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.)

The Top 12 books I have read this year

As 2015 draws to a close, it is a time for reflection. In that spirit, here is a countdown of the top 12 books that I have read in the past year, out of at least a hundred! Note: they need not necessarily have been published in 2015, and certainly haven’t been read in this order.

As a writer, I find each and every one of these authors inspirational. They have all, in different ways, shaped my thinking about what good writing, especially good literature, consists of.



12. Colm Tóibín Brooklyn

Clever and profound, Tóibín’s novel is about Irish immigration to the United States. It is subtle, sensitive and thought-provoking.

11. Hillary Mantell Bring Up The Bodies

Hillary Mantell is an author whose historical writing cannot be beaten for the sheer intelligence, the knowledge and her ability as a storyteller. Having been sceptical about historical novels, as a genre, before I read ‘Bring Up The Bodies,’ I can see why Mantell has so many prestigious awards to her name.

10. Manda Scott Into The Fire

I do not normally read detective-style stories, but the clever juxtaposition of the protagonist and Joan d’Arc made this story worthwhile and enthralling. Scott’s narrative cracks a great pace.

9. Lyndall Gordon Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson

Gordon gives us a real insight into one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of poetry. He enables us to understand Emily Dickinson and the motivation behind her poems.

8. Joseph Pierce Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile

A fascinating background into one of the greatest Russian writers, ‘A Soul in Exile’ . I never realised Solzhenitsyn had such a sense of humour.

7. Sunjev Sahora The Year of the Runaways

A deep and poignant story, which creates characters whose lives I could not possibly have understood, had I not read this novel. Not only a great read, but an important one, too.

6. Dave Boling Guernica

Boling mixes the fact of the bombing of Guernica during the  Spanish Civil War with a fictional narrative about a Basque family, affected by the Franco regime. Tenderly characterised and beautifully brought to life.

5. Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive

A very important book by a very talented writer. I met Matt on my MA course earlier this year and he is a genuine inspiration. ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ banishes the myths and the stigmas of mental illness and shows how one person’s triumph led to brilliant writing. This book should be on school reading lists.

4. Sarah Winman A Year of Marvellous Ways

A beautiful and poetic novel, the central character being an 89-year-old Cornish woman, who demonstrates physical strength and self-sufficiency, and tells a gripping and impactful story about her past to a young man with much to learn. I met Sarah in a Waterstone’s in Truro, and love both of her books. She is an inspirational writer.

3. Patrick Gale A Place Called Winter

This is a profound book, which tells the story of the protagonist in flashbacks. The central character, Harry Cane, is banished to a life of hardship in Canada. The harsh backdrop is a stunning metaphor for Harry’s coming to terms with his needs, his lifestyle and his past.

2. Paul Kingsnorth The Wake

‘The Wake’ is one of the most important books any writer can read. It shows how a determined writer, who believes in what he writes, can triumph in the writing of something entirely original and innovative. ‘The Wake’ is set in 1066 and written in a language which Kingsnorth calls a ‘shadow tongue,’ a version of auld English updated for accessibility to modern readers. It is post-apocalyptic, bloody, bold and breathtaking.

1. Roddy Doyle The Guts

Roddy Doyle is the master at writing bittersweet stories. He is the master of evoking characters we can love for their honesty and he puts them in a setting where we cannot help but admire their vulnerable humanity. ‘The Guts’ is a continuation of ‘The Commitments’ in which Jimmy Rabbitte has bowel cancer. The story deals with Jimmy’s life and his desperate need to survive after he realises he is ill. No-one creates tenderness and bravery through humour in their characters quite like Roddy Doyle can. You will laugh, you will empathise and you will share in the unfolding tragedy.