Sunday 01 October 2023

Running away from intimacy into a fake, simulated world  

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I have just watched an interview entitled The True toxicity of social media revealed which almost made me shut down my Facebook account completely.

The person interviewed was Sam Vaknin, an Israeli author who has written several award-winning books, most notably, Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited. 

HIs comments throughout are nothing short of chilling as he outlines a future where the world will be made up of two groups, those who are on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and those who have rejected them completely.  “We have created a technology which has created pathologies in two billion people: they have become less functional more automised, more anxious, more depressed and suicidal. They will be living as if they are on an island, where social media becomes their world, and where they will swap real life with this delusional world and lose sight of reality, which is the definition of psychosis.  We cannot predict the outcome of this dangerous wave,” he says ominously.   

He describes how we have become not only addicted but, more worryingly, conditioned in every aspect of our lives, because social media play on the worst possible traits of human nature.  Of course, we have heard a lot of this before, but he went further by claiming that those who created Facebook and Twitter did all this deliberately.  We are told that the whole ethos behind social media was aimed towards a certain psychological profile because they were created by a specific type: asocial, asexual, schizoid young men who were basically, nerds.  However, these are not the harmless, funny type of nerds from The Big Bang Theory, but the type of repressed, unnerving type of nerds under which lies something very sinister. 

Indeed, last year, Sean Parker, the billionaire early Facebook investor and Napster founder, admitted that Mark Zuckerberg knowingly created a monster with addictive social media which rely on constant validation.  He instinctively knew that this craving in human nature could be monetized.

Sam Vaknin points out how the very essence of FB, for example, is based on envy; a quantified, weaponized envy which causes you to take some form of aggressive action. As he describes it, pathological envy rears its head out of a source of frustration and yearns to tear someone down and destroy them.  The whole concept basically feeds on pathological feelings and can end up becoming psychologically damaging. It is no coincidence that it lends itself so easily to slander, libel, hate speech, fake news and cyberbullying.  He also makes a compelling point about the limited number of characters on Twitter: aggressive speech is much shorter than non-aggressive speech. Expressions of compassion and empathy are effusive and tend to be much longer, whereas two or three words can often suffice to hurt another person. It is, he insists, a malicious design of algorithms to cater to human pathology in its most extreme forms.


The picture he paints is a disturbing one, and while some of it might sound like an exaggeration, we have enough evidence around us to indicate that he is not far off the mark, especially among those who are on social media for many hours on end, rather than the moderate user.   Comparing Internet addiction to an epidemic which renders people into zombies, he also explains the insidious way it has made us want to interact with those who are as close to ourselves as possible – and that the epitome of this is the selfie. “Six out of every ten posts are selfies, they are the posts which guarantee the most likes, so we are basically interacting with ourselves, telling others to look at me, just me. ”  On the other hand, he also noted, selfies generate the most hate-filled comments as well so your anxiety also shoots up when posting your own photo.

When you think about it, the ingenuity of social media is that it plays on our biggest fear: that of being excluded or not liked. The worst threat to man, Sam Vaknin notes is excommunication – being thrown out of the community. It is like being at school all over again, when the most popular kids seemed to have it all, and if you are not included in their group it meant you had no social value.  But it goes further than that, he adds, because belonging now means you have to dumb down, be aggressive, use sparser content, deny your intelligence and compassion – it forces you to hide your true identity in order to conform. Even the communication is infantile, I like you or I don’t like you. 

Mulling on this point, something clicked: have you ever tried to explain to someone who has never used FB what it consists of? I did that recently and immediately realized how silly it all sounds: posting photos and statuses about what you are doing, where you are and who you are with. And yet we have become accustomed to dishing out all this very private information about ourselves and our families without the slightest hesitation. 

While he believes that those under the age of 35 mostly use social media for social positioning and connecting, predictably, the most vulnerable users are those whom Vaknin describes as “digital natives” – those under the age of 15 who were born into a world where social media already existed. For them, social media is not another world, it IS their world; everything is viewed through a screen, there is instant gratification and their attention span is truncated because of this. What this will lead to in the way human beings will relate to one another in the future has to be seen in the context of other external mitigating factors, most significantly the breakdown of the nuclear family. “Many of those between the ages of 15 – 25 have no real family, they were brought up by single mothers, are children of divorce and have no contact with their extended family, so there has been a lack of real social interaction in their lives,” he notes.

It is therefore no coincidence that more people are finding it hard to form intimate relationships. He even goes so far as to say that, “you are either intimate with others or you are on FB.  Twitter and FB rely on socially ineptness and loneliness, the schizoid, hermits, recluses, nerds, they need that population which becomes conditioned to this usage in lieu of real relationships. They make the product indispensable to our lives.” 

If I had watched this interview a year ago I might have thought he was being unnecessarily melodramatic, but when I look around and see how complete unknowns have suddenly become “social media influencers” (why? how? when?) because they plug a certain brand of lipstick, I realise that he is completely right.  “Social media is the only manufacturer in the world which has made you its employee. you generate the content which is being sold to advertisers …you are doing it all for them. They need your eyeballs on them, so if you form real relationships that is their competition”, he claims. 

This is another bald truth: the more time you spend away from social media, the more plastic and fake it seems. In fact, Vaknin even advocates that FB should have an inbuilt clock which shuts your access down after two hours. 

It is not all doom and gloom, however, I was eventually relieved to learn that “oldies” like me who use it as simply another communications tool, are not as much at risk of being zombified, as long as we are careful to have another, real, parallel life which is not online.  Of course, there are already those who have shut down and ‘divorced’ from all such devices completely, going off the grid and refusing to engage in this phenomenon. They are the ones who have been a few steps ahead of Sam Vaknin who predicts that intimate relationships are set to become more challenging as the two separate groups will find it more difficult to relate to one another.  This is perfectly understandable: imagine one person obsessed with selfies and the faux intimacy of a network of friends and followers who is unable to enjoy any experience in the ‘now’, who is dating someone who would rather watch and enjoy a concert as it actually happens (rather than through the screen of an iPhone being held aloft).  It cannot work.

On the other hand, just as I finished the documentary I learned that a photo of a missing 12-year-old girl which had gone viral in an attempt to locate her, had achieved its aims and she was back home, safe and sound. I guess I will keep FB after all.

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