What Is A ‘Finsta’? How Fake News Is Affecting Generation Z

“Even if something is truthful, only the opinion sees to matter. Sometimes I tell my friends something about the news and they totally disagree with me, even though I’m like – this is a fact. They’re more interested in what someone thinks on Snapchat, than the truth.”

Esme, aged 13.

I’ve been working on a post for a few weeks looking at some of the side-effects of the fake news phenomenon – that catch-all term for bullshit, currently owning 2017 – on teens. I wanted to look beyond the Trumpian rhetoric of wrapping up emotionally-charged hyperbolic statements as facts (and in turn, blaming various news outlets for allegedly doing the same) to Generation Z – and how they digest and process news, social media and factual truths.

The impetus for this piece came around on my trip to Colombia, over new year, when I was reprimanded for sharing a controversial Colombian fact (that some of those who live in Barrio Pablo Escobar believe Escobar to be both a force for good – and still alive.) “Your way of reporting is very one-sided” said one commenter. “You should be careful what you ‘report'” said another, insinuating that this was not mere relay: it was bias. I clicked on to the profile of the commentators, out of curiosity. Both of them were teenagers, sharing pictures of teen-y things. They thought I was manipulating the truth – when in fact, this wasn’t my opinion. It was a fact: these people exist in the barrio. They believe in these things. It is painful – but it is true. I am not the first to report it. And the most interesting but also worrying thing that became apparent to me, was that they could not tell the difference between fact and opinion. A few weeks ago, having thought about this regularly since my return, I hassled as many teenagers as I could, to talk to me in order to find out what fact and opinion mean, in this fake news era, to Generation Z.

Teen blogger Tolly, 16, says that having myriad social media platforms at your disposal, makes it hard to find the truth. “It starts as a positive, because you can get information from so many different directions. But then you’ll read a headline – and you think, what’s that about? And you don’t click on the link – instead, you just read what other people are saying.” A lot of adults do that too, I tell her. I do that. Most people who read something on my Instagram, do that. The key difference, of course, is having the emotional intelligence to know when you are doing it. “At my age, as much as it doesn’t sound great, we don’t follow the news,” says Tolly. “We get out information from voices.” Tolly calls it “opinion-based news” and it only comes from young, active voices of people she trusts, like Rowan Blanchard. “I trust people who are active within [the world they report on]” says Tolly. But Harry, who at the age of 12 is on the cusp of teen hood and gets his news from celebrities on social media “like Chris Hemsworth”, doesn’t care if he can trust the news source, or not. “I don’t really look for the truth” he says. Harry’s only 12; he could be forgiven for not giving a rats ass about the political and cultural truths in the world right  now. But I wonder if he could find the truth, even if he did want to find it.

Esme, 13, follows the news and says she cares about the truth, thank you very much. She reads the Daily Mail and Snapchat, but sometimes struggles to tell the difference between fact and opinion. “Everyone has different opinions and tells different stories and what do you believe?” Harry says with blissful naiveté, “I follow the BBC. Because journalists don’t always tell the truth.”

Perhaps the most potent physical realisation of both the dismissal and murkiness of truth amongst teenagers, is the augmented image: fake news is not just about politics; it’s about bodies. The concept of fake news, leads to fake lives and fake bodies; an emphasis, at its heart, on the surface value. Anna, 16, is studying for her GCSEs. “You can tell when people have used an airbrush app. There is a girl at school who posts pictures of herself in a bikini and we all talk about how different she looks at school. People know it’s fake.” Doesn’t that matter? When I was a teenager being ‘fake’ was worst thing of all. Anna shrugs. “I heard of a girl that posted a photo of her diving off a rock and it didn’t look like her and some of the other girls looked it up and it was a picture on Google images – she had literally searched for, ‘girl jumping off a rock.’” Ouch. Poor girl. “There were loads of photos of her on holiday – but all from a distance. She was actually on holiday somewhere else.” Jane – we’ll call her Jane – had decided that her holiday was not good enough. So she hacked herself a new one. “She was really young at the time” says Anna. “12, or 13. She wouldn’t do it now.” But everyone remembers her fake news-ing her holiday. Three years on, Jane has become best known to the other year groups, as the girl who posted fake pictures, of a fake holiday.

Recently, Tolly saw a profile picture on Facebook that had been obviously airbrushed and tweaked. “It was covered in Snapchat filters. But all the comments were like, ‘you’re soooo great’.” Everyone thought she looked better like that – and it was better that she show herself like that. Is it the Kylie Jenner affect? The youngest Kardashian is still a teenager; a peer, if you can believe, with other sixth formers. “Kim Kardashian uses a lot of fake stuff. My friends either adore her – and they use apps to make themselves look more tanned – or they think she’s too fake” says Esme authoritatively. There’s a sliding scale of fakery, with girls who don’t care if you ‘bust’ them at one end and those, like Tolly at the other. “It makes me feel sad”, Tolly says, at one point during our chat. I want to tell her it makes me feel sad, too. But this isn’t my shared experience; I don’t know whether I’m allowed to butt into this conversation. I’m a keen follower of all things teen and zeitgeist and I often get asked about authentication on social media (I don’t have two accounts; and I don’t use any apps, ever). This topic makes me feel like an alien.

Ella, 15, is hilariously sanguine about faking your image, and/or your life. In fact – she’s sort of a fan. “It goes without saying that most girls don’t look themselves on Instagram. The purpose for posting selfies isn’t to show everybody what you look like – we already know!” she relays breezily. “You undergo makeup and hair tutorials to compete with other girls” she says, and I can almost hear the hair-flick. “Selfie-posting is used as an excuse to receive nice comments and as a confidence booster.”

It isn’t just a case of posting fake pictures; but creating fake accounts – sometimes multiple. Anna is the only teen I speak to who attends a co-ed school. Some of her schoolmates have up to five different accounts. “There are accounts that just post gossip, like Gossip Girl.” I know content is king in 2017 (“I just really need to work on my content” being the new hipster narrative) but what the hell could warrant having five accounts? “You have your finsta” – what? What the hell is a Finsta? “It’s a ‘funny Insta’” Anna explains, patiently. And I thought I had a grip of the zeitgeist. “Then you have your main Instagram (where you would post the most fake stuff), your travelling account” bear in mind that aged 16, global travel is probably limited “then a shared one with best friends.” Ella agrees with Anna that most people have an “old account, with the fake stuff” and a new one “where you post stuff without worrying about it being aesthetically pleasing.” Why not just ditch the ‘main fake one’, altogether? “Because you want one that your parents can’t monitor” explains Ella. “Their old account is used as the fake one and the new one as their current one where they can post what they like without their parents having to overview their photos, likes and conversations.” Or, perhaps, who is ‘faking’ their image and who is not.

It’s not just the girls doing it. Harry says “my rich friend at school puts pictures up of cars he doesn’t have and pretends he does”. But when it comes to body image, girls are obviously more concerned with the aesthetics. James, 13, agrees that it’s normal to have more than one account. Harry says that for his peers, a second Instagram is used for pets. (I’m unsure if the pet ‘runs’ the account, or just dominates it.) Of course, there was a time when a 12-year-old wasn’t allowed an Instagram account. When I went to university, you weren’t even allowed a Facebook account until you had a ‘dot edu’ address.

“If you don’t have the right influence, you can be very easily sucked into these things” says Tolly. “I am not like that because I left school aged 12.” Tolly is home schooled and travels the world with her parents (currently, they’re in Sardinia.) “I don’t have peer pressure. When I left school, social media was was still so new – but I could see the signs. Social media is competitive.” In short, Instagram is a breeding ground for fake news – as much as for the individual, as the collective cultural and political.

“We teach them them to tell the difference between fact and opinion when they are, like, 5!” howled my older sister, a former teacher, when I told her that I was writing this piece. On paper, teenagers understand the different, I posited. But in reality – I don’t know if they can decipher them, or even value them as separate entities. It’s too murky, I say. Social media and fake news is not just something that Trump gets to scrawl across his Twitter, every time he sees a story he doesn’t like; it is something that is actively affecting Generation Z. Social media has become the site where these hazy boundaries, or lack thereof, play out. The danger of a ‘finsta’ is not the finsta itself; it’s the idea that identity is as flimsy as a new social media account and that truth may be found in all forms of self-perpetuation. There’s a reason why IMHO (in my humble opinion) is a go-to teen acronym.

There have been several examples of social media being used to performative effect – blurring the line not only between reality and fakery, but fact and opinion: Amalia Ulman, who created a selfie-obsessed alter-ego who publicly destructed via social media and Essena O’Neill, an Instagram influencer who decried social media as “not real life” but then re-directed fans to a website that friends claimed was “100% self-promotion. It’s not just the statement-marking ‘artists’ who are at it; there are renegade teens keen to make a point (for which I can only congratulate them) when they see one fake-car or standing-on-a-rock pic, too many. “I’ve heard about girls erasing their social media – it’s like they’re trying to prove a point” says Tolly. “They create accounts in order to delete them, to prove how social media isn’t real.”

There are a dizzyingly high proportion of teenagers who would see a life of bias – whether through image, or news – as totally normal. As some of the teenagers I spoke to admit, quite baldly, some of the time they don’t care what the truth is. Or more, there is the unsaid question: why is truth more important than opinion? Who decreed it? Being ‘knowingly fake’ is nothing to be ashamed of, for much (but not all) of Generation Z. Gone is Kate Moss’s scrawny, almost gritty pin-up – and it’s in a place is something knowingly fake.

Esme is far more politically aware than I was aged 12. “Trump is sick” she tells me, disgustedly. She knows Trump from Twitter – obvs. “He puts his opinion on Twitter and then changes this mind and puts another tweet up, but never apologises for his previous tweets. You should be sure on things before you tell them to the whole world.” Well, quite. I couldn’t agree more, Esme.

NB: most of these names are pseudonyms at the request of parents. Their quotes, however, are real.

Artwork by Natalia Bagniewska.

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