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Social media use is dictated by an assumption and manipulation of truth.
Manipulative content is spawned constantly on the internet, and we are not always aware of it.
Social media is a lot like The Mirror of Erised from the “Harry Potter” series. You see what you want to see, and you create a version of yourself that your heart most desires.
Manipulation is inherent in the design of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Our selfies and beer photos are only a representation of a fixed moment in time. One can change a photo if the representation is not to their liking, and you can usually do it in the platform itself. The reasons for personal editing vary. A study from the journal of Cyberpyschology, Behavior, and Social Networking says the reasons can develop from societal pressures and standards for a desirable physical appearance, or any other socially positive value.
Psychologists define social comparison as either upward or downward. Women are particularly affected by this type of thinking, but it applies to everyone.
I am interested in upward comparison. The type of comparison that happens when you get jealous of your friend’s awesome trip to the Game of Thrones pop-up bar in DC.
Perhaps you have felt a wave of envy wash over you when you see people living their happy Facebook lives. The technical term for this feeling is social subordination.
Whether someone is really socially subordinated by a more desirable person in their network is moot. The feeling, often envy, is still real even if it is built upon a distorted assumption of the reality behind the photos.
Highlights on someones social media profile offer a skewed perspective and are not true representations of someone’s everyday life. Yet, when exposed to only those highlights, it is natural to suppose this persons life is amazing.
Distorted information can undoubtedly be shared with malicious intent. It would be hard to argue in the examples above – some users simply desire human approval, not causing malice. In the case of online blogs, such as news sources, false information is shared with the intent to harm or warp perspective. Social theorist Christian Fuchs notes that the internet is derealized: the boundary of reality and fiction is blurred, and it decontextualizes: scattered knowledge emerges as one aggregate of time and space.
Individuals such as Ryan Holiday have exploited these aspects of the internet for their own gain.
In his book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, Holiday posits a theory of spreading false information, known as “trading up the chain.” Attractive information is sent to a small online blog to be picked up by larger blogs until it becomes big and seemingly valid news. The effects of this are undoubtedly malicious.
As Holiday points out, the only sharable content is that which produces strong emotion – either anger or excitement. Many articles go unshared for not achieving this.
Engineering information to meet Holiday’s defined sharable standard means sacrificing actual truth.
To analyze why social media promotes the growth of manipulated and distorted reality, we could look to theory about spaces. Henri Lefebvre’s theory of representational space gives us insight about how a space is socialized by its people and therefore, what is expected of a space. In terms of social media, this means sharing and observing.
We assume social media contextualizes the world, but it does not. Not really. Shared content is an inherently distorted, and is further distorted by people’s positive self-presentation and by media manipulators. Holiday passed along unofficial and controversial ads to blogs as a means of boosting the company’s presence–and it worked.
People are not made readily aware of this due to what Lefebvre calls an “illusion of transparency.” The illusion is that we tend to view space as innocent and “free of traps or secret places,” despite that there is more to be gleaned than what is immediately available to the eye.
To freely interact on social media requires you to assume that there is nothing hidden, that social media allows you to interact with a world that already is. Yet, in design, Facebook and other social media present information quickly. The entire story of your friends and the world cannot be properly contextualized in this manner, and it leads to shallower understandings of your surroundings. This is not free and rational thinking.
Simply, you do not have enough time to question what is being presented. Before you can think, another fragment of information is fed to you, and the cycle continues. We do this to make things easier. It is much more efficient to take information as some semblance of truth, and give an opinion based on what exists immediately in front of you.
This not to say that global communication is not amazing. One of the best and worst things about social media communication is that it removes the need to be in the same place as another human being. When talking to people, we need to our minds to share the same space but not our physical bodies.
However, removing physical presence removes a necessary human element. Social media leaves us with only our thoughts and representations. Living inside your headspace can give rise to wonderful ideas, but an existence within the mind forgets a tangible reality. It is a symptom of social media to promote such an existence.
Truth and fiction is almost impossible to discern when given intangible information. Saving our minds the trouble of forming reality by simply accepting something to be the truth is perilous at best.
The internet and social media will only continue growing in sophistication. Our ability to learn and understand social media will get harder. More consideration on what we share is needed. What you see may be a reflection of our world to some degree, but it does not capture the larger context. Social media can only mimic spaces we are familiar with and presume to know, and only scratches the surface of what is real.
Collegian columnist Zach Bermejo can be reached at email@example.com or online at @zbermejo