Are We All Fake News Now? The Promise and Failure of Social Media
Now that much of the world is deeply immersed in the brave new digital world of the 21st century, there is a growing tide of critical examination exploring the effects and results of life lived increasingly online through the enabling technologies of the Internet. While these technologies can and do bring people closer together, they also can and do drive people apart.
Everyone wants to believe in the promise of Internet technologies to play a positive role in society, but it would be foolish to ignore how they have failed in profound ways. Nowhere is this contrast between the promise and failure of the Internet more starkly drawn than in the realm of social media.
The platforms and networks of social media have done the same thing for dishonesty and broken trust as they have for memes and cat pictures – they have created the perfect viral mechanism to reach and influence people at scale.
While there is much that can and will be explored in other articles about how this has played out in the political landscape with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, this article is focused on the impacts seen in people’s personal lives.
The Echoes of Facebook’s Origins Loom Large
While Facebook is just one of many social media platforms, it is by far the largest with more than 2 billion active users. The company’s official mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Sounds quite noble, doesn’t it? It didn’t start out that way, though.
The precursor to Facebook that CEO Mark Zuckerberg created while at Harvard University was called FaceMash, his own Harvard-specific clone of the “Hot Or Not” website that had launched in 2000. Hot Or Not lets users rate the attractiveness of photos voluntarily submitted by others. Business Insider explains the functionality of FaceMash:
“The way the site worked was that it pulled photos of Harvard students off of Harvard's websites. It rearranged these photos so that when people visited FaceMash.com they would see pictures of two Harvard students and be asked to vote on which was more attractive. The site also maintained a list of Harvard students, ranked by attractiveness”
What is significant about this precursor to Facebook? First is how far a cry it is from the noble mission of bringing people closer together or building community – it’s about deciding who is good-looking and who isn’t. And unlike Hot Or Not, the photos used on FaceMash were not submitted voluntarily, they were essentially hacked out of the Harvard system. All-in-all it was a rudimentary platform focused entirely on the superficial quality of attractiveness without a thought as to how its rankings might impact the psychological well-being of those being involuntarily ranked.
Then there’s the matter of Zuckerberg’s own duplicity in going on to create Facebook (named after the printed dormitory directories at Harvard called “face books”). He was supposed to be building a Harvard social network platform called HarvardConnection.com for Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra, but instead dragged his feet on their project while developing and launching Facebook. There is a very clear evidence trail in the form of emails and instant messages showing how Zuckerberg intentionally delayed work on HarvardConnection in order to beat them to the punch with his own similar platform.
And finally, it is also worth remembering that however noble its stated mission might be, Facebook has a clear unstated mission to make lots and lots of money. The case can be made that Facebook has been much better at fulfilling its unstated mission than its more noble stated mission. Looking at Facebook’s recent market capitalization history is informative.
In January 2018, Facebook’s total market valuation was $552 billion. Then along came the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March and that figure fell all the way down to $456 billion – an alarming drop by any standard. But as of June 14, Facebook’s market cap had not only recovered but reached a new high – $572 billion. Zuckerberg himself has a net worth of $74.7 billion.
As long as Facebook tries to maintain this kind of financial growth, its more noble stated mission will be doomed to play second fiddle to its unstated money-making mission, and its many users will continue to find themselves the objects and victims of data misuse.
As the world’s largest social media platform, Facebook has a responsibility to lead the way to more responsible social media use, but it has yet to take this responsibility as seriously as it should. The fall-out from the Cambridge Analytica fiasco appears to be pushing Facebook, however reluctantly, to be more proactive regarding protecting its users from exploitation. Changing its very lucrative business model of targeting users with paid advertising, however, will not be among the actions it takes.
The Leap from Selfie to Self-Absorbed: The Narcissistic Trap of Social Media
Social media inherently encourages a highly image-conscious approach to posted content. After all, who doesn’t want to put their best foot forward? When posting photos from your most recent vacation, it’s only natural to choose the best ones, including the ones where you look your best.
When you realize that hundreds or even thousands of people might see the images, you might take even more time to choose only the very best photos. In fact, it might make perfect sense to go ahead and use photo-editing software to tweak and enhance the photos to make them even better.
What started out as the simple act of posting a simple selfie of yourself quickly becomes a much more complex undertaking of presenting a highly edited and filtered version of you that bears little similarity to the real you. The noble mission of social media bringing people closer together is rendered moot if those people are essentially fake. And that’s a problem.
For the most part in the world of social media, no one posts pictures on Instagram when they’ve just woken up and haven’t had a chance to so much as look in the mirror. Nobody shares the details of the fight they just had with their spouse on Facebook. No one tweets about the problems they are having connecting with their teenage child. Nobody includes that job they took only to get fired two months into it on their LinkedIn profile.
Narcissism has been on the rise in conjunction with the explosion in social networking sites, leading many to wonder about a relationship between the two . It seems obvious, but proving it is trickier. Even if a correlation can be made, that is still different proving causation.
But there is a growing concern that social media at least reinforces if not creates narcissistic tendencies thanks to its convenient facilitation of narcissistic behaviors such as displaying vanity, exhibitionism, self-promotion and amassing large numbers of shallow friendships.
Narcissists have an inflated view of themselves as special and unique. While they lack empathy and tend to have few close relationships, they hunger for social contact because they seek affirmation and approval of others to maintain their outsized egos. You can see why social media platforms have become the perfect outlets for them.
Even more concerning is what appear to be a growing link between social media and all three of psychology’s “Dark Triad” of personality traits that include psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. While narcissism is all about an inflated sense of self-worth, psychopathy is about impulsive behaviors lacking empathy, and Machiavellianism is about exploitative and manipulative behaviors.
Again, no one is able to claim with confidence that social media is taking otherwise nice, well-adjusted people and turning them into monsters, but an increasing number of researchers are expressing concern that social media platforms serve as an enabling outlet that could have an amplifying effect on existing traits or tendencies, thereby making them worse.
Social Media’s Slippery Slope into Dishonesty
There is another kind of amplifying effect that takes place in social media. You may be happy to present a version of yourself on the Internet that is only slightly altered, until you see what others are posting.
Compared to some, even your filtered version of you isn’t good enough, so you go further. What started out as simply putting your best foot forward has quickly become a game of “keeping up with Joneses,” trying to one-up others in your social networks.
The problem with this is that it’s a game that cannot be won. In part this is because back in pre-Internet days the proverbial Joneses were your actual physical neighbors, whereas now the Joneses are billions of social media users all around the world. There will always be someone who has out-done you. Playing that unwinnable game can quickly vault you into the territory of blatant dishonesty – another big problem.
When you think about it, the Internet was practically tailor-made to facilitate lying. Many people find it difficult to blatantly lie to someone face-to-face, but it’s so much easier to do it online. And unless you’re instant-messaging or chatting online, you can take as much time as you want to fashion what you post – tweak that photo a little more or scour the Internet for a better way to phrase what you want to say.
Lying is easy in social media. But if you keep presenting yourself as something you’re not, it can become habitual. It’s a slippery slope of self-deception behind which people who are hurting hide, and they don’t get the support they need because as far as everyone else is concerned, at least according to what’s online, the person is doing just fine. This dishonesty also contributes to ever-rising standards of what makes for happiness that no one can realistically live up to.
Fear of Shame: The Power of Trolling
Fueling all of this is a basic fear of shame, an emotion so deeply rooted in the human psyche it is the very first one mentioned in the Bible as what Adam and Eve felt after eating the forbidden fruit.
In the age of the Internet, shaming has become so prevalent that a new word had to be coined for it in the online context – trolling. The fear of not just feeling ashamed that you’re not better than you are but also the prospect of having others call you out on it is a driving force behind the basic dishonesty of much social media content. People fear shame more than death, war or famine.
It is a big part of what pushes people to turn themselves into their own fake news. It is what drives people to engage in sock puppetry. A sock puppet is someone who adopts an alternative identity (which is very easy to do on the Internet) in order to review and promote their own work. While the act of deception is nothing new, the ease and scale in which it can be executed in the digital age is mind-boggling.
Going Viral: The Holy Grail of Social Media
Another accelerant fueling the fires of dishonesty and broken trust through social media is the desire to have one’s content “go viral.” The terminology used here is supremely ironic. The word virus has always carried a very negative connotation. In the Latin of long ago times it meant poisonous slime or venom.
Then in the late 1800s it was applied to the discovery of non-bacteria pathogens that cause various illnesses such as the common cold and the flu. In the early 1970s it started to be applied to computer systems “infected” with malicious software that can cause all sorts of problems.
But with the rise of the Internet and social media comes the first “positive” use of viral as an adjective to describe the exponential or explosive growth in popularity of a particular media object, be it a video, blog post, photo, etc.
in a relatively short amount of time. Having one’s posted content “go viral” is the Holy Grail of social media. People who seek this level of exposure online literally want their content to spread like a raging flu pandemic. Granted, the inherent viral mechanics of the Internet and social media have created more millionaires than any single innovation in history, but they have also served as the perfect accelerants to fuel the raging fires of dishonesty and fake lives.
Can the Internet and Social Media be Redeemed?
There are many people who would answer this question with a resounding “Yes!” These are the people who already make wise and savvy use of the Internet and social media to further not themselves but a worthy cause, or to truly stay more connected to people they care about, and not in a “fake news” sort of way.
Then there are the people who have seen such ugly vitriol in the way some people interact with each other through social media that they swear off it completely and are extremely skeptical that it could find redemption.
And then there is an alarmingly large group of people who don’t even understand why the question is being asked because they don’t perceive any problem in the first place – and that’s the group of people to be truly worried about because it’s not at all apparent how to make them realize the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.
One clear antidote to the narcissism that social media so ably facilitates is the conscious development and exercising of empathy. Think of it as a muscle and take a “use it or lose it” approach – frequent workouts are highly recommended.
Because social media so easily leads to an extreme focus on oneself, it’s important to put time and effort into focusing on others, putting yourself into their shoes to try to understand what other people are going through, sympathize with the emotions they’re feeling, and provide support and help when they need it.
Despite narcissism being on the rise, there also seems to be a growing consciousness and sensitivity among the younger generations towards various social justice issues. Those can be healthy outlets that help people focus on others rather than always focusing on themselves. And social media itself can be used to aid in these efforts.
How can people who want to change how they use social media start making a change? Pausing and asking yourself a few simple questions before making your next social media post can be a simple but very effective starting point:
· Who is going to benefit from this post?
· Will this post add value for others?
· Does this post make a positive contribution to culture?
The simple act of pausing and considering such questions can help people to engage in social media in a more thoughtful, mindful way. It’s unrealistic to think most people could or would make a sudden and complete shift from self-centered to other-centered social media use.
But if more people make a conscious effort to start nudging the mix more towards the other-centered end of the spectrum, it could make a real difference. If you’d like to stay informed about the interplay of technology and trust in modern society, sign up for our email newsletter!