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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Does Faking a Fake World Make It Real?

Social media new realities

The Truman Show/bloomingtonplaywrightsproject
Source: The Truman Show/bloomingtonplaywrightsproject

Is the fake of a fake real? People are having a harder and harder time figuring that out. The implications for personality and character are significant.

Leading technologies will lead the way. To understand the new “realities” we should consider changes in social media – like the phenomenon of "more" truthful “fake” Instagram accounts.

According to a report of Valeriya Safranova, about half of kids 13-17 who daily go online possess Instagram accounts (and in this survey, 92% of kids regularly go online.) There they create curated surveys of their days – in effect, media ready digital theater posing as instant autobiography. The payoff for many is attention – look at what I’ve done, where I am, who I’m with. More followers generally means greater success.

But quite a few Instagram users have become disenchanted with their cultivated, sanitized and edited personae. To counteract their curated media narratives and to show things "more as they are," they create “fake” Instagram lives. Only a very few selected followers are allowed to find out about the “real” lives depicted in these “fake” instagram accounts – called Finstagrams.

Which does not prevent them for being used for blackmail. Part of the bedrock of “authenticity” of fake (read “real”) Instagram accounts is to provide images of “mundane” reality – warts and all. For your fake accounts, you want people to know - provisionally – that unlike your regular Instagram account, what you’re depicting might be true. So you shoot in unadorned settings and include situations which may include outré behavior.

Since what appears on the Net stays (somewhere) forever on the Net, that authentic but embarrassing moment is just a screen shot away from public exposure – on someone else’s “real” Instagram or Facebook account.

Are you getting a sense of how crazy this is? What happens when people believe their “acted” universe is more than important than their real one?

Media Authenticity

In daily existence creating fake personae is a staple of creativity. Artists have created their own fictional worlds for millenia. Artists create their own worlds. The great Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa produced multiple worlds under at least six separately named “authors.” All possessed different personalities, different interests and intentions.

All were himself.

But that was in an innocent age of pen, paper, and expensively printed books. New technology creates new forms and accessibility. McLuhan and others were writing decades ago about the new age of crafted fake lives that “everyone could hear about.” That age has fully arrived.

We see it perhaps more rudely in the realm of politics, with its gimlet views of humanity. The creation of the appearance of authenticity in politics has a proper name – propaganda.

Americans realized there was a new media world when they watched John Kennedy achieve superior “results” in the presidential debates of 1960. Kennedy was personable and media friendly. He used make-up. Richard Nixon did not.

Now we watch presidential debates with an eye to who “won” or “lost,” rather like a rugby match or American Idol. That our fate and the fate of billions around the world are in the balance appears far less interesting than overall entertainment value.

Yet authenticity remains at the core of “message” for candidates. In one party, the two leaders in the polls have made authenticity central to their appeal.

One is a billionaire reality TV star. He declares he is telling the “truth” because with all his money “I can’t be bought.” He spends less on campaigning than virtually all others because social media does his job for him. Each statement, the more outrageous the better, can be tweeted or facebooked or instagrammed millions of times. He’s already a bankable star, building his profitable brand as he seeks international power.

Part of his “authenticity” appeal is to deny the authenticity of others. For years he told everyone President Obama was not born in the United States. Seeing a birth certificate did not change his mind. Nor did announcements in three Honolulu papers of the birth. Donald Trump recognizes the truth can appear insignificant if preposterous lies seem feasible. Perception is the game, not reality.

Now his latest attacks are on a pediatric neurosurgeon who leads him in the polls. Ben Carson has made the story of his life the story of his campaign – his authentic message.

Trump has piggybacked on media reports that Carson’s life story can – in many details – not be corroborated. Carson’s story of Yale class that led him to be lionized in the Yale student newspaper is particularly glaring. The class can’t be found. Neither can the article. Nor can others corroborate his basic story of a violent person who transformed his behavior when he found God.

Yet to many voters, the fact that he knows nothing of foreign policy – where presidents have their greatest influence – seems not to matter. His story matters. His narrative is compelling. It sounds authentic.

Carson continues to lead the present polls.

Fake As Real

With the fate of nations being decided in fair part by media contests based on acting ability and flair for propaganda, teenagers can hardly be faulted for confusing the fake and the real. When national leaders are faking it all the way, why can’t we?

The problem is that reality bites back, often hard. The Bush administration attempt following the invasion of Iraq to “create their own reality” of what was happening on the ground might have convinced American voters. It convinced far fewer Iraqis. The “new, democratic” Middle East those policies helped produce what we deal now – in the streets of Paris and the deserts of Egypt.

Humans are social animals to whom honesty is critical. If people, particularly political and economic leaders, lie repeatedly, social and community life is imperiled. What you believe in – the symbols that guide one’s life, including the traditional basics of God and Country – may then look like fool’s gold.

So it’s time for a conversation about fake and real worlds - in politics, in schools, homes and bedrooms. Do we want our kids spending their time curating their digital lives – some of their digital autobiographies more, some less “real?” Of might we prefer them conversing face to face and coming home to study science, mathematics and literature before worrying how many social media followers they have?

That could turn into an authentic conversation - media ready.

About the Author
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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