Virtue Signalling: how we use social media to define ourselves and lie to our friends

I’ve been on Facebook for over a year now. I’ll check it a few times a day and post the occasional article or recipe. But I have noticed a growing hypocrisy – and we’re all guilty of it – among people who use social media. We mislead ourselves about why we’re doing it. It’s called virtue signalling.

I think I knew what it was before I knew the name for it. I think many of us do it subconsciously but, now it is in the forefront of my consciousness, I have become bombarded with examples of it and I am now trying to avoid doing it.

One can be all of these things. I admire other people who are. But I also admire modesty and humility, as well as action, as opposed to flaunting personal politics among friends and preaching to the converted. If someone posts this picture, how much will it influence anyone – anyone at all – to vote Labour? I suggest the answer is close to ‘not at all’.

I’m not talking about when most of my friends share an article or a post because they think it’s funny or informative or they genuinely believe someone else will enjoy it, although we are all inadvertently making comments about ourselves when we post anything. I’m not talking about someone who replies to a post because they have a burning opinion on an issue or want to raise a balanced argument or a different perspective, or share an experience. Although, again, we may be subconsciously pedalling an aspect of ourselves we may desire to promote universally.

I’m not talking about hobbyists or enthusiasts who can’t help but share their passion for music or food or politics or the next poetry reading event in Perthshire. I’m not talking about people who are wildly, irrepressibly enthusiastic. I am specifically talking about those people whose posts project a contrived and deliberate image intended for self-promotion.

We just want to be loved or admired or seen as the latest Mother Theresa.

There is a current trend to self-promote through social media. It’s like a sort of Facebook designer fashion cult, isn’t it? It’s the hope that if I put this on my page, I will appear to others in a certain cool way: people will perceive me as I want to be perceived, they will admire me, they will ‘like’ me, and they may even reply with a flattering comment, and then we can congratulate each other until the cows come home. Virtue signalling breeds virtue-rewarding, and so the cycle continues.

Perhaps we all do it to a certain extent; perhaps it is natural, there is no malice in it: after all, we just want to be loved or admired or seen as the latest Mother Theresa? But if there is no valid action which accompanies the virtue signal, then maybe we shouldn’t do it at all.

The problem exists when we suggest we are great feminists, great liberals, great activists, great philanthropists and then we don’t go out and actually do something about it, sometimes, in fact, doing the exact opposite in our private lives: doing nothing. There’s the rub. We just signal our potential to do it, our belief that we somehow might behave in a philanthropic way if we could be bothered to get off our backsides and away from the pc, and then we bask in the identity it offers us.

There is a thin line between posting photos of our food, our family, our beliefs, events in our lives, our triumphs because we genuinely want to share them, and a deliberate attempt to catapult our egos into orbit in order to harness others’ admiration.

So why might we all be guilty of virtual signalling? I mean, why don’t we just all go down the pub and have a chat about politics or philosophy or literature and then come home again, feeling better for having exchanged ideas privately? What makes us post something in a public domain which we think will inspire others’ admiration? And isn’t it valid to signal our liberalism and our support for all things fair? What’s the difference between virtue signalling on Facebook and, say, wearing a red ribbon or a poppy?

Or is virtue signalling a self-promoting smug cousin to political correctness? I think the idea lies in honesty of motive and in being really up-front with ourselves about our reasons for what we write. It’s ok to promote a political rally if we actually go on the march or would do if we weren’t hundreds of miles away, or if we inform others of an opportunity to come with us. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves, though, by suggesting that the existence of such a march promotes our desired ego image because we actually put it out there and extol its virtue without ever intending to go.

Perhaps it’s best not to tell the world you are going on an all-night vigil for peace. Perhaps it’s better to invite your friends privately, offer them a lift or a blanket, publicise the event but don’t publicise yourself. Just bloody go and be quiet and humble about your good deeds, maybe?

But there’s also a growing trend of smug responses, self-righteous ranting and self or mutually congratulating posts which are purely internet narcissism. People put egocentric  or verbose stuff out there which they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face.

This type of virtue signalling which is purely competitive, which is not about deep conviction and nor does it promote support for a third party who needs it,but exists merely so that someone can massage their own ego through conflict, rivalry and challenge, is probably best avoided.

As Polonius said: ‘to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ (Or woman.)


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