I’m interested in this whole concept of fake news, primarily because it is so interesting to me that people are so upset about it. People now basically present their entire identity in a fictive context, yet expect “society” to somehow be above what they themselves are not above.
To backtrack. I remember, having worked in the world of consumer magazines before the rise of social media, thinking that facebook was allowing people to display their likenesses and biographies almost as though they were being profiled in a magazine. It was like people were making their own little glamorous magazine profiles about themselves. Here was a place where you could showcase to the world what were presumably your most attractive images and your most desirable traits. You could also tell the world what you liked and disliked. This came with the presumption that the world would care.
So facebook begat all this other stuff, which begat an intense need to show off to the world a very beautified and exalted existence. While some use these platforms in a creative way, most use them as hagiographies of the self.
I am not presenting this as breakthrough information: like, Guys, OMG people use social media narcissistically! No they really do! We all know this. What is interesting to me is that people have a real blind spot to the notion that their increased need to present a fictionally perfected existence might have larger implications. I know people who have used roundabout means to get more followers on Instagram, simply because more followers, more likes, etc. means more value in our current society. This is like a lie on top of a lie. You present an idealized view of your life, then you use inauthentic means to get more people to “follow” this lie.
Not all people do this obviously. But many do. And I find it interesting that people cannot seem to be able to connect their own relationship to the truth with society’s relationship to the truth. None of us are really getting it. The New Yorker has always been, to a degree, an example of classism cloaked in white liberal urban “tolerance.” I teach the magazine’s history in one of my courses, and I like to tell my class how the New Yorker’s founder, Harold Ross, noted in his prospectus for the forthcoming publication: "It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." Which is fine: it wanted to be seen, in 1925, as urbane and sophisticated. However, now, when I read that publication (which I still do, weekly, because it has a lot of quality writing in it), I’m smacked in the face with some of the most unsophisticated, bottom-drawer liberal propaganda imaginable. And I’ve always been extremely left of liberal! Their content should offend me least of all. But the way it calculates to play to my supposed beliefs, instead of choosing to inform me, or god forbid even challenge me, smacks of such journalistic failure that I can easily count it as barely disguised fake news. I don’t want to be pandered to. I don’t want my presumed beliefs vomited back to me. I’m not the Emperor wearing no clothes, who requires minions to constantly tell me how beautiful my dress is when I’m not even wearing one. I want smart, considered, JOURNALISTICALLY OBJECTIVE information. I’ll admit that the New Yorker is partisan almost by nature, so maybe I’m being hard on them. But being partisan in nature should not automatically turn you into a dumb propaganda machine.
We have to stop asking for our egos to be stroked, and we have to stop stroking our own egos with humblebrag posts about our quietly fabulous existences. We have become a society and a culture that views all opposition through the lens of the personal. We have become too beholden to the signifiers of our identity, and it is tearing our society apart.
I love glamour and make believe, and, as a creative writer, I like to tell stories and create literature that stokes the imagination and makes people dream. Our life wouldn’t be possible (or very much fun) without stories that make us think about the world in a different way (I LOVE good science fiction for this reason). But those are stories, playtime, make believe. They may house greater truths about ourselves and our society (the best ones do), but all the other stuff is magic and fantasy.
We have now created a society that is ALL make believe, but still demands to be regarded as true. This is so viciously problematic, and I don’t know how we are going to fix it.
But I think I know a good place to start. I once had a writing teacher, who I am not going to name here because it would then turn this piece into something else. However, this person was an EXCELLENT writing teacher. I owe so much of my ability to easily craft my essays to this teacher. One day, this teacher told me that at the end of every sentence they wrote, they asked themselves: “Is that true?”
IS THAT TRUE????
And this doesn’t just apply to something being factually accurate. If you write poetry, does the poetry feel true, or does it feel like, “here’s a writer trying to write some poetry”? I remember I used to get quite frustrated with some writers of art criticism who would hyperbolize, trying to get their readers to be excited about something. They would write something like, “I gasped in awe at what I was seeing.” Did you really, really, really gasp in awe? Or are you using that action as a metaphor for your “excitement” (or, more likely, your “keen interest”)? Tell the truth. Put the onus on yourself to use your words, and not your fictionalized emotional state, to make your reader understand how important the work is.
When I write, I always read over my work and I ask myself: “Is that true?” But I think, personally, you could extend this question of “is it true?” to other aspects of your life. I tend to do that in all aspects of my life now, too. Because I can’t stand bullshit. I knew, without knowing, that Hillary Clinton was the deeply wrong choice for president. But, in the final months of the campaign, I listened to everyone around me, the official media, etc. and I thought she would win. Then I started freaking out a day or two before the election. Like not in a good way. Like an animal trapped in a house, who senses instinctually that an earthquake is about to hit. It was like I knew, without knowing, what was to come.
So here’s my personal belief about the truth, and it’s positive benefit on your life: when you start engaging deeply with the truth on a personal level, the truth begins to come to you. THE TRUTH BEGINS TO SEEK YOU OUT, BECAUSE YOU HAVE CHOSEN TO SEEK IT OUT. It becomes your mirror reflection.
And as cool as it is to get a “like” on facebook or be told that you are gorgeous on instragam—having the truth not just on your side, but in your mirror, is even more flattering.