If social media is an experiment, we are all Pavlov’s dogs. Twitter, a laboratory in this spectacle of operant conditioning, has 335 million subjects. We start by craving instantaneous information and exchange. Time, however, conditions us to salivate at stimuli that either reward or punish us.
If you’re one of the millions of Indians on the microblogging site (which accounts for about 18% of social media users in the country), chances are you saw the flurry of calls to help people reeling under Kerala’s worst floods in a century. In the first three weeks of August, 2.62 million tweets were shared under #Keralafloods, as the state and ordinary citizens campaigned to rally aid. Donations poured in from people around the country and abroad (the Chief Minister’s Relief Distress Fund received over Rs 700 crore, or $97 million, in a fortnight), and volunteers flocked to help.
Social media laid the foundation for this mass mobilisation—but there’s an ugly side to the tale too. For one, the trolls didn’t take a break, with some saying that the floods were divine punishment for “beef eaters”. The ideological battles, naturally, raged on.
Another, less malignant but equally conflicting debate took shape on the issue of charity itself:
Donating is one thing, helping on the ground is another
A donation should be just that and not about expecting anything in return
Why name only some celebrities who donated, why not all?
Publicising your donation is like retweeting praise
The politics of giving, especially when it comes to public proclamations of philanthropy, can be cruel—which brings us to donation shaming. Something that nobody perhaps knows better now than Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma*.
The billionaire in a soup
Sharma on 17 August announced on Twitter that he had donated Rs 10,000 (less than $140) for the relief efforts, and called on others to use Paytm, the digital payments app his company operates, to do the same. The Twitterati were not amused.
Columnist Rajyasree Sen, who has over 17,000 followers, was quick to call out the Paytm founder for using a natural disaster to promote his own services:
That brickbat was only one of many, as Twitter users piled on.
“Talking about your donation takes away the altruism of it,” Sen says over email. “Much like how news about donations by Salman Khan emerges in the media.” Not only does Sharma lose on this count, but his donation of Rs 10,000, she adds, is paltry in context of his billionaire status (Forbes puts his net worth at $2.2 billion as of 8 September).