Vanity and the creation of the social media celebrity
Propaganda is the act of persuasion. When politicians want to change minds, they deploy various tactics – from the creative presentation of truth to outright deception. But propagandists don’t just have to persuade your average voter; they must also entice influential citizens to become propagandists themselves. They need, in today’s parlance, “influencers” to spread their gospel, their message of change.
There are, naturally, multiple ways to attract influencers. You can make them sincerely believe in you. You can pay them. Or you can appeal to their vanity. In the age of social media, where likes and follows provide instant ego boosts and where Facebook fame is easily parlayed into national notoriety, this appeal to vanity becomes a tool more potent than cash.
Of course this technique predates social media. Ferdinand Marcos, for example, understood that intellectuals and top-rate academics desired to be with other eminent thinkers. Why did so many of our best brains work with the most corrupt president in our history? Why did they serve in his Cabinet, work in his research centers, and ghostwrite his speeches and books? It wasn’t just because Apo paid well; it was also because of the promise of being around the best and the brightest, of playing for the A team. Marcos also knew that if he read the work of the intellectuals he was courting, if he made them believe that he valued their contributions, he could make them ignore the moral depravity of his regime.
At the core of this strategy of attraction is flattery since the human desire for affirmation is boundless. Few things make us feel better than having our opinions and emotions mirrored by others. And this weakness of the human psyche is known to social engineers, conmen, pick-up artists, and, of course, social media managers. These puppeteers, in turn, have mastered the manipulation of insecure fame-whores, who depend on affirmation much like the adik depends on shabu.
Examine the personalities of most social media celebrities. Many have had a history of self-promotion, hucksterism, and even exhibitionism. These people crave to be seen.
Remember when your parents first discovered Facebook and basked in the thrill of titas and titos commenting on family photos? Social media stars luxuriate in a similar loop of ego-stroking all day, everyday, and the initial thrill never abates (unlike in the case of your parents who returned to their offline lives). Their handlers are happy to keep them in this loop, using bots, trolls, and other networks to ensure that their ideas are shared, retweeted, commented on, and engaged. It is human flattery exponentially enhanced by the power of networks.
The frailer the ego of the social media star, the more susceptible he or she becomes to this manipulation. Have you noticed that many of these nouveau-celebrities were somewhat excluded in their former professions? These were writers who rarely got published, activists who never led marches, or demi-celebrities (like one-hit wonders), who barely scratched the big-time. Disdaining their old lives of mediocrity, they are now perennially bragging about how they have found their voice, their audience, and their cause on Facebook.
So what if their peers looked down on them before? Now they have millions of “average people” following them and “learning” from them. So what if they could never become famous through “mainstream” outlets like universities and mainstream media? All these in institutions are “biased” anyway. Besides, why should they have their opinions screened by editors, fact-checkers, and elitist pointy-heads, when they can talk directly to “the people?” The Trumpist “alt-right” in America, for instance, thrives on Twitter because pundits who were even too nutty for Fox News are now being retweeted by accounts in Russian troll farms.
None of this is to claim that mainstream success and influence should be the barometer with which we measure intellectual integrity. We should also emphasize that there are many social media celebrities, who have used their substantial platforms to reach out to new constituencies, while busting lies and speaking truth to power. Like any technology, social media can be a tool for the common good.
Nevertheless, we must confront the psychological potency of this new technology and grapple with its effects. As intellectuals, citizens, and purveyors of information, we must all be wary of how new media forms can change us for the worse. When we post something on Facebook, are we doing so because we believe in the integrity and veracity of our message? Or do we post because we are anticipating the shares and the likes?
To be mindful of and to resist our yearning for affirmation becomes an ethical duty the moment we log on to our Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Prophets and moralists have histories of being shunned. In the age of the instant ego boost, our new prophets will be those who say things they believe in and not just things that get them likes. – Rappler.com
Lisandro E. Claudio (@leloyclaudio on Twitter) teaches history at De La Salle University.