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SI: Manifesto

Social Media + Society

Social Media and Bullshit

April-June 2015: 1­–3
© The Author(s) 2015
DOI: 10.1177/2056305115580335

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

To understand the role of social media in society, we have to understand how social media are understood. We need to
analyze how different actors and organizations see and think about technology, the forms of knowledge that people draw on
as they make sense of, develop, and use social media. Central among these is bullshit. This short essay discusses bullshit as
defined by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt as statements made with little or no concern for their truth-value or justification
and argues that social media are accompanied by unusually large amounts of bullshit for two reasons. First, they confront us
with epistemological problems and are hard to understand. Second, there is a large demand for knowledge about what they
mean, a powerful political economy that generates a lot of statements about social media, including substantial amounts of
bullshit. Given the rapid development of social media and their growing importance, this is unlikely to change in the near
future. Bullshit is here to stay, and we need to take it seriously intellectually and analytically to understand social media.

social media, bullshit, epistemology, political economy, methods

To understand the role of social media in society, we have to and narrow conception of what qualifies as knowledge (à la
understand how social media are understood. We need to W. K. Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”) or a more permis-
analyze how different actors and organizations see and think sive one (as per William James’ “The Will to Believe”), it
about technology, the forms of knowledge that people draw seems clear that much in the world masquerading as knowl-
on as they make sense of, develop, and use social media. edge is, upon closer inspection, better conceived of as
Central among these is bullshit. bullshit.
I use the term “bullshit” here in the technical sense of Bullshit can be found across all the different forms of
statements about the world and how it works that are charac- knowledge (operational, representational, and explanatory)
terized by indifference to how things are, and I am strictly and kinds of knowledge producers (lay, professional, and
concerned with bullshit in an analytical sense here, not a nor- academic) involved with social media. No one has a monop-
mative one. The question is not whether and when bullshit is oly on bullshit. We all occasionally resort to it and act upon
good or bad, but what it means for social media and how we it. This is precisely why it is important. It is hard to say with
understand social media. Bullshit, according to the philoso- any degree of precision how much there is (both numerator
pher Harry Frankfurt (2005), can be differentiated both from and denominator are hard to quantify). But I will offer as a
honest statements and from lies. Honest statements are hypothesis that bullshit is particularly common when it
grounded in the belief that they are true, and lies statements comes to social media, for two reasons.
are grounded in the belief that they are not. Both hinge on a First, as Frankfurt (2005) notes, “bullshit is unavoidable
conception of truth-value and implicitly or explicitly involve whenever circumstances require someone to talk without
justified beliefs. Bullshit, on the other hand, concerns state- knowing what he is talking about” (p. 15). Social media—as
ments made with little or no concern for their truth-value. an imprecise term referring loosely to a very large and diverse
Bullshit need not deceive us about the facts of a matter, and set of relatively new technologies and practices with no natu-
bullshit is not the same as lying. It concerns more precisely ral edges that are evolving very rapidly, often intersect with
statements made with disregard to whether they are true or
not and with little or no justification. Bullshit is statements University of Oxford, UK
about the world to which there is no sincere and satisfying
Corresponding Author:
generally acceptable answer to the question “how do you Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, University of Oxford, 13 Norham Gardens, Oxford
know?” Whether one is of a Platonic idealist or an Aristotelian OX2 6PS, UK.
empiricist inclination and whether one subscribes to a strict Email:

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2 Social Media + Society

each other and many other phenomena in complex ways, and 1989), and the balance between engaging with other forms of
are embedded in many very different settings—seem to invite knowledge versus objectifying it as an object of analysis
this kind of talk. Furthermore, our relative ignorance of the (when do we aim to challenge claims made by prominent
total population and the universe of cases (let alone their futurists, and when analyze what those claims come to mean?).
properties) undermines our ability to rely on conventional Analytically, bullshit is a real challenge. Although many
methods of analytic and statistical generalization, even when who talk frequently, with confidence, and often consequen-
we have very robust knowledge of particular phenomena. So, tially about social media and their role in society are proba-
social media are epistemologically exposed to bullshit bly aware that they are occasionally bullshitting (or at least
because it is hard to understand social media if by “under- regurgitating things they suspect may be bullshit), they are
stand” one means knowing something about it with a degree unlikely to simply admit this if asked in, say, an interview.
of reliability and validity on the basis of agreed-upon termi- (There is also the further problem of unintended bullshit,
nology and forms of justification. which may even take the form of false consciousness.) One
Second, the “circumstances” that Frankfurt refers to are approach would be “breaching experiments,” modeled on the
not simply a relative dearth of justified knowledge about sociological work done by Harold Garfinkel (1967) to make
social media. It also involves the high demand for knowl- commonly accepted social rules and norms visible and ame-
edge, or at least statements that may pass for knowledge, nable to analysis by breaking them—in this case, the interac-
about social media. The demand comes both from legacy tional norm that we typically at least pretend to accept
organizations of various sort (governments, businesses, statements made by other people at face value. Basically, I
media, social movements, etc.), individuals in their capacity like to imagine a project where field researchers systemati-
as lay people (parents thinking about their children, people cally identify knowledge-claims about the role of social
looking for a date, activists trying to change the world, etc.), media in society and asked those making the claim “how do
and, of course, the companies operating and developing you know?” pushing this line of inquiry as far as possible
social media. Many actors, some of them powerful, feel whether in everyday conversations about social media among
impelled to act upon, engage with, and have views of social lay people, in Q & As after presentations at industry confer-
media, even though they may know little about them. This ences, or in academic settings when research problems are
demand underpins a highly generative political economy for framed and results generalized as wider statements. The pur-
the production of statements about social media. In a situa- pose would be to uncover what, if any, forms of justification
tion characterized by the epistemic problems briefly outlined these claims rest upon (or can be put to rest upon).
above is likely to also produce a lot of bullshit. What does the future hold for social media and bullshit?
In summary, social media seem to be accompanied by a We can imagine a range of scenarios on the basis of the epis-
lot of bullshit because we know so little and because there is temological and political–economic factors outlined above.
a lot at stake. The gulf between the supply of justified beliefs Epistemologically, hopefully, we will overcome some of
and the demand for much more, and more detailed and exten- the challenges we currently face in terms of understanding
sive, and for various interests and in various ways instrumen- social media (others will continue to dog us, new will appear).
tally useful, knowledge about social media creates space for Ideally, we will improve our theoretical, methodological, and
bullshit. (More space than in some other areas of human substantial understanding and accumulate new insights about
activity, such as mathematics.) This situation is both intel- a wide variety of important cases and contexts. In practice,
lectually interesting and a real analytical challenge for those however, the intellectual challenges of understanding social
trying to understand social media. media and the increasing ubiquity and ever-evolving nature of
Intellectually, bullshit is interesting because it connects the object of analysis means we are likely to always fall short.
directly with a broader set of questions concerning the rela- In terms of the political economy animating large parts of
tionship between what we might in lack of a better term call the production of knowledge and knowledge-like statements
ideas (beliefs, knowledge, and some definitions of culture) about social media much depends on how effectively the mar-
and technology. Analyzing the particular role of bullshit when ketplace of ideas works (in the academy but more importantly
it comes to the development, use, and implications of social beyond). This raises the usual questions about the relationship
media falls clearly within a wider interest in discursive forma- between power and knowledge, about the relationship between
tions, ideology (whether sincerely believed or cynically held), folk theories, professional forms of knowledge, and various
and other systems of thought that have the power to objectify kinds of science, as well as the interests involved and who
that of which we speak and transform the world when we act bears the consequences of acting upon or espousing bullshit.
upon our beliefs. These are concerns that have long been cen- One thing I think we can say (and this essay outlines my
tral to many parts of the humanities and the social sciences and justifications for that claim) is that bullshit is here to stay and
come accompanied by a whole range of questions concerning will continue to play an important role for how we under-
the “double hermeneutic” (Giddens, 1984) relationship stand social media, how they are used, and for what they
between academic inquiry and other areas of human activity, mean. Therefore, we need to take bullshit seriously as an
between “folk theories” and other kinds of theories (Bourdieu, intellectual and analytical problem.
Nielsen 3

Declaration of Conflicting Interests Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton, NJ; Oxford, UK:
Princeton University Press.
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood
the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the the-
Funding ory of structuration. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
The author received no financial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article. Author Biography
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (PhD, Columbia University) is director of
References Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University
Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social space and symbolic power. Sociological of Oxford. His research interests include political communication,
Theory, 7, 14-25. doi:10.2307/202060. news media, and the role of digital technologies in both areas.