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Add ‘critical ignoring’ to your digital toolbox to resist the lure of social media impostors

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Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

Social media blurs the lines between reality and fictional entertainment, and we need to learn how to use rationality to tell the difference.

We are living in the infotainment age, and by that I mean we are constantly imbibing information disguised as entertainment, and sometimes the lines get so blurry that we are no longer able to sift the information from the entertainment and critically analyse to build knowledge.

It seems we are falling into a trap of tacit acceptance of anything thrown at us without stopping to ascertain its probability using a scale of rationality.

When looking for entertainment one is often more relaxed, less alert and more likely to suspend reality to imbibe the full experience and enjoyment. In a controlled environment, that should be fine, but when the environment is unregulated, things can get precarious.

This is where social media starts to blur the lines between reality, realism and fictional entertainment content.

It was only a matter of time before people like fake TikTok doctor Matthew Lani and fake pharmacist Nthabiseng Ramokolo made their way into the blurred arena. What is at stake here is people’s vulnerability, desperation and sometimes relish at disposing of the peskiness of critical engagement. This is what makes people miss red flags about questionable qualifications or the peddling of professions on what are meant to be entertainment platforms. Anything that comes in the form of a quick, ready and cheap solution to a real problem is particularly seductive.

It’s even more curious that people have the audacity to take on impostor roles and amass large followings of people who place hopes and aspirations upon them. It has to take a large amount of “nothing to lose” and detachment from reality to do it.

An impostor is described as “a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others” and therein lies what needs to be addressed – the need of some to present a fantastical image of themselves and their urge to keep it up.

At the heart of pretending to be a professional like a doctor is a yearning for admiration, respect and power – things the impostor may not enjoy in their real life.

As I was doing research for this column, I came across an article in The Conversation by Professor of Education and History at Stanford University Sam Wineburg, who not only makes the case for critical thinking but also for “critical ignoring”.

Wineburg says what he has found in his applied psychology studies is: “Learning to resist the lure of dubious information demands more than a new strategy in students’ digital toolbox. It requires the humility that comes from facing one’s vulnerability: that despite formidable intellectual powers and critical thinking skills, no one is immune to the slippery ruses plied by today’s digital rogues.”

This means it is important to be aware of our own vulnerabilities, those that would make us susceptible to possible trickery on certain topics and platforms, and therefore we need to understand that not everything deserves our attention.

Hopefully, we look at the stories of these most recent impostors not as something to be dismissed but as a moment for pause to consider how our vulnerabilities manifest in different ways. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

P1. Front page. 28 October 2023

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    As many astute observers have commented, most human beings are predisposed to ‘accept’ that which conforms or confirms their widely held views on most things, while dismissing or disregarding that which challenges it. It is largely determined by personal ‘character’, and hence what you call “critical ignoring” is so difficult to implement.

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