are followers who will mimic the behaviour, regardless of how harmful it may be.

Tau: From a behaviourist perspective, what strategies can individuals employ to resist the influence of toxic influencer culture and foster critical thinking skills?

Malimabe: I wish I could attribute it to identity development, autonomy, and who we fundamentally are, as individuals. But it goes beyond the self. The sooner people understand how algorithms work, the better. Algorithms will and are dictating our social media presence. It says the more you consume this or that content on social media, the more it will populate your feed. Individuals are impressionable, yes! However, they are not without a choice of who they follow. Options like “mute this notification, snooze for 30 days, unfollow, block” are there for a reason. Think of it this way, you are basically saying No to yourself, for self-preservation. Individuals saying no to themselves tend to be difficult because we are creatures of habit. Be mindful of what your social media behaviours are, lest they turn into self-defeating habits.

Tau: What ethical considerations should influencers and social media platforms take into account to mitigate the potential harm associated with their content, from a behaviourist standpoint?

Malimabe: Have you realised how some social media influencers endorse harmful behaviours, then turn around and say, “But that is not what I stand for in real life.” It is the type of situation where they mix the poison, but they cannot be held accountable for people [followers] who take it. I have recently learned of “Netiquette” which is defined as a combination of network and etiquette. It basically highlights acceptable online behaviours, online etiquette, and online ethics. If you are going to influence other people’s behaviours, try and be ethical in the things you are conveying to the online community. Basically, I wish for social media influencers to know that if it is wrong and harmful behaviour in real life, it is likely to be harmful on social media.

The insights from ‘Makamohelo Malimabe highlight the complex and often problematic nature of influencer culture in the digital age. By fostering a mindful approach to social media consumption, and understanding the underlying psychological mechanisms at play, one can negate the negative impacts and harness the positive potential of these digital platforms.

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