Social Media Brownie Points

We need to have a conversation about the endless political/social commentary petitions that fill our social media feeds. Enough is enough. We get it. You care deeply about [insert social cause here], but the problem is that subjecting the rest of us to your thoughts about said issue is becoming rather tedious. Climate Change. Obama. Trump. Gun Control. Racism. We get it. The world is a complicated, dangerous place, and instantaneous news allows us to witness the chaos in real-time, with live video feeds from around the world. However, these are incredibly complex issues that, sadly, you will usually not be able to fix with a 140-character Tweet or that clever statement you just posted on Facebook.

What is actually occurring is a phenomenon called “virtue signaling.” Basically, the logic goes that we generally associate with people who share similar opinions and experiences about the world. When you log into Facebook and see posts that you tend to agree with, it can seem like everyone in the world shares your beliefs, because the online social group you inhabit backs them up. This, in turn, creates a self-perpetuating confirmation bubble. Facebook even tacitly admits this in their “News Feed Values,” where they state their number one goal is “keeping you connected to the people, places, and things you want to be connected to.”

Most people don’t really care about the social issue they are “upset” about. Rather they are signaling to their social network that they are a good person who cares deeply about the world around them. “See look at me, I’m virtuous. I care about the world enough that I will post strongly worded statements.” Although some have used the term as an insult against the left, the reality is that this phenomenon crosses all political parties, religions, genders, and races. It’s a cheap way to curry virtual brownie points within our social groups. Helen Lewis, writing for the New Statesman, went so far as to blame Labour’s defeat in the 2015 UK elections on virtue signaling. She blamed a Labour echo chamber focused on politically esoteric issues like nuclear disarmament, (which had lost touch with much of the voting public) for the Conservative Party’s surprise win.

This isn’t to discount the tremendous amount of good that can come about from social media. Governments have fallen, lost children have been found, and billions of dollars of actual money have been raised for causes from cancer research to helping someone without insurance recover from an accident. It’s just a plea that may be the next time we are concerned about something happening in the world, instead of typing behind a keyboard, we actually go out and attempt to help our non-virtual community. I promise there are wonderful organizations in your city that are desperate for your time, money, or skill set that can make a difference in the lives of actual human beings. It’s more fulfilling than a “like” will ever be.

Peter Gietl