Are we mindful of our words on social media? Do we think before spitting out our comments?

The advancement of information technology and the profusion of social media are surely the most significant developments of our time. They have changed how we process our thoughts, communicate with others and live our lives. No doubt many great positive changes have come about due to IT and social media developments. Yet, they have also caused serious disruptions to human thought and behaviour, and many are alarmed by the negative use of social media space and tools. We have seen how media platforms such as Bhutan Times and Bhutanomics were used for character assassination and malicious gossip, and many Facebook forums and Wechat groups today are filled with trolls and defamatory material.

As the election season begins, we become even more wary of malicious speech. Authorities are even exploring ways to trace the identity of persons who write libelous posts. But how viable or acceptable is such a solution of surveillance and prosecution, which could adversely affect our freedom of speech? A better way to tackle this problem may be in reappropriating our timeless moral and ethical values regarding speech. As Buddhists, we are all very familiar with the concept of the ten negative actions (མི་དགེ་བ་བཅུ་) and their counterparts, the ten positive actions (དགེ་བ་བཅུ་). Many of us chant this in our daily prayers and strongly believe in achieving happiness by accumulating the positive actions (དགེ་སྒྲུབ་) and avoid suffering by eschewing the negative actions (སྡིག་སྤོང་).

The Buddha points out that there are four types of negative speech, which could lead to terrible karmic consequences. The first is untrue speech (རྫུན་སྨྲ་བ་), including telling a lie, encouraging a lie or taking pleasure in it. Many things we hear on social media are untrue. Some lie blatantly while others exaggerate or paint a biased picture. How often we like, share and comment on such posts, especially when it comes from someone we know, without even checking the facts and accuracy? This is also true with poor reporting in mainstream media.

The second negative speech is slander (ཕྲ་མ་), including sowing discord, libel, encouraging defamation and enjoying it. Many of us would be culpable of this negative action for liking, sharing or instigating the defamatory and slanderous posts.

The third is harsh words (ཚིག་རྩུབ་) including use of abusive and foul language. How many of social media posts and comments contain hurtful and damaging speech? There is plenty of verbal venom on the social media forums, sometimes accompanied by denigrating illustrations.

The fourth negative speech is gossip (ངག་འཁྱལ་), including both useless and malicious chats. Social media groups are rife with the culture of gossip, many of them malicious and scandalmongering. How mindful are we then in our practice of avoiding the four types of negative speech? How well do we score as the Buddha’s follower? Shouldn’t we be worried about committing negative actions through our social media engagements?

The social media platforms as easy, open and virtual space has certainly made us less conscientious about our speech. Just as people are more prone to shopping beyond their means with a credit card than while using cash, social media gives people space to speak freely and easily, often not fully aware of the potential reach it has. Due to this easy and virtual nature of the conversations, there are many casual yet harmful speech we engage in carelessly and unwittingly. The advantage of anonymity, which in some ways is good for a closely-knit society like Bhutan when used constructively, has aggravated the recklessness as the person hiding behind the post cannot be made socially and legally accountable.

To give a recent example (which affected me), someone called Sangay Lhaden (born in 1992, Oxford graduate in 2003, and staff assistant at MoLHR since), obviously a fake person, posted libelous allegations against Loden Foundation and it’s former Executive Director. It is understandable that the person had personal grievances and created the post. However, what was most disheartening to me (given nearly 20 years of my voluntary service to build a fair charity) was to see many people jump in to agree with her without even checking her identity, verifying the facts or hearing the other side of the story. This is also true with other provocative stories which we follow with much excitement and herd instinct. We do not even read stories properly but compulsively like and comment on the posts. Due to the fast pace of life we live and instant gratification we seek, we have become more impulsive than mindful, and more reactive than reflective.

There is clearly a disconnection between our new habits of communication and the age-old values of speech which has sustained us as a harmonious society. Many of us have become mindless consumers and producers of information. There is a greater need today to heed to the Buddha’s ethics of speech than ever before. This is not, however, an exhortation for reticence and acceptance of status quo even when things go wrong. The Buddha encourages his followers to have the courage to take up positive speech with four modes, which are (1) being honest and truthful (བདེན་པར་སྨྲ་བ་), (2) being constructive and conciliatory (འཁོན་པ་སྡུམ་), (3) pleasant and polite (འཇམ་པོར་སྨྲ་བ་), and (4) being meaningful and useful (དོན་དང་ལྡན་པ་). If done in the right state of mind and with positive intention, whether with anonymity or not, the four modes of speech are morally wholesome and thus a positive karma.

Next time one gets the urge to write, like or share a post, it will be worth one’s while to remember the Buddha’s ethics of speech, reflect on the words, and practice some media mindfulness.

Contributed by Karma Phuntsho (PhD) 

He is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.