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What Do We Really Know? Vol. 2

Social Media: Our Filtered Reality

Author’s Note: This is the second part of HQ’s investigation into “What Do We Really Know?” Part I examined how our sense of reality gets warped by blatant lies from politicians, unverified media reports, and the looming threat of artificial intelligence. For our second installment, we’ll dive into the effect social media is having on our sense of reality.

Long Live the Simulation

You don’t need to believe we live in a computer-generated simulation to see that much of what governs our behavior is fake.

Take, for example, a mundane social media experience. Today, a beauty influencer can post a heavily edited picture of herself to Instagram, announce that she owes her youthful glow to a non-FDA-approved skin cream, and receive payment for her services in cryptocurrency. The closest thing to reality that occurs within this whole ordeal might be the hashtag #longhairdontcare.

But ask any targeted teen about the post’s veracity, and they’ll be quick to point out its artifice. At remarkably young ages, modern consumers understand the influencer’s tricks. They will tell you she was already beautiful before using the product, that she likely used flattering angles and “good lighting” to achieve her look, and that her image was almost certainly altered via a filter. In other words, if she’s selling a fantasy, nobody’s buying.

Yet the ad still works. It exploits insecurities and promises a solution so easy, so inexpensive that it sells. And sure, using digital touch-ups to sell snake oil isn’t new. But what’s singular about right now is almost everyone has the ability—and the desire—to recreate this charade.

Getting here

It wasn’t coincidental that Marvel executives pursued the idea of a “multiverse” as the follow-up story arc to the gigantically successful Avengers Endgame run. Each one of us experiences the world through a unique social media feed. Watching our favorite characters experience a similar feeling through parallel dimensions spoke directly to our moment.

It’s also no surprise the multiverse idea failed. If there’s one side effect that living in separate universes has, it’s how makes us worse at understanding the world outside our screens.

According to the recent research, Americans do not understand how their neighbors, friends, and coworkers actually live. Most college students believe their own drinking habits are responsible, while those of their peers are borderline problematic. Nearly all married couples tell surveys they have less sex than everyone else does. White collar workers grossly overestimate their coworkers’ salaries. And the sharpest investors often fall for the simplest scams (see: Theranos). Those teens who saw our imaginary Instagram ad? The Pew Research Center found the majority believe social media is a positive force in their lives, but terribly negative for others.

These trends aren’t new. But they have accelerated over the last decade, just as what Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls the “epidemic of loneliness” has overtaken America. While it’s too simple to say we’ve become worse at understanding others because we spend less time together, it’s no doubt a factor. 


We’ve hacked our biorhythms to be fitter, happier, more productive, more accepting, slower to anger, and more confident. Ironically, all this big data has led us to be unhealthier, unhappier, and morally poorer than at any time in the past 50 years

Our Lady of Perpetual Happiness

Our society spends billions to optimize the human animal. New devices can tell us how much sleep to get, protein to eat, sex to have, and time to spend with friends. We’ve hacked our biorhythms to be fitter, happier, more productive, more accepting, slower to anger, and more confident. Ironically, all this big data has led us to be unhealthier, unhappier, and morally poorer than at any time in the past 50 years, according to 29 different measurements Gallup uses to survey Americans’ satisfaction.

Our progress toward bettering ourselves has moved us away from our goals. And it’s exactly this inability to understand ourselves that leads us to misconceive the wider world. Technology has substituted easy answers to questions that should require difficult thought and personal reflection.

We’ve missed this because, as consumers, we’re conditioned to think about our role in Capitalism as consumers. But social media isn’t after our money. It is after our attention—and that changes everything.

James Williams, a former Google advertising strategist and author of “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy,” put it simply: “In the short term, the digital attention economy can distract us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, it can distract us from living the lives we want to live.”

With the dopamine shot of a funny video or ire-raising news story just a tap away, technology has scrambled the basic neural wiring that controls how we understand the world. Today, our information consumption resembles religion more than science. We no longer care about accuracy. We don’t demand facts. We give our attention over solely to flashy presentation. Here we are now, entertain us.

This is How We Deal With It

The basest and least effective way to steel yourself against the falsehoods that create much of our reality is through Cynicism. Championed in turns by too-cool commenters and precocious high schoolers, Cynicism asks us to assume that lying is pro forma. The bullshit is baked into the cake—and always has been. Cynicism sees threats around every corner, but provides no useful way to deal with them.

The second way of coping with misinformation is Optimism, which requires one to believe everything will get better. Optimism is appealing, but naïve. And while it delivers personal psychological benefits (optimists are always found to be healthier, happier, and more successful than others), it provides little guidance for managing bad actors and assessing risk.

A more common answer is to take servings of these approaches buffet-style. A scoop of Optimism for our families; a bowlful of Cynicism for our government. Even more common is not to think about this at all, and check to see if you’ve missed anything interesting on your socials (hint: you haven’t.)

There is another tool that allows us to resist the deluge of tilted information. Unfortunately, it requires more work than either optimism or cynicism.

The Way Forward

The Science of Attention is a growing field of research that offers us as a bulwark against the agents of unreality. Its fundamental theory, born out through research, suggests that we can counteract the cognitive declines and emotional immaturity that a life of distractions thrusts upon us.

How? By being more deliberate in how we use technology. Limiting screen time, turning off notifications, leaving the phone at home, walking in nature, reading books. Breaking the habit of a quick glance at Facebook is, sadly, difficult. But research suggests this—and this alone—will finally makes us mentally fitter, happier, more productive. More than that, when we harness our own attention, we wrest back control of our modern currency, allowing us to make real choices and not merely take what the algorithm gives us.

The trick is learning how to apply the Science of Attention to our daily lives without falling into the trap of yet another gamified, tech-driven optimization scheme.

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