Social media: How instantaneous content is ruling our lives

As Goebbels demonstrated, keep repeating a lie often enough and people will soon begin to accept it as truth! And so does fake news become fake truth

Nobody can dispute the fact that social media, defined as ‘forms of electronic communication (such as websites) through which people create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, etc.’ has been a force for good in many ways. At the same time, though, it cannot be denied that it has many harmful effects, such as privacy issues, information overload, internet fraud, hacking.

As a Wikipedia article notes, ‘Angry or emotional conversations can lead to real-world interactions outside of the Internet, which can get users into dangerous situations. Some users have experienced threats of violence online and have feared these threats manifesting themselves offline. Studies also show that social media have negative effects on peoples’ self-esteem and self-worth’ – leading in some cases to depression. This is because, ‘Often the things posted online are the positive aspects of people’s lives, making other people question why their own lives are not as exciting or fulfilling.’

Recently the online game Blue Whale challenge became a rage on the internet, wherein an online administrator assigned tasks to its participants who were given 50 days to complete each task, the last challenge being to commit suicide. Players could not stop playing because they were blackmailed and cyber bullied into completing the game, and as this deadly game spread all over the globe, there were reports of children in the 12-19 years group harming themselves and in a few cases even committing suicide. One also recalls cases of online dating encounters that turned sour, even violent, when the actual meetings took place offline, as false claims about age met with ground reality.

All these are forms of communication gone wrong, or perverted. Interestingly, if we are to believe evolutionary psychologists, human communication is but a form of gossip. In fact, evolutionary psychologist Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar holds that ‘gossiping is what makes us human’ because ‘it allows us to pass on vital information about who to trust, and helps us bond with family and friends’. And, believe it or not, ‘gossiping about others is a vital part of life and could even keep us alive longer’!

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’, claims that: ‘The new linguistic skills that modern humans acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands’. In other words increasing the sizes of the human groups that then expanded to form communities and societies – which networked and communicated even more and more. He adds that ‘even today the vast majority of human communication, whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns is gossip.’

So it seems that we are hardwired to gossip so as to remain socially connected, and social media is but a modern, sophisticated form of gossip. Now that there is an information explosion courtesy the internet and that both collectively and individually we are subjected to daily information overload, the critical issue is therefore how far we allow ourselves to be influenced by the contents that come to us via social media so that we come to no harm. Such contents have an immediacy that compels our attention, and we tend to react with equal immediacy, reflexively.

When such reaction is on a large scale and becomes a mass phenomenon in which we participate unthinkingly, then fiction can become fact as Benedict Carey writes in the New York Times of October 20, 2017, in an article he aptly titles ‘How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media’. He describes how fake news and conspiracy theories sprouted like ‘digital weeds’ after the Las Vegas massacre in which a lone shooter fired from a hotel room in the direction of the crowd at an open air music concert, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds more.

In a variant of this phenomenon, we had our own version with ‘Vire mam’ in December 2014, when this catchy tune went ‘viral’ as the saying goes, and is credited with having been amongst the main reasons for the success of Alliance Lepep at the general election. Experts have an explanation for why such things happen. It is ‘the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that makes so many of us vulnerable to misinformation’. (NB: ‘Vire mam’ was not misinformation but a slogan – qualitatively, however, it had the same impact in terms of influencing people’s behaviour).

The same article quotes another person saying that ‘once this stuff gets going, people just pass these stories on without even necessarily stopping to read them. They’re just participating in the conversation without stopping to look hard at the source.’ Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College comments: ‘At a time when political misinformation is in ready supply, and in demand, Facebook, Google, and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences.’

Furthermore, psychologically there are subtle individual biases that we harbour such that we tend to value the information and judgments offered by good friends over all other sources, so that any information that they pass on to us is considered trustworthy and we too relay them without bothering to double-check on their correctness or veracity. And as Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist in the Second World War, demonstrated, keep repeating a lie often enough and people will soon begin to accept it as truth! And so does fake news become fake truth.

The result of all this bombardment on a 24/7 basis is that we have become so hooked on l’instantané that we don’t find time to think, which we really ought to be doing because ‘what happens next’ is the future, our future. At this very moment social media postings are reaching our smartphones: let’s just make sure that we pause awhile to reflect before we press the ‘forward’ button!


  • Published in print edition on 27 October 2017

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