Institutionalising deception

How the online world has embedded deception in the fabric of its ecosystem — and we are all collaborators

The World Economic Forum has discovered we’re lying more — and social media could be to blame

I’m not surprised: social deception is at the heart of our quite anti-social, social media platforms. Take the term ‘friends’ for example. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a friend as ‘someone with whom you have formed a close relationship of mutual trust and intimacy.

That sounds like something worth having.

Yet Facebook uses the same word to concretise a connection with someone we are merely willing to share photos and updates with. Not the same thing at all. While intimacy may be implied, it is certainly not a given. Many that Facebook labels friends are little more than acquaintances.

But if we ignore this, for a moment, as a mere quibbling over semantics, then we can look deeper at a much more insidious issue. Let’s consider what it means to ‘mutually trust’ one another. At the most basic level it means parity — knowing both parties are on the same playing field, same game, same visibility, same rules. It all stems from that foundational principle of treating others as we would like to be treated. Yet Facebook enables a plethora of relationship-destroying features that degrade mutual trust in tiny increments. They allow us to tilt the playing field of friendship in our favour.

Take this screenshot of options when reading a post of a friend:

Here Facebook enables me to show less of my friend’s content, inform the algorithm that I don’t like my friends content (Hide post) and I can even report my friend to the authorities without him knowing it was me. It then goes on to offer increasingly nuclear options — I can stop seeing all content from my friend for 30 days and I can even stop seeing all their posts (Unfollow).

Crucially I can do all this without my friend even knowing! This is where it facilitates me in breaking that bond of mutual trust and friendship.

My friend Robert, in this instance, could continue to be posting interesting, friendship rewarding content, assuming that I, as one of his friends, was seeing and enjoying it — yet be totally unaware that I had switched him off. I would be appalled if he had done similar to me. Our friendship, such as it is, would truly be on the rocks.

Facebook is not the only app guilty of enabling this kind of deception

This is an internet wide problem. It is possible to block most people on most messaging platforms without them knowing you are blocked. I regularly block the phone numbers and Whatsapp accounts that send me spammy texts on my phone. Even venerable email has the same feature built in as a ‘spam filter’: clicking ‘this is spam’ on email doesn’t tell the sender that everything they send from now on will disappear into your junk folder. With the increasing reach of AI this problem is going to get worse not better — our AI helpers on social media already remove someone from the next conversation — now they can go one step further and remove them from previous ones too. My iPhone advertises this Orwellian feature as ‘how to hide someone from memories’.

Of course George Orwell himself predicted all this, or at least he sort of did. In the seminal 1984, he wrote:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Yet where Orwell imagined power in the hands of the party, our online tools have put that power in the hands of individuals. So, instead of the party rewriting history, it is now us as individuals with the power to recreate the past in an image that suits only us. We erase the evidence to create our own preferred histories.

The World Economic Forum is right that we are lying more — we’ve even authorised tools that help us do it. The great tragedy is that the person most shaped by our lies, is ourselves.

Featured image: Sigmund / Unsplash

Toby Beresford, Director of Digital Strategy at Bible Society

Toby Beresford is Director of Digital Strategy at Bible Society and is exploring how the Bible can positively influence our shared online culture.

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