Social media warps our versions of the truth

By Will Penn

It comes as no surprise to some of us that the toxic political climate in which we find ourselves now has come from the phenomena of clickbait and trolling. Whilst it might nauseate some to have another white, heterosexual, middle-class man patronising others with his lofty opinions, this is the ultimate reality of the Internet; it does not matter who I am as long as I have a voice. It seems that a majority of people see their social networks and technologies as a tool to mirror the world around them. Many accounts have detailed the way in which the Internet and social media have united individuals across the world and have ultimately fostered a global community. Yet, as Charlie Brooker’s aptly titled Black Mirror describes, the right of everyone to an opinion that is linked to their “freedom of speech” has twisted the tangible world around us into a dark and warped reflection. Let me give you an example. I’m sure you will have seen memes such as the “I identify as a … and I find this offensive”.

This simple archetypal characterisation of so called millennials as “generation snowflake” has served to ratify the anti-political correctness camp of Farage and Trump. Yet, if you actually search for the origins of this meme, it would seem that it had no unique source; it had no inspiration except for the perceptions of LGBT+ activists, environmentalists and the oppressed. I am sure, at this point, some amongst you will be turning your noses up at my opinions. The more reasoned amongst you might say that it is just a joke and doesn’t actually seek to oppress. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that an increasing number of people get their news from social media. Equally, a meme itself is a scientific phenomenon detailed by Richard Dawkins and not just the irritating minions that clog up your timelines. A meme is a unit of cultural information that is transferred between generations and/or individuals.

If one considers both of these points, the fact that the “I identify as a … and I find this offensive” meme has no real origins should frighten you. What does snowflake even mean? It is a confusing mash of gender politics, acceptance and globalism that serves to belittle and delegitimise any notion of reality. It has become easier to dismiss someone’s argument than engage with it constructively. We are, as such, no longer debating anything tangible but arguing what we believe someone has said. We argue in a strange alternative reality where facts do not really matter and distract from genuine struggles. The caricatures of my generation as perpetually offended, grossly idealistic and awfully entitled, engross us beyond belief. So engrossing, in fact, that the reality between the few inches of plastic, metal and glass in our fingers offer a reflection that is far easier to accept. As such, reality is cast to the sideline. The reduction of opportunities to the young, the refusal to engage with the politics of gender, and the rejection of internationalism are all a result of the toxic climate that has been created by the imagined community of social media. As the number of social media users increase day-by-day, social politics have been outsourced from reality to the illusory realm of the internet. Be careful of what you read and hear online. Ultimately, I do not find the general disregard for truth offensive. I find it incredibly sad and unfair. Its offensiveness lies in that it is profoundly and absolutely untrue.

Photograph: Christiaan Colin via Creative Commons

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