Photograph: Nastya Dulhiier CC

From Post-Truth and Conspiracy to Social Commerce and the Market: Foresight on Possible Futures

This article explores the world we live in, how it's been impacted by technological advance, and what future trends will continue to transform our future.

Published November 19, 2021

We’re living in a world that has been impacted so deeply by technological advances that it can be hard to determine which trends will continue to transform our future. Major societal, political, and economic movements have been influenced by tech trends in the realm of social media and communications over the past 10 years. Today, social media continues to be a powerful force to create societal change. The impact of tech giants such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube wasn’t widely perceived at their inception, so how can we ensure we stay ahead of these trends and better prepare for possible future scenarios largely shaped by technological advancements? The following insights provide foresight on possible futures to start preparing for today.

Post-Truth: Will Conspiracy Become the New Normal?

We’re living in a world where “truth is no longer dictated by credible voices in society, but is networked by peers”, as Kevin Kelly co-founder of Wired magazine points out. “For every fact there is a counterfact. All these counterfacts and facts look identical online which is confusing to most people.” This new phenomenon is called “post-truth” and it marks a huge shift in how we consume information and perceive reality. Facts are no longer published by experts and credible voices. Anyone using social media can publish a message. Due to this paradigm shift in who has the ability to publish information, a future information landscape could be predicted as one in which fake information crowds out reliable information. We could live in a world in which widespread information scams and mass manipulation cause a large percentage of the public to simply give up on being informed participants in civic life. Furthermore, it can lead to more divisive and antagonised societies, shaking the very definition of what democracy is.  But how and why did we get to this point? And if we can understand this, can we better predict and prepare for the future?

The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.

Will the Rise of Fake News be Supported by Human Instincts?

Fake news preys on the deepest human instincts: as part of human’s survival tactics they strive for success and power which threatens to degrade the online information environment in the next decade. Humans will seek out the answers they need in reinforcing echo chambers led by manipulative, agenda driven actors. This is a tactic that has been used throughout history and can be further explained by the law of propaganda attributed to the German Nazi politian Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth”. Furthermore, we have a deep-seated drive to feel in control, and to find certainty in an uncertain world, as it helps us to survive and thrive. And, the advent of new conspiracy theories will continue to gain traction as the human brain is not wired to contend with the pace of technological change and the global reach and resulting impact of the internet: As two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward O. Wilson  biologist, naturalist, and writer Edward O Wilson points out: “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.

Will Social Media Further Support the Rise of Radicals?

Previously, there has not been an information network that has been able to reach as many people as social media. Around 3.6 billion people across the globe can be reached through social media platforms, completely reshaping the landscape of media and communications and democratizing it so that anyone can take on the role of publisher. This has caused issues in recent times as the spread of misinformation around the globe has reshaped elections, and caused militante, vigilante, and radical groups to mobilize and join forces. It has also contributed to conspiracy theories becoming increasingly mainstream: “It has been getting worse,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. “Conspiracy theories have become more dangerous and more widespread, just even in the last 10 years”, and the danger of this lies in the ability of conspiracy theories to undermine the basis of our democratic institutions and world order. But social media isn’t just influencing socio-political movements, it is also affecting the market and consumer trends. 

Is Social Commerce the Future of the Market?

Another major trend brought on by the advent of social media is social commerce which takes e-commerce (the act of purchasing goods and services online) to social media platforms. Its market value is currently estimated at more than $30 billion in the US. This is rapidly changing the consumer market with apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest integrating social media shops allowing a more streamlined and effective process of the purchasing act. They enable the consumer to choose a product and to complete the checkout in just a few clicks. In China, the sales generated by social commerce are predicted to reach over $350 billion in 2021, and in the US it is expected to grow by 35% reaching $36 billion by year-end. While the growth in Europe from 2020–2026 is only expected to reach 27%, this is still a trend to watch across continents as the future of the market is best predicted by the leading global markets. 

How Safe is our Information in the Age of Post-Truth?

The US and China are pioneers for innovation, and leading brands are confident that social commerce will be a key source of market growth and a predictor of future consumer buying trends globally. While these apps provide an integral virtual market place, there are still numerous pending concerns regarding data privacy and the potential breach related to the use of these apps for financial transactions at scale. To safeguard consumers’ data and finances in the future, new cybersecurity protocoles will need to be implemented simultaneously as new innovative functionality for social commerce grows to meet market demands. In a 2020 data security report, more than 250,000 social media users may have had their information fully exposed on a deep web hacking forum. Experts suggest that such breaches will likely rise in the future, yet consumers cutting ties with social media may not be the answer. Rather, users should be educated on the risks of purchasing and sharing personal information on social media platforms in order to make informed decisions to ensure the security of their data.

How Can We Use Technology Responsibly?

Beyond cybersecurity, more existential questions seem to emerge as we consider the overlap between the development of social media and its influential role in ecommerce and the market. If social media platforms are known to be built on algorithms that amplify hate, violence, division, and polarization, how does it impact the notion of sustainable and responsible use of tech from both a consumer, a business, or a technology developer perspective? As a company, is it ethical or responsible to use social media platforms to increase sales and leverage the “addiction economy” that builds on the same mechanisms that fuels fake news? This is particularly true for small and medium sized companies who are increasingly dependent on income generated by targeted ads and social media. As a consumer, are we fully aware that the same mechanisms that offer us targeted ads (for unbelievable deals) are dividing our communities, and even friends and families? Also, is it ethical for tech developers to code for addiction, and for big tech to create products that hack our brains? There are a lot of unanswered questions about where our society is headed, but the sustainability of our democracy and world order, and personal well-being, on which global long-term socio-economic growth is reliant upon, lies in asking these types of hard questions.

Edited by Perrine Huber

Written contributions and research by Perrine Huber Head of Communication, Sarah Chapatte Communications Manager, and Yannick Heiniger Deputy CEO. 

These communications and media trends were first published for Hors Champs, a foresight project for the Federal Office of Defence Procurement, Armasuisse. These insights showcase how communications trends are shaping our society and help us to better prepare for possible future scenarios.