By: Audrey Lee
Edited by: Helena Rios
Every day, over three billion people lose themselves in a virtual reality. Most of them will send a Snap to friends, like a selfie on Instagram, or react angrily to a rant on Facebook. They return to the physical world only so they may attend to necessities and responsibilities such as school, work, and sleep, before resuming their trance in cyberspace.
Social media platforms are becoming increasingly popular as they enlarge and accelerate how we communicate. Since the launch of Facebook live a year ago, many of us have come to rely on the site to receive up-to-the-minute news and to watch live streams of monumental events. While many find Facebook to be a convenient and efficient news source, the ongoing controversy over its dissemination of fake news suggests that it may not be the most credible. The company is currently under fire for allowing misinformation to spread and for consequently misguiding its users’ perspectives and decisions.
Although many people claim that it is Facebook’s responsibility to correct this issue, the real solution lies not within the company’s developers or algorithms, but within us.
A key factor in how we develop as socially conscious individuals is how we experience, observe and reflect on real-world situations. As our awareness shifts from atoms to bits, we lose touch with our physical world and allow our consciousness to be influenced by our interactions in cyberspace. It is not surprising that the Internet and social media currently play dominant roles in our lives. When I received my first smartphone, I was instantly awestruck by the freedom I had to access the Internet from anywhere at any time. I no longer had to wait until I was in front of a computer to check my emails and read updates on world news. Now, I could receive reports and exchange messages on a connected mobile device almost immediately. Even when it comes to learning, much of what I wish to know comes from “just Googling it” quickly online.
While the Internet has made it more efficient for us to search for answers in the vast sea of information, it has also made us adopt a more shallow way of thinking. Instead of delving deeply into topics and learning from experience, we often read the first few articles in a search engine and simply accept that their authors know more than we do. Particularly in areas with which we are not that familiar, we simply believe whatever we read on what looks like a credible source. This shallow surfing in place of contemplative thinking has come to dominate not only our Internet searches but also our understanding of ourselves.
As social media networks pervade our daily lives, they not only affect the way we interact with others but also change the way we think and view ourselves in virtual and physical reality. In our lives on the screen, there are no limits to how many profiles we can create and how many background stories we can fabricate. Many people also tailor the descriptions of themselves to whatever would be popular and socially desirable online. For instance, Instagram posts can be easily rendered to attract more followers and headlines on digital news articles can be sensationalized to attract greater readership. While exaggerated media are not unique to the Internet, our online social networks have made it much easier to create and spread fake news like wildfire.
These virtual identities together with our constant contact with misinformation shape the ways we think about ourselves in real life. Self-identity, which used to be built upon real-life experiences, observations, and deep thinking, is now based on virtual experiences that can be rife with false misinformation and shallow understandings.
Although there is a tendency to point fingers at mainstream media platforms like Facebook and TV networks for media bias, it is important to realize that the onus is not on them to reform the way they operate. All social media and news media companies are simply doing what they’re meant to do: moving information across a global network regardless of whether the information is true or false. Ultimately, it is up to us as users to determine how much we allow our perceptions to be affected by these media. It is impossible for us to avoid the pervading effects of social media and the Internet in our society. However, we can balance their imact by maintaining a boundary between our internal awareness and external virtual influences.
In the Internet Age, where information and misinformation can be easily dispersed, it is up to our self-consciousness to determine the stability of our inner lives.