The struggle to distinguish fact from fiction is one of our most enduring follies as human beings, and has been for as long as we’ve had tools to scratch out stories (and drawings—were bison walking on their hind legs with humans, or did a Cro Magnon just have a sense of humor?). It has always been hard to separate truth from fiction, and it’s only gotten harder. It’s increasingly difficult to foster a healthy amount of media literacy in a digital world where it seems like everyone is selling something. Be it an influencer or a politician, an ad or propaganda, a lipstick or the industrial prison complex—everything is always about selling an idea, a vision, or a lifestyle that is supported and propped up by objects and systems both tangible and intangible.
These days, what is being peddled is not only trends and products, but the very concept of knowledge and information. All of a sudden everyone is an expert. The democratization of influence and power through social media has the potential to be a great, beautiful, wonderful thing—permitting us to learn from people with different backgrounds and unique points of view, tapping into an endless pool of valuable information, and so much more. And yet, just because everyone has an opinion doesn’t mean it’s actually a valid one with merit and a credible foundation. Just because someone has a megaphone and a wooden crate to stand on doesn’t mean they actually have something relevant or real to say. The difference now is that we are plugged into the proverbial sidewalk soap box all of the time, the megaphone is the screen in our hands.
Now, it has become somewhat arbitrary who has this power and influence. Any John Doe that has gone viral once or twice can amass scores of followers and gain people's attention and even their respect. Instead of talking and people listening because what you’re saying is important, we have influencers who are only talking because people are listening—the natural order has reversed.
My point is, giving people a platform and a megaphone doesn’t give them credibility or expertise. This is a trap that many of us fall into, not only the digitally famous John Does of the world, but also those of us without millions of followers. We might feel the need to speak on things we do not know much about, “position ourselves,” and in doing so, be so preoccupied with this talking and positioning that we forget to listen or discern who we should be listening to in the first place.
I’m not preaching or defending some type of technocracy over here—going to Harvard is not the only pathway to intelligence—but the death of the expert should concern us all. There are many valuable modes of knowledge, but in times in which “doing your own research” means going on Facebook and yapping to your three digital neighbors about some bogus non-peer reviewed article you found in some back alley nut website… maybe some Ivy Tower nerds are needed.
While it’s hard to articulate the depths in which these (sometimes unfounded, very often problematic) opinions that are spewed from every corner of the Internet have wormed their way into the collective mind, it is fundamental to understand what has made us so susceptible to absorbing all the bullshit in the first place.
There’s a tweet going around that says “hey sorry I missed your text, I am processing a non-stop 24/7 onslaught of information with a brain designed to eat berries in a cave.” by @VeryBadLlama and that’s an immediate RT if I’ve ever seen one. We are in an era of information overload—our brains are in overdrive all the time, taking in an absurd amount of content thrown at us from all different sides. The onslaught has diminished our capacity to actually process the information in the first place. We can consume, but we cannot process. The bottom line is, we aren’t designed to compute this much data.
Even though we are fundamentally incapable of deeply (or even mildly) understanding all the media that we have access to, that doesn’t stop it from being constantly absorbed. This is where we become vulnerable: we no longer know what’s real and what’s fake, what’s true and what’s a lie, what’s fact and what’s opinion, who we can trust and who we should be wary of—and this opens up the space for us to be blatantly manipulated.
Since we can’t digest all the content we’re forced to swallow, we find ways to cope: a colleague I deeply admire put this as, “the shortcuts we set up for ourselves to understand the world.” Algorithm is king (I sure don’t remember voting it in) and this king is trained to give you what gets you to engage more (usually heavy and traumatizing stuff that you can’t look away from and feel a visceral need to react to) and not what you actually like the most (puppy videos). Content is strategically created to be easy to consume but hard to process, easy to share but hard to unpack—and that leaves us devoid of values or meaning. By simplifying big thoughts to fit in a tweet or an Instagram infographic, a lot of important information, context, and nuance gets left on the cutting room floor.
It’s hard to envision a way out of this in a world that will only get more “online” and more saturated with content. It can feel like swimming against a current as you scream into a void while sitting in front of a screen all day, consuming four different types of liquids just to have an excuse to walk to the bathroom more often in order to mindlessly scroll for a couple of minutes... or, ahem, it actually is that. Still, we have to try to envision a better future. We need to be more responsible about what we consume, both materially and ideologically. We must truly consider who it is that we’re giving a platform to and who we are granting the power to shape our views of the world—and, most importantly, whether it’s time to put our phone down and touch some f*ckin’ grass.
Started as the Office Manager, then became the Executive Assistant and now a freshly minted Project Manager, Luma creeped into Fohr and the influencer industry the same way a digital prophet did on your feeds. You can creep into her inbox at email@example.com.