Lies, damned lies, and social media: are we all just bricks in the wall?

A person holding a smartphone

Two things happened to me yesterday (which in itself is remarkable, because very few things have happened to me recently. Over the last year or so. I’ve been mainly working from home and socially distancing from everyone except my immediate family and my dog. I think I might be forming an unhealthy attachment to the dog, actually).

Anyway, the first thing was that a friend of a friend told me, over social media, that I “have been subject to a year of mind control and propaganda”. I was advised, “open your eyes and realise that you are being manipulated”. This advice came to me during a discussion of the evidence around the efficacy of face masks in limiting the spread of COVID-19.

The second thing was that I watched “Top of the Pops: The Story of 1979”. I know that watching television is a fairly passive activity and doesn’t really constitute something ‘happening to’ me. But, what did happen was that I was struck by hearing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and seeing some of Gerald Scarfe’s powerful artwork.

Now, I haven’t been living under a rock. I have seen and heard The Wall before. In fact, as I’m planning to begin teacher training this September, some of the lyrics have been echoing around in my head over the past few months, as I wonder what on earth I am doing — notably, “Teachers leave them kids alone.” I’ve also been dealing with some uncomfortable mental imagery concerning sausage factories.

But my earlier social media encounter had prompted me to ponder ideas about manipulation and mind control, and I found myself focusing on the lyric about us all being “just bricks in the wall.” You see, I was infuriated by the person who told me I needed to open my eyes and see that I was being manipulated. I thought it was an incredibly patronising comment. Of course I’m being manipulated! Don’t all people manipulate others, all the time? Whether consciously or unconsciously?

Social media is a strange and sometimes wonderful place. There is infinite opportunity for human interaction, and therefore infinite opportunity to manipulate and be manipulated. As I write this now, planning to share it on social media, I know that it might have the power to influence people (albeit probably not very many, since I don’t have much of a following!).

Of course, there are also significant conscious attempts to manipulate large numbers of people. According to a report from the Project on Computational Propaganda at the University of Oxford, political parties and governments spent more than half a billion dollars over a period of 8 years on “the research, development, and implementation of psychological operations and public opinion manipulation over social media”.

Going back to Pink Floyd then, I remember my teenage self passionately chanting that, “We don’t need no thought control”. But now my older and sadly more cynical self is wondering how, unless we could somehow avoid all forms of interaction, we can ever really ‘open our eyes’. Yes, we can realise that we are being manipulated. Maybe this awareness can even help us see some things more clearly. But can we avoid being manipulated altogether? I think not.



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