In the age of social media, have we left free-thinking behind?
Recently, some social media influencers faced criticism due to their negligence about public welfare -- for instance, promoting untenable companies such as Evaly and E-orange and seemingly detrimental lifestyles based on a ketogenic diet. These social media influencers have millions of followers, and they intentionally or unintentionally endorse businesses and lifestyle choices that are unsustainable.
In the past few years, we have seen waves of social media celebrities who become prominent at regular intervals, and their popularity gradually wanes. We need to consider two aspects here: First, how and why do social media influencers matter? And second, what does their prominence tell us about our society?
Social media and digital technology have advanced to the point where the so-called social media influencers have the power of reaching millions at their fingertips.
At the same time, our lives are flooded with opinions and viewpoints, and we rely on social media for information. So, with massive following online, social media influencers can promote and establish an idea.
Besides technological advancement, we tend to believe what we see and hear. We are more likely to believe something than search for the “truth” ourselves. Thus, social media influencers have become significant, and it brings divisions among people -- for example, those who follow rival celebrities or have a different point of view.
Our tendency to believe rather than to explore has caused more than divisions and problems. Instead, Yuval Harari has claimed: “Humans have always lived in the age of post-truth” -- where there is no factual truth for us, we tend to believe anything till it “feels” right. And humans could conquer the world, defeating other animals due to the ability to “create and spread fiction” -- it gave the basis of cooperation between distant people who believed the same “fiction.”
Fiction and a storytelling capacity have always been powerful tools to keep followers enchanted, and sometimes it diverts from truth to eliminate the risk of division. If we keep the fiction intact, we can stay powerful -- have many followers -- but as soon as we admit the truth -- the possibility of disunity becomes real. Harari claims that all the world’s powerful scholarly establishments -- religious priests, communist ideologues, or neoliberal capitalists -- placed unity above truth. And we always seek more power than truth. So do recent social media influencers.
Consequently, we have left behind “free” thinking and have succumbed to ideological blindness. Hence, in social media posts of these so-called influencers, we see comments of extreme poles where a segment blindly supports, and others criticize no matter what.
This reveals a uniquely human trait. We humans have an innate desire for freedom, an insatiable lust for power, as well as a wish for submission.
Our submission is not always to an overt authority; we also submit to internalized ideals of “duty” and/or “public opinion” -- all of which these influencers promote.
So, why do we blindly follow social media influencers and believe in what they say or preach? There are more to this story than just our innate nature.
In the 1941 book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm argued that as our civilization advanced, our intellectual abilities increased, but emotionally we could not transform into becoming independent and objective; hence, we need ideals and idols. As such, historically, there is a lack of coherence between our “intellectual-technical over-maturity and emotional backwardness.” This mismatch is part of our social psychology.
Besides, civilizational advancement has dissolved many primordial associations, giving a sense of individual achievements, but at the same time, it has created “isolated, anxious, powerless” individuals. The transition to capitalistic democratic societies has suppressed humans’ true nature of “love, reason, and faith” and has produced the “economic individuals” who are asocial and competitive.
The idea of success in our life under capitalism has forced us to leave behind many ties -- we left behind our families and friends in the quest for “success.” Competitiveness has transformed us; we do not make friends for the sake of human connection. Instead, we choose our friends considering socio-political status and stance. As such, we think of everything with the measure of exchange value in an abstract form.
Losing concrete ties that gave us a sense of security, we have become increasingly alienated in today’s world.
Therefore, we turn to relationships that promise relief from uncertainty, even if these deprive us of our rational thinking. Why do we not realize that we have stopped reasoning?
While many social ties are dissolved, we only feel secure if we can conform to mass culture. Therefore, we crave the approval of others and always try to follow the mass culture.
The extent of a tendency to conform or follow is revealed by different “fake” versions of many branded products in local markets. Many of us buy “fake” products because we like to coordinate with what is portrayed as the “ideals” in mass media and by the so-called lifestyle modifier, motivational speakers, product reviewers, and digital content creators.
We all chase certain products and their symbols rather than actual use-value. As such, we do not have any unifying experiences as humans.
In the same vein, many of us surrender to fundamental views of religion and nationalism as it connects us (alienated individuals) with others and helps us overcome the fear of “isolation.”
We could make the most out of our lives if we free ourselves from mass indoctrination and establish solidarity with other humans through spontaneous activity, love, and work as free and independent individuals.
We could start by not accepting everything and anything without thinking it through.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.