Social media has become ubiquitous. It has taken over areas of your life, the media and politics amongst others. We have embraced it fully but is this wise?

I realise the title of this article is a little contentious given that as a company, ExtraMile embraces social media – whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or the next big thing. The reason for the title is this – you can’t trust anyone on social media. In a world of ‘Fake News’ social media allows anyone to say anything online, without justification or evidence and get coverage. The more coverage that person gets the more weight their opinion begins to hold.

Troll Farms

A prime example of this – and the dangers that can be created by it – is Jenna Abrams. She built up a following of over 70,000 followers through her tweets covering everything from the Kardashians to the American Civil War. Her tweets were quoted on a veritable ‘who’s who’ of media outlets; The BBC, The Washington Post, The Times of India, Russia Today her tweets were covered across the northern hemisphere. Once she had built an audience her tweets shifted focus more heavily towards right wing views, with tweets promoting segregation, immigration controls and perhaps most importantly Donald Trump.

If you haven’t worked it out yet, Jenna Abrams is fictional. She existed nowhere other than her social media accounts, chiefly on Twitter. She was created by the Internet Research Agency – a Russian, state-funded, ‘troll farm’. The way the Jenna Abrams account succeeded is at odds with the current reporting of the 2016 U.S. Election interference by Russia – it’s been given low key coverage by a number of organisations who instead prefer to focus on the ‘in your face’ Facebook ads paid for by the Russian state. Perhaps this is because those media organisations were suckered into believing Jenna Abrams was real and held real beliefs? I suspect it’s actually because it’s much harder to explain how this subtle approach worked to influence US politics.

The fact that it’s taken nearly a year and a full investigation team to establish Jenna Abrams was fake shows how hard it is to identify frauds on social media. The case also highlights how simple tactics can build a huge amount of trust online – with nothing to back it up. And yet people still believed what was being posted, it stimulated debate around issues raised by the account and directed a number of online conversations. All of this was being done by an anonymous collective in Russia.

Social Media Envy

Even identifiable people you know in real life are guilty of cherry picking the best bits of their life to display online. In a 2015 study over 2 thirds of people admitted to editing their social media profile to make them seem more outgoing and active on social media. Social media envy is a very real thing, and a significant proportion of us are guilty of misleading our ‘friends’ leading them to think our lives are better than they are. We trust people to represent a truthful version of themselves without stopping to think they might be deceiving us (or themselves?)

Follow Me IRL?

Barnardo’s have just released a new video campaign – Follow Me – which highlights how easily we trust people online by highlighting the paradox between the impact of language online versus real life. The language used on social media is designed to make us feel comfortable and good – we have followers, we make friends, we like content, we love posts – all positive affirmation for our online contacts to make them feel good. Yet if you asked to follow them or be their friend in real life their trust in you would definitely take a hit (you’re either a creep or a 4 year old!) and you’re likely to make them feel very uncomfortable.

There’s a psychology to the language used that puts at ease, makes us feel comfortable with sharing and keeps us engaged. Perhaps we need to be more conscious of our interactions, more suspicious and more aware of what’s happening to us online.

P.s. I’m sure you noticed there were no references or verification on any of the content above, but you trusted me, right?

Jenna Abrams:

Social Media Envy:

Barnardos campaign: