The Relentless Marketing of Human Emotions
On social media, self-expression, and the demise of truth
What has the internet done to honesty?
Once upon a time, honesty used to be as self-evident as authenticity and vulnerability, no advertising required; heartful, intelligent discourse stood on its own merit and spoke for itself. But when honesty turned into a sales argument to hawk all kinds of products and services and politics, it became duplicitous.
Victimhood culture transformed it into hyperbole. Tapping into disempowerment, fear, and doubt became big business as overblown personal narratives featuring overwrought pathos took over our screens in a global pity party, or witch hunt, depending on the size of your vocabulary and megaphone. If you want to get people’s attention and line your pockets fast, aim straight for the heart and allege that you either have it worse than everybody else or are being persecuted.
Even when you hold the most powerful office on Earth.
Social media self-marketers know this and copy they bill as honest does not seek to transcend issues but instead communicates hurt and incandescent outrage because it is lucrative. Producing predatory copy catering to prejudices and echo chambers is no longer the preserve of the media industry and professionals with sufficient editorial agility to skirt around slander and libel. Bloggers, too, are using the same tone and communication tactics as Donald Trump, albeit in a more verbose — but not necessarily more articulate — way.
The internet hasn’t only democratized self-expression, it has also become a global platform for snake oil salesmanship; sometimes, the two are indistinguishable from each other. And the responsibility for this is ours and ours only: We have allowed greed to corrupt everything.
Instead of focusing on building bridges, we are brainwashing readers into accepting dishonest equations by narrating what they are reading.
In the alternative world we are now writing up, every emotion is dutifully labelled and captioned by default to monetize our every opinion as fast as our fingers can type.
This is what honesty looks like; believe.
Honest is one adjective that absolves all sins, often repeated for added impact so readers trust you are telling the truth. Although they predate them, our infelicitous editorial practices reflect our infelicitous political times. If lies and embellishment are good enough for the 45th president of the US then who are we to spit in the word soup?
Propaganda works by precluding reflection and aiming for the lowest common denominator, be it outrage, fear, or doubt. And it needn’t be articulate to be contagious. Couch your message in simple enough language and repeat it relentlessly without ever deviating from the script.
Repetition isn’t always down to shoddy editing: It neutralizes critical thinking faculties among those who keep mistaking the internet for public media.
Tall tales of success abound and “How to” is no longer a question, always a command, a set of instructions with an enticing outcome vague enough to be appealing and relatable.
You are mediocre and I can fix you, the copy promises. Make people feel bad then offer them a solution is the oldest trick in the book to create a need that quickly becomes an irrepressible want, i.e. manipulation. Morals are moot; there is no guilt the proceeds of gullibility and desperation cannot assuage among those who have chosen to make a living selling mirages, be they financial, political, or both.
And so our digital diet consists of a pity party of braying toddlers having Trumpesque temper tantrums on our screens to keep algorithms stimulated. Ours is a staunchly anti-intellectual society that looks down on curiosity and knowledge. We prefer to feed our brains garbage and trust belief to lead us instead of engaging in critical thinking. We subject our hearts to constant overstimulation then wonder out loud why they keep failing us and why we cannot connect with fellow humans.
One day, we wake up numb and dumb; our voices have gone, we have nothing left to wonder about because we have lost the ability to form thoughts. And we have also lost the ability to feel, caught into a stasis of our making in our overstuffed caves, warming our souls to the glow of pixels and data packets on several screens, obsessively refreshing vanity metrics dictating our self-worth.
To instill basic human decency and common sense as standard in all human hearts and minds is going to take a lot more than turning us all into media. While we’re enthusiastic about the internet, we still haven’t figured out whether we should use it to improve everybody’s life or just our own. So far, we yet have to reconcile one with the other.
Instead, “When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it. The other way, I would never get the word out” is a commandment many seem to have taken to heart whenever their personal brand is attacked. Anyone daring to question honest-to-goodness diatribes is systematically pilloried for committing an act of thinking followed by an act of communication.
Those who preach do not welcome feedback. Ergo, online debate and dialogue are increasingly hellacious as those who rant for rent insist on respect their very words preclude. To demand civility when profiteering from incivility and fomenting dissent for a living is as absurd as expecting a dog to pick up and bag its own refuse. As a result, even polite comments are perceived as a personal attack, precluding any exchange of views. The only attention we value is money.
It is a cultural problem: Our mythologies of choice all posit the self prevails, capitalism encourages us to covet until the girth of our greed eclipses everything. Is it nature? Is it nurture? Or is it simply opportunity magnifying our worst traits?
Because we trade in human misery, we have claimed the most noble emotions like honesty, vulnerability, and authenticity as our own. We hope invoking them constantly will assist our ascension to the next step of human evolution and turn us into wealthy celebrities under the guise of telling it like it is.
But can we still afford to condone the behavior of those who keep stirring up discontent and syphoning off fellow feeling from the unsuspecting for profit?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.