BY SHEILA B. LALWANI
It may seem fatuous to bring in a long-dead German philosopher to discuss truth, values, and social media in America, but I don’t think it is.
The proliferation of social media and recent political events provide a backdrop in which to consider questions of truth, public trust, politics, and social cohesion. The connection between ethics and politics were central to the work of Immanuel Kant, the central figure among the Enlightenment thinkers. He considered duties to others and to oneself from a general moral law – a categorical imperative – that guides morality, encourages individual humanity, and eschews using another person as a means to an end (Allen, 2016). From a Kantian perspective – and from a social cohesion approach that values trust – Instagram infographics pose a worrying development.
During the long and agonizing period of COVID-19, social media became a welcome social mobilizing presence in the lives of millions who coalesced around Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and collectively grieved the murder and death of the George Floyd in Minneapolis. The events of the summer coupled with many being confined to their homes heightened Instagram’s capacity as a gathering place to express grief and frustration over racial injustice and inspired a new social media phenomenon, the Instagram Infographic. The Instagram Infographic utilizes the platform to convey specific messages that are often attractively packaged, pithy, and socially relevant. The aesthetics of the content included floral details and line art for more attention-grabbing content. This content was slick. Posts featured sophisticated fonts and stylish backgrounds. This content was created with titles, as author Hannah Berman (2020) points out in Medium, with eye-catching phrases like, “How to be an anti-racist” and “Why ‘All Lives Matter’ Isn’t Enough.” Activists argued that Instagram infographics helped to capture greater public awareness and interest in racial injustice.
On surface level, the argument is compelling for its desire to attract audiences in a media-saturated environment, but Kant, the towering German philosopher who died 200 years before Instagram was founded, would caution against using people as a means to an end. Digital activism is a good and worthwhile endeavor, but the facts can speak for themselves. Failure to do so damages trust and undermines society.
In recent years, social media has played a role in the steady erosion in public trust. Kant and the other philosophers of his era lived during a time period when ideas of liberty, tolerance, and reason were espoused. From this philosophy, moral judgments are rational and must be supported with reason. For Kant, right is right and what is wrong is wrong. Carson (2020) and Mertens (2016) both point out that Kant was probably the most ardent defender in the prohibition of falsehoods. For Kant, there was no room for “truthiness” or alternative facts.
Content can be created well, Kant would likely argue, but its ultimate function is to speak the facts, and social media is notorious for its lack of respect for the truth. Social media provides an ideal platform in which to share one’s life. For example, posts about interesting trips in toney locales are nice to read about it; but, while they are presented as a major “news item” in a social media feed, they actually only represent a small percentage of an individual’s life. Kant would argue that the highlighting of such events may lead one to false conclusions about the life of another – and the content creator may actually intend for that to occur. The effects of selective posting among others are still coming to light, but what we know affirms Kant’s theory: Findings from a recent investigation from the Wall Street Journal indicate that Instagram has had a deeply damaging impact on teenage girls who reported suicidal ideation over content they saw. Other examples of content generated, whether intentionally misleading or not, further affirm that social media is a less than ideal platform for an accurate and complete picture.
Furthermore, it is powerful to let the facts stand on their own. The murder of George Floyd is significant enough, but content creators used snappy titles and sophisticated fonts on their Instagram infographics. This form of advocacy may actually undermine the significance of the movement and appear as glib to others. Does a racially motivated murder really require an attractive font for it to be seen an important? Clearly, not.
The other issue that Kant may point out is the intent of the content creator. Let’s face it: social media is communal. The more reposts and likes, the better. The sharing and reposting of Instagram infographic content related to George Floyd seems to have been done by some for narcissistic reasons to appear in line with the times instead of using the tragedy to incite actual change or support a worthwhile movement. Ashe (2020) highlights this form of communication as “performative activism” as an insincere form of advocacy. These actions actually weaken a worthwhile movement and perverts a tragedy to a post. To borrow from Kant, people are not “ends in themselves” and using the tragedy of Floyd to bolster one’s standing in the social media sphere should make anyone nauseous.
The natural conclusion of Instagram infographics speaks to Kant’s fundamental concern: Social media hits at the center of social cohesion and trust. Sure, social media is a powerful platform for communal sharing, self-expression and advocacy. Images, texts and content give voice to the outrage people felt and provide a platform which for people – near and far – to express themselves. But the content generated and intention behind it also gives rise to trust. For Kant, trust is fundamentally important, and without it, we are doomed.
Allen, Anita L. (2016). “Privacy in a Big Data Economy.” Law, Privacy and Technology Commentary Series. Harvard Law Review. https://harvardlawreview.org/2016/12/protecting-ones-own-privacy-in-a-big-data-economy/
Ashe, Lauren. (2020, June 23). “The Dangers of Performative Activism.” VoxATL. Available at: https://voxatl.org/the-dangers-of-performative-activism/
Berman, Hannah. (2020, July 28). “Should We Trust Instagram Infographics?” Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/should-we-trust-instagram-infographics-f80f04e1549e
Carson, T. L. (2010). Lying and Deception: Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press.
Mertens, T. (2016). On Kant's Duty to Speak the Truth. Kantian Review, 21(1), 27–51. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1369415415000291
Wells, G., Horwitz, J. and Seetharaman, D. (2021). “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739
- Sheila B. Lalwani is a doctoral student at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas-Austin