A recent South China Morning Post article reported that millions of middle-aged women in China have fallen victim to an online influencer offering the allure of romance with nostalgia for times gone by. Xiu Cai, in his thirties, presented a much older image on Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), lip-syncing to old love songs, dressing in 80s hairstyles and wearing clothes favored by d important government officials, against a backdrop of idyllic country scenes. . Xiu Cai has built a following of nearly 12 million people, mostly elderly women, playing on their emotional needs and encouraging cash donations and transfers averaging the equivalent of 1,500 to $3,000 each, but in some cases much more, and all from people likely to suffer. afford. When an expose article revealed his true identity, Xiu Cai was arrested and criticized by state media for exploiting the older generation with “spiritual opium.” But why does this happen? Why are so many people welcomed?
Loneliness makes older people vulnerable to digital deception
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/Canva Pro
Virtual social connection feels real
People are intrinsically motivated to satisfy their basic human needs. Psychologists from different theoretical orientations have emphasized the crucial importance of social connection for health and well-being. I know many people lament what they see as the replacement of “real” relationships with virtual ones. However, the logical extension of this theory is that people will choose the most effective means available to meet their needs.
The virtual connection does not feel virtual to the brain. This is why virtual experiences like VR can be used to treat mental health disorders like PTSD and OCD (Martens et al., 2019) and why it feels so real when an influencer looks at you in the eyes (camera lens) and speaks to you. . Anyone in media (social or otherwise) that a viewer frequently sees and likes can become the target of a parasocial relationship. Even if this one-sided emotional relationship exists only for the audience member, it can take on real meaning and function as a social substitute in the absence of other relationships. The combination of loneliness, lack of digital literacy, and the human drive to seek social connections highlights a very real need, but the only levers we can change here are to provide social support and technology training. Circumstances, context and experiences make us all vulnerable to online scams and misinformation.
The problem is bigger than just one scammer or influencer
Unfortunately, shutting down an influencer doesn’t solve the problem. Xiu Cai is one of many examples and why I continue to advocate for digital literacy. Susceptibility is not a matter of age or gender. These are the same vulnerabilities that allowed Tinder Swindler to successfully exploit women on dating sites. China has an aging population as a result of the one-child policy, and articles suggest that this has left many older Chinese women alone and subject to mistreatment (Dong et al., 2009).
Solitude has no allegiance to a country. This is a common problem among those who have limited social access. One in three American adults over the age of 50 experience infrequent social contact, lack of companionship, and social isolation; this number increases to seven in ten among people with poorer physical and mental health (Malani P et al., 2023, March). COVID-19 has normalized virtual connections, and it’s no surprise that human contact online has become a solution. It’s on-demand, interactive and personal. However, teaching your grandmother to use Zoom is not the same as making her digitally safe and able to recognize misinformation and inconveniences that can take advantage of loneliness and isolation.
Social media use and psychological vulnerability
This case highlights important points regarding the use and vulnerability of social media:
- Humans are wired to need social connection: Loneliness and isolation harm physical and mental health. Xiu Cai’s followers were vulnerable to someone who offered them a sense of connection, but they are not alone.
- Virtual relationships can act as social surrogacy: Parasocial relationships with influencers or celebrities can provide comfort, belonging, and entertainment. They are emotional and can be meaningful, but they are ultimately one-sided. Without understanding this, people can mistake parasocial relationships for real friendships, fall prey to fraud, and become even more isolated.
- We all need a digital culture: We are increasingly working online, but with little training on how to engage safely and minimize risks. We worry about our children, but let’s be realistic. People of all ages can confuse online personas with reality, share too much, or fall victim to scams. However, populations with less digital exposure and more limited social access may be particularly at risk of fraud.
- It’s not just a question of age: While Xiu Cai targeted his older followers, younger people also formed parasocial relationships. And while many of these are positive and developmentally appropriate experiences, young people may struggle to contrast illusion with reality online (Gleason et al., 2017), leaving them vulnerable to influencers. or cheating on dating apps. Age is no protection against digital deception.
Older people aren’t the only ones at risk online. Parasocial relationships, even those that spark a parasocial “crush,” can be very positive in the absence of social connections. But feeling special and comforted without understanding what is real and what is fake can put people of all ages at risk.
It never hurts to check out some tips with one of the newest social media followers in your life. This will give you an excuse to call them.
5 Tips to Avoid Online Deception
- Look for signs that an account is fake, like no personal photos, few real friends engaging, etc.
- Never send money or gifts to someone you only know online.
- Talk to real friends and family if you have questions about an online relationship.
- Try to balance online time spent passively scrolling with ways to engage more offline with family and friends. Phone calls count.
- Learn some of the warning signs of scams, such as someone pretending to be a government official or a loved one in need of help, and be wary of offers that are “too good to be true.”
Digital literacy is neither difficult nor tricky. This is a foundational training that creates awareness and strategies for managing life in the digital world. With knowledge and skills, we can all enjoy the benefits of social media and minimize the risk of harm and exploitation. But no matter our age, we must seek a balance between online and offline relationships. Balance is a good rule for all aspects of life, but online, our well-being depends on it.