On Social Media, There Is No Difference Between the Real and the Fake

You are the mask you wear. Your fake profile is your real profile.

In his The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek, taking from French humorist Alphonse Allais, presents us with a comic scenario: a married couple, for the sake of reigniting their passion, agrees to meet each other ‘accidentally’ as if for the first time at a masquerade ball. At the ball, after finding each other, they go to a comfortable corner and start making out. But on removing the masks, they realise that their respective partners were someone else. Of course, this embarrassing scenario shows the pain of misrecognition, even if in a relatively harmless situation like a masquerade ball. It is also interesting to note that a popular game played at masquerade balls was asking the guests to guess each others’ identities beyond the mask.

Let us consider a more quirky scenario: a married couple in contemporary times is bored with each other. To spice up a dull life, both husband and wife, unknown to each other, use fake profiles to sex chat with strangers. They both connect with anonymous strangers online whom they find interesting and, after many episodes of sex chatting, decide to meet in person. When they do meet, they find out that they have been sex chatting with each other all this while – so instead of cheating on each other, they were cheating with each other. In my reading, after the event of falling in love has gone sour by the routinisation brought about by marriage, an incident like this provides a necessary shock, a surprise, a revelation that reveals some essential character of the beloved that reignites the passion of love. Much like how the resurrection of Jesus Christ validates him as always having been the son of god, it is precisely the discovery of the fake profile that gives meaning to the identity of the original.

Also read: Can Social Media, Loud and Inclusive, Fix World Politics?

Fake profiles have gained considerable notoriety these days. Journalists, activists, academics, politicians, social workers, humanitarians – basically, anyone and everyone who is a public figure with strong opinions has come under fire from fake profiles on social media. Women active on social media routinely encounter fake profiles, from innocuous requests for a date to violent slut shaming and rape threats. Of course, people with original profiles do engage in such activities too, but the fake profile gives one a superpower by removing barriers of basic decency, however flimsy they might be, that many original profiles are wary of transgressing.

So what is the general profile of one who hides behind the fake profile? Obvious suspects are stalkers. On the political front, it would be those like the supporters of US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and ISIS who have made remarkable use of social media not just for violently trolling critics but also to mobilise fellow men and women and provide a sense of virtual community. Fake profiles of members of Islamist groups have made optimal use of Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their real exploits like beheadings and summary executions, while RSS sympathisers have created and circulated false news about Muslim atrocities in Kerala and West Bengal on social media. But right-wingers and fundamentalists are not the only ones using fake profiles for political purposes – those who oppose them also have used masks to send their messages. Consider for instance the hackers group ‘Anonymous’, known for donning the Guy Fawkes mask made popular by the film V for Vendetta. Even individuals swearing by social justice are not above using fake ids to spew vitriolic attacks on those they oppose. The fake profile provides a cover for you to engage in conversations (random flirtatious messages, for instance) or confrontations (hateful posts against a public figure, ethnic group and the like) that your original profile desires, but does not pursue fearing moral and/or legal repercussions.

Unless flagged, social media does not differentiate between a fake and a real profile. Credit: Reuters

Unless flagged, social media does not differentiate between a fake and a real profile. Credit: Reuters

Media theorist Geert Lovink says that we are entering a new age, “the hegemonic era of social media platforms as ideology.” Ideology creates its subjects. The sphere of social media, as Lovink notes, creates its subjects as profiles. There can be no subject of the social media without a profile. But unless flagged, social media does not differentiate between a fake and a real profile. In contrast to the fake profile, which gives full play to the subject’s dark fantasies, it is the real profile which actually fakes. It shares photos which exaggerate its beauty, or posts that presents it as a sapiosexual personality. The real profile is in constant performance, with its likes, with its emoticons, with its tweets, with its articles shared and so on. The real profile tries to role play as itself, as a fully authentic being, “I am me”. The real profile buys into the social media ideology and is shaped by it. But since the ideology of social media rests itself and reassures its subjects on providing freedom, what is implicit is that the subject takes full responsibility for what it does online. So a post, a message, a share or a like of a person on social media can be dug up and held against him or her. And since the social media sphere, much like neoliberalism, encourages endless identity groupings, such information can potentially motivate random or coordinated attacks against such a person should she have offended some group. In a time of ultra sensitivity, where a cartoon of a religious figure or a goddess getting a haircut can trigger riots in some parts of the world, the fake profile offers several comforts that the real does not.

Also read: Diplomacy in the Age of Social Media

The fake profile engages in what the subject desires. Whether he stalks women, supports marginalised groups, calls for ethnic cleansing of minorities or justifies the assassination of dictators, the fake profile is much closer to the identity of the subject than the real profile is. Of course, legal restrictions exist and those who have used fake profiles for criminal and seditious acts have been charged. But generally, monitoring the activities of fakes, especially when a single man or woman can run hundreds of them, is a time-consuming task. For the person who creates the fake profile though, the pursuit of her desire is an important component of her identity, and social media is the place where her fantasy and virtual reality coincide. This cannot be dismissed as mere performance as there is a lot more performance involved in the manner a real profile functions. Zizek provides a (Lacanian) definition of a fool as “somebody who believes in his immediate identity with himself; somebody who is not capable of a dialectically mediated distance towards himself.” The fool on social media is not the one with the fake profile but rather the one who believes that her original profile is her immediate identity. So I disagree with Charles Leadbeater who famously said you are what you share; rather, you are the mask you wear. Your fake profile is your real profile. Batman being Bruce Wayne, a philandering billionaire, adds no charm to Batman. Wayne being Batman, a vigilante who thinks he is restoring order to a rotting capitalist society, gives the rich playboy meaning. The mask is not a cover for the original identity. The mask is the original identity.

And both are fakes.

Karthick Ram Manoharan is assistant professor of political science at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

This is the full text of the author’s presentation at the Seventh Anjan Ghosh Memorial Seminar held at Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre, Kolkata on September 16, 2017.