The lines between fact and fiction are getting blurrier on social media

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On June 8, actress Kangana Ranaut posted an Instagram story criticizing Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker for “bullying” and “mocking” an Indian boy named Vashudev, who posted a video calling for “bycott” (sic) airlines after the Gulf nation slammed India for the controversial remarks and tweet about the Prophet Muhammad by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national spokesperson Nupur Sharma and the party’s media chief at Delhi, Naveen Kumar Jindal, respectively.

Following the furor caused by the remarks and the tweet, which was deleted, in the Gulf and several other Islamic countries, the BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal. Indian Embassy in Qatar released a superficial statement stating that she is only a “fringe element” and that her words do not represent the views of the government. The BJP too issued a press release distancing himself from her remarks but without naming her.

Vashudev threw himself into the controversy by tweeting a video that called on Indians to boycott Qatar Airways to teach that nation a lesson – in his words, answer their ‘brick’ with a ‘stone’. Coming soon #BycottQatarAirways” (sic) was trending in India with around 1,70,000 users tweeting or retweeting the video.

Soon, a video parody showing Baker “asking Vashudev to take up this boycott call” in an interview with an Al Jazeera reporter went viral.

Ranaut, infamous for his controversial remarks, deemed the video to be authentic and criticized the CEO. After news reports highlighted Ranaut’s reaction to the parody video, the actress deleted the story from Instagram.

Social media plays an important role in society, has the ability to blur the lines between reality and satire, and restructure our engagement with the people around us.

Should Ranaut have known better than to believe the parody video? Of course she should have. But the question misses a very important point. The world of social media doesn’t necessarily assume that what one is sharing is true or real, but whether it has outraged the sharer and will trigger the indignation of others. Sure, being caught lying is bad, and being tricked might be worse, but then you can just do what she did: delete the post and never acknowledge it again.

What has changed with the increasing proliferation of social media in our lives is that the individual is no longer just that – an individual – but also a living advertisement for themselves. The individual is a brand as much as a person, and the value of that brand is measured in how much attention they can direct in a particular direction using a social media platform. Every statement and message serves to cement that brand’s value and commitment to a set of beliefs or ideologies.

There was a period, maybe 10 years ago, when this democratization of news production seemed like an unequivocally good thing. For example, when social media was used to both generate popular support and organize the Arab Spring. Of course, newspapers and television and radio news have always been beholden to their advertisers, to those who provide the capital for their operation, but perhaps less insidiously. There was, and to some extent still is, a sense that some institutions work in the public interest, or at the very least operate under public scrutiny, and that their claims are grounded in reality.

Now, since everyone can – and does – generate “content”, separating what has been shared without enough context seems harder than ever. With so much material constantly being produced, no one can watch it all to judge its veracity. We cannot reliably discern whether someone knows what they are talking about or whether they themselves have been deceived or are acting in bad faith.

The sheer volume of information generated means that the only real scrutiny that can take place is the fight between two users in a tit-for-tat exchange of opinions that rarely leads to anything fruitful. We skim through what others have shared and see the conclusions they reached without necessarily seeing how they got there or what might have driven their reasoning.

Ranaut and others like her must be seen as operating in this context, both as producers of the discourse and as consumers. Much of our interaction with the world around us is now mediated by the sleek black rectangles of our phones. Our friends are there, and so is our work, and a relentless stream of (mostly) bad news cries out for our attention.

According to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s raison d’être is “to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world together”, but it is often only seems closer because of the clamor it creates for our limited time. In this din, separating fact from outright fiction seems harder than ever, especially when we find ourselves entangled in already polarized environments and communities.

People have written in the past about how the YouTube’s algorithm drives hate on unsuspecting users to keep them on the platform, and the ephemeral nature of content on the social media feed also contributes to this.

When you can organize your interactions so that they are only what you would like to see and you are encouraged to interact with more similar things, it only serves to reinforce what you already believe. This is the reality we have to face when trying to understand hate or when thinking about de-radicalization.

The world is often both simpler and more complicated than the narratives favored by those who advocate bigotry – more complicated in that there are often alternative narratives, and simpler in that these often point out the effects structural power. This remains true whether one considers the power of states doing what they want or that of social groups or the power that comes with the control of social media infrastructure and its undemocratically enforced algorithmic curation, which seems serve primarily to ignite viewers in order to translate into clicks and views and, therefore, revenue.

We all fall prey to misinformation without knowing if something is true or false or malicious or just satirical. But for those of us with smaller platforms to share our views, there may be less effect and less damage when we get it wrong. This doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior, but it does explain it to some extent.

We hope those with a larger audience will exercise some judgment, restraint when it comes to what they share, but it’s clearly not something we can rely on. In some cases, their decision is already made and they are not sufficiently enmeshed in the vernacular of the Internet beyond their own circles to be able to read carefully enough between the lines to see the extravagant nature of the claims made because that, of course, or so they will say, they could have been true.

In a podcast episode content minesjournalists Ryan Broderick and Luke Bailey articulate the concept of ‘structural dissonance‘, and it seems that this also contributes to explain this phenomenon.

Yes, social networks are ephemeral but the algorithms that govern its operation remember what you have interacted with, what you have shared and liked. It also has a way of flattening all discussions and engagements into the shapes that make sense in its context. We scroll seamlessly between photos of food someone has taken and the war in Ukraine; between a quote someone loves, home decor videos and atrocities against marginalized communities.

What do we do when we see the horrors unfolding around us? If we meet them in the same place we go to when we’re bored, we just click on the little heart and move on. Combining the effects of these two mechanisms, Bailey describes structural dissonance as “where the structures of the Internet […] conflict with content.

These effects largely coexist in our feeds in ways that can only make us uncomfortable, and how we interact with these feeds is shaped by the rules that govern particular platforms. This means, for example, that when we see something on Facebook or Twitter, we can either ignore it, like it, reply to it, or share it with our own audience, with or without comment. At most, our engagement with the media we consume only serves as a substrate for our own “point of view” on the issue.

Does this mean that we are all, in some way, doomed to behave as Ranaut did? Only if we refuse to understand the forces at play on the Internet as it currently exists. If we don’t engage in this in-depth review, then, like Ranaut, when we see a post, all we can do is post about it.

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