Social Media has become quite a pervasive entity in people’s lives. We open accounts with the goal of finding and keeping up with friends that we’ve lost track of, to make new friends with shared interests, or to promote our businesses. The bands I’m in use Facebook to promote their shows, as do thousands of other groups, artists, writers, dancers, and anyone who wants to be someone. As people spend more and more time on these outlets, their lives and beliefs are being influenced whether they believe it or not. Over the past few years I’ve watched the information that is being passed along, and have observed the willingness of folks to believe almost anything they see there, as long as it fits their preconceptions, and reinforces their personal beliefs. Better yet, if it plays to their fears it becomes even more believable. Combining this with the alt. right’s destruction of the public’s faith in the “main stream media” has created a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true, an open audience that will entertain accepting something as factual, that has absolutely no connection to truth, let alone correlation to it.
I used to view social media as a place where I could virtually hang with the peeps, and it still is to a certain extent. Through Facebook, for instance, I’m in contact with many people from my past that I had lost touch with over the years and many over many moves from one part of the country to another. Despite being a writer, I’ve never been much of a letter writer and although I’ve done better with email. Facebook brings an element of immediacy to the connection that isn’t there with email. You also can compartmentalize your interactions, without having to commit to full conversations. This gives me a feeling of connection with these folks that I value, but in reality I don’t have to invest much effort to maintain the connection and neither do they. In this aspect the entire connection is somewhat misleading in that it too, is virtual. I’m not really interacting with these folks on any concretely meaningful level aside from maybe allowing myself and the people I’m following an opportunity to not feel isolated, even if in reality we are.
From my perspective this is one of the major negative issues with social media, the blurring of reality and fantasy, which extends to the quality of information that is being presented to its users. People post meme after meme, attaching meaning to what is mostly a bumper sticker approach to communication. Some of them are funny, which is fine because that is what they are meant to be, but all too frequently they’ve become rallying points for solidarity with some political or politico-religious statements where no-one bothers to check the veracity of the posts. I’ve seen statements accepted as fact that any high school English student should be able to discern to be based on false premises through very light research and when presented with the factual information the response was, “well, it sounds like something he/she would have done. . .” And that was the tenor; the person didn’t care about the facts.
Repetition is one of the ways that people convince others to believe things that aren’t factual, and social media is one of the largest purveyors of this type of communication. There are laws about truth in advertising, and in advertising subliminal messaging is illegal in the US. Repetition of misinformation, however, with the purpose to mislead the public isn’t ethically right, but it’s also not illegal and essentially that is one of the grand loopholes in the entire social media experience. People are being misled on social media everyday by the millions. People see the same thing over and over and eventually it starts to influence their beliefs. They trust their friends who are reposting things that they have seen posted by other folks who’ve seen it somewhere on their feed and reposted it, so they accept it as fact without bothering to check the veracity of the so called information being presented. Much of this type of information’s sources are not listed or made available, or is listed but the source is questionable at best due to either bias or shoddy reporting. The more often it is seen and repeated, the more it worms into the beliefs of the folks reading or seeing it regardless of it’s actual credibility.
Yes, we are being manipulated every time we log onto social media, and it’s not by our actual friends or contacts, although they may unknowingly be contributing to the issue through reposting things. We now know that Russia influenced our most recent election in the US in part through using social media to manipulate the American people’s beliefs about the candidates. They ran a misinformation campaign on social media to support the individual they wanted to run the US for the next four years, someone who is a committed social media user himself, launching destructive twitter post after twitter post despite not even being in office yet. If you choose not to believe that this is the case, just think about how a lie about you, or someone you know, was spread and ended up damaging that person on a personal level, or that person’s reputation because enough people believed it to make it accepted as fact among the majority of people around that person. The remarkable thing about this is how easy it is to convince people to believe a lie, and then once they’ve bought into it, how difficult it is to make them believe the truth.