Surviving a social media feud
Feb 27, 2021 | 7479
About 8 months ago, in the peak of British summer and the coronavirus pandemic, I was bored of working from home. As the afternoon sun began to change its shade from reddish yellow to crimson orange, I decided to go out for a walk and grab a cup of coffee with Hassan, a close friend who is also pursuing his PhD at Oxford. It was June, the gay pride month. Every college was putting up the rainbow flag in solidarity with the world establishing the equal right for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
As Hassan and I were walking past the Art Cafe, our eyes got fixated on the bright shiny pride flag inside the branch of a local bank. I asked him to take a photo while framing myself with the flag and part of my bicycle parked nearby. Partly due to the camera of iPhone and partly due to Hassan’s photography skill, the image came splendid as I was smiling in front of the colourful flag while the British sun was smiling upon us. Without thinking twice, I uploaded the photo to my Facebook and Instagram with the caption— “Three things I appreciate in Oxford: cycling, sun and gay rights.” The rest of the afternoon was quiet and peaceful as both of us talked about our research, the fate of the pandemic and our penchant for travelling to European cities once again. Little did I knew my life was turning upside down as we were turning towards the city centre.
By the time I reached home, the photo had gained unusual attention over social media. Over a few hours, it had been shared over 500 times and there are about a thousand comments in the post! It went full-on viral in Bangladesh where I am originally from. It is no secret that Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country with little tolerance for opposite faiths. Previously, writers, bloggers and activists have been murdered for expressing liberal views for gay rights, evolution, the big bang and anything religious community would perceive as “anti-Islamic” agenda. Though the majority of Muslims would never support killing a human being, they were never seen to raise voice either. Partly due to fear for their own lives, partly due to their scepticism regarding these views.
On Facebook, I saw everyone taking a stand. About 90% of them were hate-speech and conspiracy theories regarding how I am influencing my young follower base to deviate them from the path of religion. Just to put things in context, I was one of the founding members of 10 Minute School, an ed-tech startup that has a user base of over a million students. I was mostly known for my videos on organic chemistry, a nightmare for secondary school students. Many of them previously had admired my work and expressed their gratitude saying how they have passed their exams just by watching one youtube playlist! On that summer night of June 2020, the same people were sending me messages denouncing my position on gay rights and condemning my “derailed” act.
Such social media feud is nothing new to me. I have seen previously how the entire country has reacted because one of my friends had not issued any comment on a socio-political issue. I knew how hard it can be. But only vicariously. Yet I had no idea what I had mistakenly signed up for. “Just ignore them. They will get tired and go to bed eventually.”, I told myself as I baked a pink salmon for dinner that night. I decided not to check my social media notifications for a few hours. All were quiet on the western front.
The next morning, I woke up to messages from every last person I knew. Family members, friends, acquaintances, students, well-wishers and anyone who had known me personally was deeply concerned. Though I went to bed last night, entire Bangladesh decided not to. Religious zealots fuelled hate-speech inside their discussion groups. The news of “a Bangladeshi student studying in Oxford supporting gay-rights” broke my social bubble and dived into the abyss of mass-mentality. What made matter worse was a supporting comment from my long-term friend, Sakib Bin Rashid who was serving as the Chief Instructor of 10 Minute School at that time. People started to connect the dots, even if the dots were not there. People were convinced: “Ayman Sadiq, the founder of 10 Minute School and recipient of Queen’s young leader award, had received foreign fund to preach anti-Islamic agenda into the country. His organisation and employees (e.g. Sakib and myself) are working to establish gay rights in a Muslim majority country.” I laughed so hard reading this outrageous and fictional stories which were deemed as truth by the people. The irony in this conspiracy is (probably) both Ayman and the Queen are homophobes.
Should I be worried? Well, to be honest, I felt pretty safe sitting in Oxford. But my family and friends are in Bangladesh. What if something happens to them? “Neigh! Barking dogs seldom bite.”, my consciousness told myself.
By midday, I was receiving calls from members of 10 Minute school as they are preparing for releasing a statement.
A statement? For what?
The organisation did not do anything. Its former employee posted an image supporting gay-rights from his personal page and profile. Why the entire organisation has to release a statement regarding this?
Well, they had to. The Facebook page of 10 Minute School was flooded with comments and messages. The tech-startup was about to launch its new course until its former COO (that’s me) ruined the party. Religious leaders were giving a homophobic speech in their Friday prayers and condemning 10 minute school as an organisation. They had to control some damage and preserve some reputation. Also, being tagged as “Nastik” (atheist) is practically earning a public death penalty in Bangladesh. To their credit, they invited me to a zoom meeting while the top officials were drafting their statement. I did not agree with most of what they wanted to say. I didn’t have to.
They all thought 10 Minute School posting an apology will calm down the angry mob. I often wonder did they think they were apologising for something people should be proud of! Denouncing gay-right is a crime against humanity. All human should be entitled to an equal right and people should be allowed to marry anyone they love. Yet, one of the most renowned organisations of Bangladesh were trying to feel ashamed of its former COO who supports LGBTQ+ right! Because that’s what people want and they will get it. That’s the rule of sustaining in a viral-content creating industry.
Then my mom called. So did my brother. I never had an intense family connection. Therefore, I never knew their positions on such sensitive issues. Being born and brought up in a religious environment, both of them turned out to be homophobes. They were extremely ashamed of me and what I have said in that caption. In frustration, they even tried to blame themselves for not educating me with religious lessons properly. Perhaps, they were right and I thanked them blissfully.
So, what have you learned so far? I posted a photo. It went viral. People were mad. 10 Minute School caved into an apology. My family was not supportive. Is that too bad?
The next day, cybercrime unit of police intercepted a plan to execute an attack on my friends— Ayman and Sakib by a renowned religious extremist group. Shit just got real. Have I just pushed my friends on the sword of the Jihadists?
Apparently, I did. People showed up in 10 Minute School head-quarter looking for Ayman and Sakib. The true goal of terrorism is to fuel fear among people. So that people with ideas will be afraid to express them. So that the terrorists can cling to their age-old superstitions.
The next morning both Ayman and Sakib published a personal public apology and accepted that they have hurt the sentiments of people. They begged pardon. Everyone was messaging me to do the same. For the sake of damage control. But should I?
I am not ashamed of myself. I did something I strongly support. I understand it started a fire that is burning down the empire of my friends. But, should I be blamed for it? If you blame me, then do you understand what you are asking for? You are basically saying, “It does not matter whether you are right or wrong. Your views are causing distress in our homeostatic world and for the sake of peace, you shall not speak of it again.” That’s not how change takes place in this world. You should also learn that views different from your ones exist in this world. And they are often right.
The path of righteousness is never so smooth. By this point, we all are very tired of everything. A simple photo taken in Oxford has resulted in death threats to my friends back in Bangladesh. They were also tired of me and my dogmatic position. Finally, the whole story came to an end with a public video by Ayman. The CEO of 10 Minute School urged the world to “let him live”. It was a heart-touching video that would make you feel sad for him and the unwarranted situation he had been dragged through. Maybe out of anger, maybe in an attempt to separate my action from his organisation, he ended up saying “Why should I be held responsible for the action of a former employee, subscribing to a different belief system living in a different country?”
Fair enough. He should not. I often wonder did he ever feel regret after saying this? I totally understand that he was trying to save his ass and his organisation. Survival is an evolutionary instinct and it is valuable too. But turning your back on a person who helped you build your empire should also not be very easy. At least, I hope it was not.
When the storm ends, you just begin to realise the true extent of damage caused by it. Putting years of friendship, personal and institutional reputation aside, such a public feud can take a deep toll on your mental health. At least, it did in my case. For the first few weeks, I could not sleep properly. I lost my appetite to eat. The worst sign I noticed was losing my muscle memory. One day I returned home after cycling and forgot to take the bike inside. Some homeless person in Oxford maybe earned a week’s meal by selling it for 50 pounds. Another night, I noticed, I forgot to turn the oven off which can be dangerous. I was deeply concerned and finally I did the right thing. I accepted that I was depressed.
When you identify that you have a problem, you can treat it. If you ignore it, you can not.
I contacted my college and they assigned me a very experienced well-fare officer who has huge experience of counselling distressed people. To my joy, I came to learn that, he is the Nephew of Alfred Kinsey, the psychologist who pioneered the gay-scale. I have never been to a therapy session in my life before. So, I did not know what to expect. We both sat down in the garden or in an office and talked for exactly 50 minutes every week. I would tell him what is troubling me and he will listen deeply. He would acknowledge that I am having problems and it is causing me pain. But he will never tell me how to overcome it. Rather he would ask me questions like “Will doing XYZ make you feel better?” “Why do you think you are angry with your mother?” “Do you feel betrayed?” etc.
Initially, I thought these questions are pointless and I can answer them easily. But, as days passed, I noticed these questions were asking me to think deeply and figure out the root of my mental distress. It turned out that I used to draw a part of my self-worth from the public approval on social media. Yes, it’s true! No shame in accepting it. Therefore, what people would think of me affected me greatly. For me, realising this was like achieving “Nirvana”. Over the months, I figured out the cure is to just treat myself as someone not important at all. Nobody cares what I think, write or post. They actually don’t, as I can see clearly now. It’s only I who used to believe that they did. Once I had shattered that glass of illusion, life became peaceful.
Now I do not feel the urge to post on social media that often. Neither do I feel the urge to check on my friend’s feeds. Rather than having 5000 friends on Facebook, I cherish having 5 real connections in life. One thing that really helped me survive this whole saga was the support from my friends. They called me almost every day and checked on me. They went on walks with me and treated me like nothing has happened. When the world is on fire, you need people who can behave normally.
When I look back to the whole incident now, I can see valuable life lessons in it:
- People show their true colour when the chips are down.
- Seeking professional help for mental health should be a norm in life.
- If self-worth is tied to external validation from people, it can lead to an unpleasant end.
- No matter what people say, you should hold your ground if you are right. And never apologise for being right.
- Change is achieved gradually in society; with struggles and sacrifices.
I will end this blog with two last stories— one irony and one standup comedy.
While the whole of Bangladesh was calling me gay and asking me if my anus sphincter has become elastic due to repeated anal intercourse, I was actually getting to know a wonderful woman exactly during that time. She is smart, beautiful, and supportive. I am thankful to her for being by my side and listening to my hour-long rants after this incident. I can say, I am gay having you in my life. (The word “gay” means “happy”. Check the dictionary if you don’t believe me.)
Last week, I was watching a standup comedy by Vir Das where he was commenting on freedom of speech and religion. Few things he said truly resonated with me:
“If your faith is rattled by my joke, is it really that strong? Do you believe in your God? Do you worship your God? Good. Leave me jokes alone. Your God can take it. He has a good sense of humour. He made you after all.” (Vir Das)
If my words hurt your sentiment, then form stronger sentiments.