Jia Tolentino on the Internet’s Culture of Deception

Competing world views can be deeply distorted by the warped mirror of social media. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino calls the internet “an engine of self-delusion.” She explores its power to distort in her new book of essays, called “Trick Mirror,” and sat down with Alicia Menendez to discuss the allure of false promises online.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now another major arena where competing world views can be deeply distorted is on social media. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino calls the Internet an engine of self-delusion. She explores its power to distort in her new book of essays called “Trick Mirror.” Jia Tolentino spoke to our Alicia Menendez about the allure of false promises online.

ALICIA MENENDEZ, CONTRIBUTOR: Jia, thank you so much for joining us.

JIA TOLENTINO, STAFF WRITER, NEW YORKER: Thank you for having me. It’s really good to be here.

MENENDEZ: So your book is a collection of essays, nine different topics, ranging from at leisure and what that means about our society to feminist obsession with difficult women. What do you see as the through-line of those topics?

TOLENTINO: The idea that I was attracted to in writing the book was I think I’m consistently attracted to the things in my life, in my experience growing up in our culture generally that seems especially conducive to self-deception or self-delusion, in some way. So those things I wrote about, sort of the American attraction to the scammer figure. I wrote about, like, my childhood in a Texas megachurch. It started to seem to me within the last few years that the Internet itself is especially sort of an engine of self-delusion. It’s sort of like a machine that produces it. And I was interested in that and I was sort of tracking that relationship throughout all these different topics.

MENENDEZ: You grew up in a megachurch, went to a Christian school. How did that inform your thinking on all of this?

JIA TOLENTINO: Yes. So I went to a school that is attached to what is by some metrics the second biggest megachurch in America. This is in Houston, Texas. And in a lot of ways, I’m not religious now but I have always been really glad that I grew up in this deeply conservative — I mean, deeply, deeply, deeply conservative religious environment and it gave me sort of a native understanding of people whose political views are very opposite from my own and just a real understanding of the far-right felt. And it also — Christianity kind of gave me this obsession of everyday morality. You’re constantly being taught as a kid to think on a scale of good and evil and right conduct and wrong conduct. And although my value system is different than it was then, I think that did give me the sort of obsession with morality that I carry around with me.

MENENDEZ: Talk to me about the Internet’s role in creating a culture then of self-deception.

TOLENTINO: So in real life, right, you can walk around and you can just be. You know, you can just go about your life and the people can see you and they can draw their own conclusions however they will. On the Internet, it’s sort of a simulacrum of the real world where to be visible, you have to act. You have to kind of — you have performed whether consciously or unconsciously.

MENENDEZ: You have to tweet. You have to post. You have to be a part of it.

TOLENTINO: You have to tweet. And that in itself, I think, leaves the Internet to be kind of a self-delusion machine. I think, also, with identity being increasingly monetized, I mean personal identity, it is the — the commercialization of personal identity is the center of the business model of every social media company.

MENENDEZ: So talk to me about that. What does that mean, the commercialization?

TOLENTINO: Right. So let’s take Facebook, right. It’s, as we know, with their many scandals they’ve had in recent years, you know, it’s our personal data that’s being sold and resold to all these corporations that are needing to further target their advertising, right. For these platforms to make money, they have to retain more and more of our attention, right. They cannot make money without sucking up an increasingly, you know, increasing amount of our attention. And the way you do that is often by instigating anger, you know, or addictive behaviors, right. It’s our political anger that is being monetized by Facebook and we just generate enormous value for them by the performance of our identity.

MENENDEZ: You go on to write the Internet brings the eye into everything. The Internet can make it seem that supporting someone means literally sharing in their experience. But solidarity as a matter of identity rather than politics or morality and it is best established at the point of maximum mutual vulnerability in everyday life. This framework which centers itself in an expression of support for others is not ideal. Why?

TOLENTINO: I think — so the Internet favors representation over reality, right. It’s built to. And we all thought the Internet was going to be — you know, think back to Arab Spring, we thought that the Internet was going to democratize everything. And in so many ways, standing around Black Lives Matter, it has surfaced perspectives that would otherwise have been cast aside, I think. And then there’s a flip side to that, right, which is the Internet also encourages the sort of thing where to support a cause, the easiest thing to do is to do some something like, you know, post a selfie on Instagram wearing orange for, you know, whatever. I think the Internet favors the representation of solidarity rather than the action of it. And it’s much easier to represent your solidarity by putting a filter over your profile photo than it is to go to an organizing meeting. Do the work, organize a strike or boycott the way that solidarity is actually enacted. But the Internet, I think — you know, Twitter’s box, Facebook’s box, it asks what are you thinking? What are you? It’s got your little picture there, it centers itself. It just always centers itself, the literal sort of architecture of it. You know, the home base is the profile. And I think that there are some — it just creates some peculiar effect when it comes to movement building.

MENENDEZ: You have another essay. A generation of seven scams. You name a number of perpetrators who have been involved in smaller level scams and then you end with the 2016 election. So I guess my question is, is this — how can a generation be both victims of these scams and perpetrators of these scams and does one have something to do with the other?

TOLENTINO: Yes. So that essay, right, it’s about the seven defining scams. The millennial era with the election, basically 2008 to 2016 this near-decade where I think the majority of our generation felt themselves coming of age. And I think there is actually a direct relationship between — I think during this period of time you see scamming being sort of evaluated as just kind of the way things were going to be. And I think when that’s modeled for you that the way of living is just to take what you can when you can have it and hope that it’s enough which is essentially it’s what both the scammer and the victim of the scammer trying to do. It’s just that the scammer does it successfully. And I think there’s a way in which when this sort of model, you know, if you define scamming as sort of the abuse of trust for profit, which a lot of things could be said to have done in that period, that sort of model is increasingly universal, I think there’s sort of low-level attraction to it that builds. This sort of feeling that you’re already implicated and you might as well, you know, roll the device in whatever way you can.

MENENDEZ: When you talk about scamming and the American scammers. What does that mean exactly? What does that look like to be a scammer?

TOLENTINO: So a con man, it comes from the term confidence man, right. And that comes from this man named Samuel Thompson who would walk around New York City in the early 20th Century and he would ask people. He would be dressed in a really nice suit and he would walk up to people and he would just, you know, gentile be like have your confidence in me to lend your watch until tomorrow and people would be so, you know, stunned by it that they would just do it. Many people would just give it. And, you know, the idea it’s the abuse of trust for profit, you know, based on a confidence game. And America is built, you know, on a confidence game, right. It’s, like, capitalism itself is built on essentially being like do you have the confidence in me to lend me your watch until tomorrow. Like all of venture capitalism is built on a structure of human interaction that is not so different than the con man and his victim. And it’s like America has — because it was founded on these mythologies of reinvention and spectacular profit, right, and kind of conquest, right, explicit conquest, America loves a scammer. It produces them in great numbers and has every phase of its history. And the scammer just reinvents themselves at every stage of American capitalism. And in recent years, the scammer machine is an overdrive. We got them everywhere.

MENENDEZ: Talk me through some of the scams that someone might be less familiar with.

TOLENTINO: Sure. So I think the idea that the path to success and stability may be a personal brand. A scam that I think, Facebook and other social networks has sort of quietly built for us. And again, I think this t goes back to the sort of precatory you’re talking about and back to the reason that people perform their identities on the Internet is because — I think I write this in this essay but if you — if you don’t have health insurance, you better learn to package your personality well for the Internet in case you ever need to set up a Go Fund Me, you know, when you get into a bike accident, when you’re uninsured. I think there is a way in which personal identity has actually become some sort of path or safety net, which, to me, seems like a real scam. In a lot of ways, I think that the sort of girl boss paradigm has been a bit of a scam. The sort of monetization of kind of Lean In feminism, I find to be a bit of a scam.


TOLENTINO: There’s been a lot of things since Lean In that have kind of narrowed feminism to this idea that what feminism means is individual women becoming as successful as possible. And that’s basically it. And I find that so — I find that such a misuse of our freedom and our ability and also of basically what feminism is. You know, I think of feminism built on individual achievement can never be total. And if it’s total, it’s actually kind of actively damaging. And it’s also, I think it’s just — it’s kind of this general idea that wealth acquisition is itself progressive politics. And that I find so tricky because it’s close to an idea that is completely correct, which is I do want women to have the lives that they want. And I want women to have the financial power that they weren’t allowed to have until a couple of decades ago. But I don’t want that to be the idea of what feminism is. And those ideas are so close to one another that I think I can get very, very tricky.

MENENDEZ: It’s not your only critique of feminism. I want to read you a part of the essay The Cult of the Difficult Woman. It’s true, of course, that women who become famous for pushing social boundaries do the work of demonstrating how outdated these boundaries are. But what happens once it becomes common knowledge that these boundaries are outdated? We’ve come into a new era in which feminism isn’t always the antidote to conventional wisdom. Feminism is suddenly conventional wisdom in many spheres. So where does that leave us?

TOLENTINO: Well, I don’t know where — again, I don’t know where it leaves us in the future, right. So this essay about the, you know, the feminist obsession with “difficulty”, it seemed right around the sort of Sara Huckabee Sanders White House Correspondent’s dinner where the comedian Michelle Wolf made a crack about her eye shadow.


MICHELLE WOLF, COMEDIAN: Like she burns fats and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye.


TOLENTINO: And everyone was like how dare anyone make a joke about, you know, her looks or whatever. It’s like she’s a woman making it in a — you know, like how dare we attack this woman and mother working in a field that is male-dominated. It seems like the reflexive defense against sexism, which was really at play in that case. We must defend Sara Huckabee Sanders from jokes about her eye shadow at all costs. You know, it was proof that the feminist defense against sexist critiques had worked and become something that the whole media writ large knew how to do, which was, in some ways great but in other ways it’s like why are — the issue with Sara Huckabee Sanders, it’s, you know, her eye shadow, jokes about her eye shadow, whether that joke was sexist, it’s so off the point of what her actual work is and what she actually does and what she actually represents. That the whole sort of discourse around that drove me crazy. It’s like when Melania Trump was criticized for wearing spike heels to go visit Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. And people were like she has the right to wear whatever shoe she wants and then people just talked about that for a while. And it seemed to be sort of a distraction from what they were actually doing.

MENENDEZ: I think the challenge in this moment who gets to decide what is a distraction when it’s a distraction.

TOLENTINO: Yes, yes, for sure.

MENENDEZ: You layout so many cultural challenges and yet I don’t think there’s a single solution or a solution-oriented essay in the book. Was that a choice?

TOLENTINO: Yes. It was a choice and I sort of wanted — and one that I assume would be frustrating for a lot of people because I think there’s a natural tendency, you know, in writing, you know, in books in things on the Internet and op-eds, like anything, people want to hear the solutions, the five takeaways, the five percent at the end of the essay where it’s like everything is really bad but all isn’t lost if we just, you know — and then you list off the things that everyone kind of already knows, which isn’t to say that in some of those books — like you take for example, I remember “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, some books that portion, many books will say that portion of the book or the, you know, the message is deeply important and has taught me a lot. When I wrote this book, I was in a space where I felt that the best I could do was understand what was happening and that it would be humorous and it would be personally dishonest for me to pretend that I knew what we should do. And I found the book immensely rewarding just writing it in that way.

MENENDEZ: Jia, thank you so much.

TOLENTINO: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Robert P. Jones and Christiane Amanpour speak about the role of white evangelical voters in the 2020 election. Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael join the program to discuss the film “Our Boys.” Jia Tolentino sits down with Alicia Menendez to explain why the internet is “an engine of self-delusion.”