Social processes and interactions appear to be the most complicated and controversial part of human life. People, organizations, and countries are separate systems that possess certain characteristics, needs, and values. Successful functioning of the community is possible only provided correct social exchange of all its members and elements. Thus, nowadays new sociological theories are developed and aimed to mitigate the biggest issues within the society: race and gender discrimination, manipulation, fraud, political corruption, and decrease in morality. One of the biggest problems of the modern world seems to be manipulation and influence of the social media on the public mind and values. Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory helps to identify reasons, engines, and effects of dishonesty and fraud not only in the mass media but also in human relationships. The theory can be applied to almost every sphere of life, revealing the nature of every social individual. The case of Belle Gibson, a wellness blogger, who was lying about having cancer and healing it, illustrates precisely why and how the theory applies to everyday life. The woman made a fortune by deceiving the followers about her miraculous cure for the cancer. What is more surprising, Gibson really believed in her lie. The theory of Goffman helps to explain why the girl lied to others and how she could believe her make-up reality.
Sociological theory presented by Ervin Goffman focuses on the elements and nature of self-representation of a person. It explores how individuals present themselves, what factors help to guide and predict their impression for the audience. The sociologist presents an idea that all individuals can behave in two main ways: expose their real identity and values or expose everything that their audience wants to see and hear. Goffman states that an “individual can act in a thoroughly calculated manner or can give a kind of impression he/she wants to evoke a specific response”. Thus, all people do not usually express their attitudes or feelings directly but suppress them in order to be popular, meet demands of their surrounding or follow certain purposes. Sometimes, true information and attitudes can be perceived by the audience only indirectly, when the speaker fails to play the planned part and expresses unintentionally his/her real feelings.
At the same time, the audience can also be of two types: those who can be easily manipulated and those who have little concern about the presented information. The latter type always checks information and in case of fraud, they can easily discover the truth, blaming speaker for it and lowering his/her reputation. According to the sociologist, audience has an advantage over the performer since all participants of the communicational process project their definitions. If a speaker manipulates the audience, then listeners just allow him/her do so.
To make people believe in what is said is not an easy task for a performer. That is why there are a certain number of techniques that help to sustain the expected impression. First of all, audience should believe the speaker. This can be done in two ways: either a performer believes in the content of the speech, or he/she can masterfully delude the public and make them sure about the presented information. There are two extremes of such technique: an individual is really taken by own performance or is cynical about it. Sometimes, a performer can change his/her attitude towards what has been said and start to believe in the unreal things. The situation can also turn vice versa, and the performer can lose his/her affection towards the subject. Medical workers can be a perfect example of the latter case since when they face the reality of their profession, they can lose previous enthusiasm.
The key factors that define how successful the impression of a performer will be are setting, appearance, and manner. Setting is a kind of protection for the performer as it helps to mitigate negative reaction of the audience and make the speaker more confident. Personal setting includes such characteristics of an individual as sex, race, age, facial expression, and behavior. Appearance has a profound meaning for the performer as it helps to create the first impression of the individual. Finally, manner defines the interactional role of the performer and his/her purposes.
Another interesting point of the dramaturgical theory is the tendency to offer the audience an impression that has already been idealized by the society. By incorporating and presenting already accepted values, the performer makes the projection stronger and more credible. Often people tend to understate their personal wealth, social status or physical abilities in order to be closer to the audience and provide more veracious impression. Finally, performers try to foster the impression that they sacrifice their time, lives, and feelings for acquiring the role in which they perform. In this way, audience believes that their routine is unique and essential for the community.
The story of Belle Gibson, a popular wellness blogger who was caught lying about her terminal cancer, is the best example of how a person can present a false impression, make all people believe her, and finally become lost in false reality. In 2009, Belle claimed in the Internet that she had “three heart operations, two cardiac arrests, died twice on the operation table, suffered stroke and brain tumor”. Four years later, the girl announced that with the help of her personal diet and lifestyle she cured malignant brain cancer. The popularity of Belle, as well as her financial status, started to grow rapidly. The girl had millions of followers in the Internet, around 200 000 followers on Instagram sold her recipe book and introduced The Whole Pantry application, which immediately became a bestseller. In 2014, she was declared “the most inspiring person” by Elle Australia. Raising a fortune from her miraculous cure for cancer, Belle promised to donate a quarter of her money to organizations that supported people who suffered from cancer and helped to fight the illness. Yet, in 2015, the charities discovered that the girl never donated the promised money. Later the truth was revealed: Belle admitted that she never had cancer and deceived all her followers. Her business fell immediately apart after such confession: Apple Corporation stopped to offer her application, Penguin ceased publication of her book, while Consumer Affairs Victoria started an investigation. In 2016, Belle was charged to pay a fine of $200,000 personally, while her company Belle Gibson Pty Ltd owed almost one million dollars. In her interviews, the blogger failed to explain why she had lied. Belle claimed that she was wrongly diagnosed by a German therapist but still continued to lie. The girl admitted that cancer was her reality; she believed the fact she was ill. In her reality, Belle saw a doctor who used a strange machine that conducted cancer; she also had radiotherapy and chemotherapy. What is more, the girl claimed that she had two conflicting identities, and according to one of them, she was still twenty-three years old, although her age was twenty-six. Belle Gibson still does not consider her behavior wrong since she believes she had done it with the best intentions and made people with cancer support each other. The girl thinks that there is nothing bad in popularization of a healthy diet and lifestyle among her followers. Yet, the society holds completely different point of view, accusing Belle of lying and fraud. Right after her disclosure, the blogger deleted all her social accounts and blog posts since users from all over the world blamed her for betrayal. Belle Gibson put thousands of lives in danger by her performances in the Internet and misinforming cancer sufferers about a possible cure for the illness. The consequences of her actions cannot be estimated now since only time can show how many lives were dependent on the hoax blogger.
Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory can easily explain the motives that prompted the young blogger to lie to the whole world about her illness. According to the theory, every individual has two patterns of behavior: saying what he/she really wants to express or what she/he wants other people to perceive. Usually the desired impression can be gained with the help of false information. Thus, to become successful and popular, Belle presented false information about herself that made the society sympathize and follow the girl. To be more confident in her actions, Belle did not use face-to-face interaction but communicated with the audience through social networks. The Internet provided the girl with an opportunity to prepare and think over all necessary elements of her performance. According to Goffman, they are setting, manner, and appearance. Social media made it easier to Belle to present the right setting to the audience. Thus, the girl wrote all her posts with personal involvement, leaving the readers no doubt about her serious disease. What is more, the pleasant appearance of the girl encouraged people to believe the blogger and sympathize with her in her uneasy fight against cancer. Finally, communication via the Internet minimized importance of the manners of performance. Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory claims that performers tend to choose impressions that are idealized and unique in the community. Thus, Belle chose the role of an ill person who seeks understanding and support from the followers. What is more, the girl skillfully lowered her real physical condition since she never had cancer. The girl tried to create an impression that her routine was special and deserved attention. Belle Gibson, definitely, gained success in her attempts to manipulate people. At the same time, the sociologist states that “there are a number of performers who sincerely believe that the definition of the situation they project is real reality”. As a result, Belle became caught by her own lie. The girl started to believe that she had cancer and enjoyed the role of an ill and suffering person. Even after the disclosure, the blogger still lives in her reality where she met strange doctors and machines that diagnosed cancer. The story of Belle Gibson perfectly illustrates how the desirable effect shapes the content and the behavior of a performer. The girl managed to use a perfect combination of a popular topic, proper audience, and skillful presentation of information. Belle, similar to thousands of other manipulators, created a strong misleading impression and made people believe and support her. This girl is just one of the thousands who raise their money on constant lying and manipulation.
In conclusion, almost every situation in the community can be characterized by this or that sociological theory. Social interactions require attention of both sender and receiver. Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory presents the prime elements of the communicational act and explains information and intentions that are expressed indirectly. The case of Belle Gibson proves the ideas of Erving Goffman that all people have a two-edged social nature and can use different patterns of behavior depending on their purposes. Belle is an example of a performer who neglected moral norms in order to obtain the desirable result. The girl managed to deceive not only the whole world but also herself. She really liked the image she created for her followers. She started to believe this fake reality too. Every detail of the story of Belle Gibson can be easily interpreted by the theory introduced by Erving Goffman. Unfortunately, this story proves that social media is a tool that gives dishonest people an opportunity to manipulate its users. Thus, modern community should be acquainted with all sociological theories to not become a victim of similar fraud.