Over the last decade, our world has become terrifyingly inauthentic. From rampant fake news to the rise of online bots, AI images and articles, filters and photoshop, an uptick in cosmetic work, and so on; it’s getting impossible to tell what’s real, what’s not, and who or what you can trust. And to make matters worse, it seems that our society is rewarding the fakeness and completely disregarding reality and authenticity. It almost feels like some kind of futuristic, alternate, idiocracy-style world that we’re living in. But is there anything we can do about it? Or do we just have to find new ways to cope with it all?
Social media and the illusion of perfection
I’m a firm believer in the idea that social media is a major contributor to the downfall of society. We absolutely do not need to know everything about everything and everyone. It’s a huge sensory and information overload and honestly, I don’t think the human brain is made to process all this. Our world is basically a giant distraction, and the more we focus on the external, the less we focus on the internal.
Not to mention, the nature of social media forces us to compete with each other in ways we otherwise would not have. Not even 50 years ago, “keeping up with the Joneses” just put you in competition with your friends and neighbors. Now, people are trying to one up everyone they see online as well, for likes. It’s too much!
This leads to the fakeness. Sharing photos of a beautifully plated meal when normally you don’t eat that way, highlight photos from the party you went to that was lamer than you’re making it seem, those feet and legs by the pool or beach pics that we see all over the place, etc. While those may be real experiences, they don’t represent the norm of that person’s day-to-day activities, and all we’re seeing is a carefully curated chronicle of a life that’s far better than what the person is truly experiencing.
Fake stories, fake photos, fake everything
The more fake we see, the more fake we create. In other words, it often starts small. For example, several years ago, we were mostly just seeing a certain handful of celebrities that extensively photoshopped their photos (beyond what was common industry practice), plastic surgery was less common, or at the very least, more subtle, and social media wasn’t quite as big yet, so the content we did see often felt more authentic and less rehearsed. Not exactly the same as what everyone else is doing.
But as social media grew and the lines between virtual worlds and reality became increasingly blurry, the fakeness started to spread. Influencers realized that fake, filtered, “perfect” content performed better, and they followed suit. Then, regular everyday people noticed the attention these influencers were getting from their inauthentic content, and eventually, it became the norm.
It permeates little by little, till eventually, almost everyone who has any sort of presence on social media is infected with the fakeness. I barely even recognize my own friends online because the photos they post of themselves are so different from what they look like in real life. But what really set this off for me is the sudden influx of completely falsified content I’ve been seeing just in the last few months that is being passed off as real – particularly in the world of landscape photography.
Beyond ridiculous and over-the-top edits, which are already frustrating to see so often, what I’ve been noticing lately is a growing number of AI images portraying different natural scenes around the world. To an experienced landscape photographer, it’s quite obvious that these images are fake – just like it’s easy for a seasoned writer to spot articles that are written with AI – but the average viewer believes they’re real.
So what’s the problem exactly? Why does it even matter if a bunch of people think some fake landscape photos are real? In the grand scheme of things, it seems pretty irrelevant honestly. But it plays into a larger societal problem. For instance, when prospective buyers of photographic prints see fake images that they believe are real, they begin holding honest photographers to unrealistically high standards as unadulterated images appear “boring” and fall to the sidelines.
Unfortunately, many will begin to feel that the only way to compete with these unscrupulous “photographers” and get the same levels of engagement is by faking some photos of their own. And again, that’s on a smaller scale, but this same principle applies to many other aspects of society.
What about articles written by AI? When is it ok, and when is it not? Is it ok if the articles are technical with no mention of real human experiences? Are they ok if they’re under a certain word count? What about when it’s clearly stated to the readers that the article is written using AI tools, does that make it any better? While all these stipulations seem reasonable, what happens when the technology improves and the ease of writing AI articles eliminates the need for real writers?
When you start to peel back the layers, it becomes increasingly complicated to figure out when the fakeness around us is harmless, and when it starts being wildly problematic.
What’s happening to our sense of self?
In short, it’s crumbling. Think about kids and teens who are growing up in this fake social media world. Self-esteem issues are already common in teens, but it’s even worse when all they see is everyone online looking perfect and leading exciting, glamorous lives.
They try to make up for this by spending obscene amounts of time and energy perfecting their online identities; girls typically by editing their photos and posting content to make others envious, and boys often push the limits by performing dangerous and egregious stunts. Unfortunately, the more they fake their content, and the more their real-life persona doesn’t match up to the virtual character they’ve created, the worse they feel about themselves. They’re constantly performing, in a sense.
“Adolescence and the early twenties in particular are the years in which you are acutely aware of the contrasts between who you appear to be and who you think you are,” says Dr. Donna Wick, Ed.D, Clinical Psychologist and the Founder of Mind to Mind Parent. “It’s similar to the ‘imposter syndrome’ in psychology. As you get older and acquire more mastery, you begin to realize that you actually are good at some things, and then you feel that gap hopefully narrow. But imagine having your deepest darkest fear be that you aren’t as good as you look, and then imagine needing to look that good all the time! It’s exhausting.”
Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, clinical psychologist and author, speaker, consultant, and research associate at Harvard Medical School, adds that “Self-esteem comes from consolidating who you are. The more identities you have, and the more time you spend pretending to be someone you aren’t, the harder it’s going to be to feel good about yourself.”
Now also consider people who are in an older age bracket, for example, millennials who are currently 28-43 years old. Once you hit your 30s, especially as a woman, you start to become keenly aware of aging signs like fine lines, weight gain, grey hairs, etc. (I would know, I’m 33 years old and have stressed over one or more of these things at some point over the last few years). It’s when, for many people, those serious comparisons to their younger selves begin.
And we’re not only comparing to ourselves from the past, but we’re also still comparing to everyone around us. Do you have a decent job? What about stable housing and a nice car? A picture-perfect relationship? Are your kids excelling at school and sports? Are you taking annual family vacations? Do you have an active social life? If you answered no to any of these questions, and you happen to be busy on social media, it’s possible that you’ve experienced some anxiety when you see everybody else’s perfectly crafted online lives. Although we try to remind ourselves that we’re only seeing a small percentage of what’s really going on, sometimes it can be hard to ignore the constant imagery and not feel like we are failing by comparison.
Another aspect of “sense of self” is how we feel about our physical appearance. While we like to say that appearance doesn’t matter, on a certain level it does. Often, the better we feel about how we look, the more confident we are to push our own limits and take on new endeavors. Caring for one’s physical appearance can lead to healthy lifestyle choices – working out, eating right, a nice skincare regimen, sleeping well, good hygiene – all that can make you feel more attractive, and thus, more confident.
However, the darker side that we’re seeing here seems to a be a form of body dysmorphia that’s spreading throughout society. As we encounter more filtered and photoshopped photos, dubbed aptly as “Instagram face” we’re also seeing a surge in cosmetic procedures. And no, it’s not just that we’re noticing it more, it’s actually happening more. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there was a 19% increase in cosmetic procedures between 2019 and 2022, and those numbers are growing year-over-year. It’s no coincidence that the number of people getting fillers, botox, threading, and other work done is climbing right alongside the rate of social media users. People are paying to look like their filtered selves.
Social media and the cosmetic industry have done a great job at branding all these procedures as “self care”, or “preventative maintenance” or whatever other cute terminology they want to use, but let’s be real for a second here, this is an industry built off people’s insecurities – women in particular. They’ve done so well at misrepresenting the true nature of the industry, that people are beginning to think it’s normal to spend thousands of dollars per year to cut up their bodies and inject toxins and other chemicals into their faces. Aging is a natural process, and society has made us terrified of it.
And while I’m all for people doing what they need to do to feel like the best versions of themselves, how can we stand behind an industry that profits from a society that hates themselves? And believe me, it’s not something I haven’t considered at some points myself. I’ve thought about getting botox in my forehead to prevent wrinkles as I see fine lines developing, or fillers in my smile lines that are a major source of insecurity at times… but I’ll tell you what, it’s not because I’m a self-aware, elevated individual who is so immune to what others think that I’m willing to undergo cosmetic work for self-improvement, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is lying more often than not. It was because I looked in the mirror, and based on the hundreds of fake images I see throughout the week on social media, I wasn’t happy with what I saw looking back at me.
Again, speaking for myself, cosmetic work would only be a band aid for what are really some deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Feeling like my appearance determines my self worth. And even though many will argue and say it’s not that deep and that’s not why they are getting work done, it’s hard to believe that someone who is fully confident in themselves and what they have to offer as a person, would spend a bunch of money to alter their appearance. Especially at the young ages we’re seeing today.
It’s all about perspective
Let’s dive a little deeper here. As humans, or mammals in general, we are social creatures that crave interaction, meaningful connections, and acceptance. Throughout history, we survived in community settings, so it’s in our DNA to be adaptable. We change our behaviors, hide our insecurities, pretend to like certain things and dislike other things – all in an attempt to create a persona or character that fits in with our social groups.
We’ve all done it to some extent. So at what point does it go further than biological instinct, and start treading into the realm of mental illness? How far a person is willing to go to fit in depends largely on their own personal journey, so isn’t somewhat cruel and arbitrary to dismiss them as being fake when we may understand nothing about what they’ve been through and how they view themselves and the world around them?
Indeed it is. And another thing to consider are personal viewpoints and perspectives when we explore socially sensitive topics like this. We all see things through our own lens that was finetuned through years of life experiences. Again, speaking personally – overall, I’m pretty average and find it somewhat easy to adapt and fit in (although I definitely feel awkward and self-conscious at times). I’m decent looking, I don’t have any embarrassing or off-the-wall interests or vices, and my behaviors and mannerisms are relatively normal, so for the most part, I can get by pretty alright being myself.
But what about people who grew up outside these norms, and struggled to find acceptance? Is it so wrong for them to go the extra mile to feel better about themselves and gain the desired affirmations from their peers? Of course not! The problem really isn’t the people who conform, but rather the society that makes them feel the need to. While social norms have always been a thing, the in-your-face nature of online communication and entertainment that we’re exposed to now can compound our insecurities and become incredibly overwhelming and defeating.
Final thoughts – Coping with the fakeness
Circling back to my initial question of how to cope in a world full of fakeness, I sadly haven’t fully figured it out yet. Sometimes a social media break is the way to go, but for someone who makes a living that way, it’s much easier said than done. Engaging in activities that get you out of the house and boost your mental health might be a good starting point, that way, even if we can’t avoid the rise of filters, AI, and other forms dishonest content, we can at least be more impervious to the negative effects.
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