I’ve been doing a lot of two things recently: watching Black Mirror, and reading the news. Both leave me with the same kind of feeling. I’ve decided that feeling comes because both sources are hitting on a common theme at the moment, in that bizarre netherworld where art and life cease imitating each other and become the same thing.
In Black Mirror’s notorious first episode, “The National Anthem,” the British Prime Minister is spurred on by a kidnapper and social media to publicly have sex with a pig. As the PM humiliates himself on national TV, the viewer sees only the increasingly sickened reactions of the masses watching on, paradoxically powerless to look away and yet, the movers of the entire travesty. If it wasn’t for the people who gave audience to the kidnapper’s actions, he wouldn’t have a platform on which to terrorize others. We become aware who the true villains of the episode are in this moment– the people who failed to realize, through massive diffusion of responsibility, their own culpability in the horror they now observe. The whole thing points to what is perhaps the greatest theme of the show: the idea that with new technology, every day people must adopt new definitions of responsibility, or suffer terrible consequences.
As frightening as it is to think about the direct ties between an episode of Black Mirror and real, modern life, we musn’t ignore them. One exists in the recent spotlight cast on fake and heavily spun news, widely consumed through social media. In 2016, more than half of adult voters recieved their news through social media, myself included. Of course, not all news on social media is false. However, even if we like to think of ourselves as critical news consumers, we cannot excuse our roles as partial perpetrators in our own misinformation this election. If you are like me, you were probably lured into a false sense of security by election predictors which forcasted a tremendous likelihood of a Clinton win. I also don’t doubt that more than a few of the articles in which I partook were more slanted than I wanted to admit at the time– granting liberties to favored parties, and likely taking things said and done by right wing politicians out of context. Surfing Facebook, I have seen a lot of information shared by Trump supporters which decontextualizes and reimagines facts to the point of falsehood. The New York Times recently published a case study that highlights the avenues by which some of these pieces become overblown. In mindlessly consuming and sharing these materials, we are guilty of the same sin as those thoughtless masses in “The National Anthem.” We have acted on impulse, and allowed these pieces, with their hyperbolized, exciting titles, to manipulated us. We have given our racist uncle’s blog the same visibility (and therefore, in the minds of some, credibility) as a long-standing, established publication. Now, as we look on at the travesty we’ve created, we feel just a little dirty, but we aren’t sure why.
The greatest lesson we need to learn from this is social media, and Facebook in particular, is an unreliable source. Even when a credible articles appear in our feeds, we must remember that it has been picked for us based on what Facebook knows of our beliefs. It will inflate our own feelings of self-righteousness, which can blind us to facts which might nuance or change your views in the future. Always seek out information for yourself before posting or sharing anything. In the post-truth world, we have a personal responsibility to fight the spread of falsehoods by this new medium.
In Black Mirror episodes, the characters come to grips with the flaws of their technology only after it has become integral to their society, beyond the point where warnings are useful. In this way, I hope my analogy to the show will fail. Our response to these events will shape how people interact with these technologies in the generations to come. The internet can be intoxicating, and we are teenagers waking up to behold the carnage of our first rager. Here’s hoping we learn from it.