Down the rabbit hole of donation shaming

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). “Such actions reek of impropriety,” Sen says.

“Impropriety” is the lapel pin on Sharma’s Paytm suit. In December last year, he tweeted about donating Rs 501 (less than $7) to the Armed Forces Flag Day Fund and was immediately trolled.

Donation shaming is by no means a new phenomenon, especially when it comes to the actions of the famous and the wealthy. Righteous indignation comes naturally, and not always without reason. The gulf between the rich and everyone else also translates to giving. Some studies reveal that lower economic classes are more likely to be empathetic and generous, because limited control orients us to connect with those we see as extensions of ourselves. Consider the fishermen in Kerala, the shikara boatmen during the 2014 Kashmir floods and the slum and chawl dwellers during the 2005 Mumbai floods.

There’s no togetherness like the togetherness of shared suffering. And when you’re a billionaire, your reliance on social insurance decreases. Seen in this light, Rs 501 or Rs 10,000 looks like an embarrassment.

Doesn’t the right to personal liberty also translate into giving however we want?

The social media age, though, has made moral judgements on the generosity (or lack thereof) of others a matter of heated and public debate. Here’s the conundrum: how is shaming an individual into charity fair? The right to personal liberty—which is so dear to us—also translates into giving if we want, as we want and however we want. Why is it greedy to hold on to wealth, but not greedy to dictate how people should spend their wealth?

And on top of that, when people—whether an average Joe or a celebrity like Amitabh Bachchan or a billionaire like Sharma—publicly announce their support for a charitable cause, it encourages others to follow suit. Paytm, for instance, pledged to match every donation made on the app (with a ceiling of Rs 1 crore, or $140,000); while the company’s intentions may not have been entirely altruistic (charitability makes for good PR), it did also end up collecting over Rs 30 crore ($4.2 million) for the cause. On a pragmatic note, aren’t these donations as good as any other?

During the Kerala floods, the writer Amit Varma offered to write personalised limericks for donors. And there was the journalist Prem Panicker, who followed suit and said he would edit donors’ manuscripts for free.

Both raised over Rs 10 lakh ($13,900) and Rs 3.6 lakh ($5,000) for the Kerala floods, respectively. Panicker’s offer is still ongoing.

“Each time someone announced on Twitter that they contributed Rs 10,000, others reached out to ask if the offer is open,” says Panicker. “In other words, publicly announced donations triggered more people to donate. Which is a good thing, no?”

This is the peer effect. A sleeping giant in the landscape of charitable giving, it’s only in the past few years that social psychologists and economists have begun researching it seriously. The need to feel part of a whole drives incentivised online donations or that society pandal list as much as reward or validation. Sometimes, it even overrides empathy as the sole motivator.

Often though, talking about how much you’ve donated boils down to virtue signalling—inviting attention to one’s perceived moral superiority. But at the end of the day, do the whys and the hows of an individual’s charity matter, as long as they’re chipping in?

Seeing red at the virtue signal

Anshu Gupta’s short answer to the last question would be “yes”.

On the ground in Ernakulam for weeks now, the Magsaysay winner and co-founder of Goonj, an NGO that focuses on disaster relief, harks back to the 2015 Chennai floods, another disaster that catalysed social media mobilisation. It also brought an ostentatious breed of virtue signallers out of the woodwork, like the man who provided four sacks of rice, with a catch—that volunteers click photographs of “his rice” being distributed, says Gupta.

“He said he wanted to post the images to ‘motivate’ family, friends and neighbours to donate,” he guffaws. “There are 200-250 trucks coming and you want to be singled out for validation. What conviction do you have if you need a photo op to encourage giving?”

Virtue signalling has always been around. Think engraved memorial benches, water fountains and foundation stones in the names of generous donors. Think your neighbour who announced his donation for the society pandal, or the friend who hinted at why she’s more progressive than you. Do you, however, remember the names on those benches? Probably not.

It’s here that the internet catapults into posterity what would otherwise be limited to immediate memory or a close circle. Social media platforms give us a space to present an ideal version of ourselves, to seek affirmation that we’re doing well. Instant notification + instant gratification + more eyeballs = signalling on steroids.

“You have people asking for selfies with survivors, or donating a 200ml bottle but announcing that they gave 10,000 bottles”

Anshu Gupta, co-founder, Goonj

“You have people asking for selfies with survivors, or donating a 200ml bottle but announcing that they gave 10,000 bottles. Armchair experts 1,000km away who give snap judgements without understanding the situation. People who wear company T-shirts while sorting and handing out supplies,” Gupta adds.

Unlike many NGOs, Goonj does not publicise big-money donors on its website or on social media. It neither hands out certificates to volunteers nor announces tie-ups with companies. If anything, it’s others who announce tie-ups with Goonj, says Gupta.

“Some e-commerce companies who collaborated with us for the Kerala floods were well-intentioned. But for others, it was an opportunity. You have thousands of people delivering items to one location, which reduces logistical cost. Your image is also bolstered,” he explains. “At the end of the day, intention is what matters.”

But does absolute selflessness even exist?

Piece of mind

Academic research organisation Monk Prayogshala is an outlier in a commercial complex housing travel agencies, marketing consultants, logistics firms and IT companies. Its modest 300 sq. ft office in Powai, Mumbai, is where psychology, economy and sociology converge to research social behaviour. It’s here, at a round table with social psychologists Hansika Kapoor and Arathy Puthillam and economist Anirudh Tagat, that I find my answer: strictly speaking, all donations fall under the self-serving umbrella.

“At the most basic it is warm-glow giving, which implies that generosity makes you feel good. That in itself is a payoff,” Kapoor says.

Unless you’re an unfeeling drone or absolutist in an increasingly relativist world, you’ll contend there’s nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself. Even saints have a right to self-love. The argument, then, that giving should be absolutely selfless stands on shaky ground.

It’s more practical to dissect the marriage between identity and online donation efforts. Consider the Nagaland floods—the north-eastern state has been no less affected by torrential rain than Kerala, but it received significantly less attention.

Social media mobilisation for #Nagalandfloods is observably less than for disasters elsewhere

If a sense of belonging dictates what we donate to, then clearly many of us don’t identify with #Nagalandfloods. Social media mobilisation for north-east India is observably less than for disasters elsewhere in the country, despite 50,000 people being displaced and a plea of Rs 800 crore ($110 million) in relief going unheard in Nagaland alone.

Facts are less appealing than narratives, and the narrative is that we give less with our heads, more with our hearts. “Fragmented groups along state lines are more likely to respond to donations from their own group. If there’s a strong sense of shared identity, you are more likely to give if others from that group are also giving,” explains Tagat.

The north-east already has a greater degree of alienation than south India, which reflects in the information and response loop both online and offline. Twitter, Puthillam supposes, may also not have as many people (or influencers) from there compared to other parts of India.

The bright side

From the macro perspective, social media’s immediacy is a lifesaver for disaster management. However, immediacy is also synonymous with deficit attention spans. What became of those affected by the Bihar and Uttarakhand floods, and what will become of the people in Kerala now?

“The real work lies in stabilising communities months after they have food, funds and short-term housing,” underlines Deval Sanghavi, co-founder of strategic philanthropy foundation Dasra. This includes psychosocial rehabilitation, redesigning houses and getting people jobs.

“But there’s no doubt social media fills the response gap when disasters strike. This is critical, and this is where Twitter has played a huge role,” says Sanghavi.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Sandhya Menon. On 16 August, she posted a screenshot requesting donations and supplies in Wayanad district—and didn’t look back. Blue Umbrella, the social media-based network she formed with others during the Chennai floods, also stepped up during the Kerala floods.

It’s easy to question why people do what they do. Easier yet to discount the toll their decisions take on them. In Menon’s case, the quest to drum up funds (Rs 9 lakh in two days), collect and transport everything from school books to clothes to medication, and coordinate with the Wayanad district collector affected her well-being. With barely enough time for her children, she also forewent sleep and food for weeks on end.

“People say ‘thank you for your tireless work’. The thing is, it’s not tireless,” observes the Bengaluru-based journalist. “I was functioning only on adrenalin and had to pull myself away, put my self-care checks back into place.”

But for everyone else, the question remains, is there a right way to donate? Is it okay to pick and choose what causes count as deserving? Do we have a moral imperative to donate as much as we possibly can to those less fortunate? Is it right to judge people who don’t, whether they be rich or not so rich? The rabbit holes only get deeper and more chaotic.

The likes of Menon and Goonj’s Gupta, though, are still optimistic about social media’s collective might.

“The generosity I’ve seen far outdoes the stupidity I’ve come across,” says Menon.

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