Do the small untruths we tell on social media play a role in disrupting our sense of reality?

In short: we are far from being able to sort through what constitutes the truth, whether it comes to the news we read or the way we choose to fill out the ‘interests’ sections of our dating profiles. Perhaps our ability to do so is even getting warped. At the very least, we have to process our notion of what’s real and what’s fake in a way that’s unprecedented. We’re well attuned to the fact that there are liars all around us — look at the cultural sensations that stories like the ‘Soho Grifter’ and Fyre Festival produced — but we’re also lulled into believing things that aren’t true. Ad-supported social media, in the name of increasing the amount of time we spend on its platforms, has a propensity to gently push us into cultural cocoons that validate our existing beliefs and surround us with people who will confirm what we’re inclined to believe, whether it’s true or not.

‘It’s always been the case that humans have been dependent on social ties to gain knowledge and belief,’ Cailin O’Connor, a philosopher of science at the University of California-Irvine, said in a recent interview with Nautilus magazine. ‘There’s been misinformation and propaganda for hundreds of years. If you’re a governing body, you have interests you’re trying to protect. You want to control what people believe. What’s changed is social media and the structure of communication between people. Now people have a tremendous ability to shape who they interact with.’

Furthermore, in this environment, being entirely truthful in a way that disrupts our own social media brands can be jarring and even provoke outrage. Digital media isn’t known for its nuance, and the truth can both be difficult to convey and easily misinterpreted, sometimes maliciously. Stacy London, the former host of the reality show What Not To Wear and now a prolific fashion influencer with 275,000 followers on Instagram, says she encountered this when she wrote an article for Refinery29 about realizing that she was running out of money. ‘The first sentence of the article was that on the year anniversary of my spine surgery, I found that I was going broke. And then the second sentence was, “Well, not broke,”’ London explains. ‘But people took issue with it because, you know, a few months later my apartment was on “This House” or something. People were like, what the hell? Oh, and you’re broke.’

London, who says she sees social media as a place to cultivate an atmosphere of extreme transparency after spending so many years being expected to ‘play a part’ on television, nevertheless doesn’t regret the move to open up. ‘For me, talking about it made it less scary to go through and, at least for me, is a feeling of really not being ashamed,’ she says. ‘Because when you can shine a light on something that you fear makes you seem weak or imperfect, or you know, kind of irresponsible, it does lessen the severity of it, the more you can talk about it.’

The existence of mass audiences with ambiguous identities — and agendas — is what’s really behind this uncanny valley, to borrow a popular term, where what’s real can be fake and vice versa. ‘The kinds of audiences that we all have, and the relationships with them are new and fascinating, and exciting, and these examples are people that are at the cutting edge of human psychology,’ Jeff Hancock says. ‘It wasn’t possible to have an audience for a self-presentation of say, ten thousand people that then also could talk to you.’

Kelly Larkin, the blogger who had opened up about depression and infertility, had similar thoughts about the role of a mass audience in steering her to choose what to disclose and what not to disclose. ‘I think I would be less open about difficult topics if I weren’t a blogger,’ she explained. ‘With blogging, there’s a bit of mystery behind who my audience is. Yes, there are probably some people from different chapters of my life who have stumbled upon my site, and sure, it’s a little weird knowing that some of my acquaintances at the gym, for example, might know my innermost thoughts and feelings. But the vast majority of my readers are people I’ve never met before, and there are a strange comfort and admittedly false sense of anonymity and privacy in that.’

But today, that audience can also be active — pushing along deceptions and falsehoods of its own. Or, as Stacy London related, members of that audience can make their judgments as to what constitutes sufficient truth and transparency. Simultaneously, we’re all in possession of devices that give us both unparalleled access to the truth and the unprecedented means to disseminate or get absorbed in falsehoods. While it’s a far deeper and more nuanced issue than what influential Instagrammers choose to disclose or hide from their readers, the experiences of the likes of Kelly Larkin and Stacy London are indicative of what it’s like to exist in that world both personally and professionally. What are the effects on the rest of us as our lives?

The story, it’s clear, is still unfolding. And thanks to the ambiguity of the internet, each one of us will get a different version of that story.

Ashley Stephens

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