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 catalyzed social media mobilization.

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.

Was posting the images necessary?

“He said he wanted to post the images to ‘motivate’ family, friends, and neighbors 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 signaling has always been around. Think engraved memorial benches, water fountains and foundation stones in the names of generous donors. Think your neighbor 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. Armchair experts 1,000km away who give snap judgments without understanding the situation. People who wear company T-shirts while sorting and handing out supplies,” Gupta adds.

Unlike many NGOs, Goonj does not publicize 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 costs. Your image is also bolstered,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the intention is what matters.”

But does absolute selflessness even exist?

Piece of mind

Academic research organization 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 behavior. 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 increasing 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.

Online donation

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.

If a sense of belonging dictates what we donate to, then clearly many of us don’t identify with #Nagalandfloods. Social media mobilization 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.