Especially for young people, influencers and other celebrities followed on social media evoke affective closeness that in their young minds seems real even though it is fake. Such fake friendships are potentially problematic because of their felt reality on the consumer side while lacking any inversely felt true closeness. The question arises if the unilateral friendship of a social media user is equal or at least similar to real reciprocal friendship. Instead of asking social media users for explicit responses (conscious deliberation), the present exploratory study aimed to answer this question with the help of brain imaging technology. Thirty young participants were first invited to provide individual lists including (i) twenty names of their most followed and loved influencers or other celebrities (fake friend names), (ii) twenty names of loved real friends and relatives (real friend names) as well as (iii) twenty names they do not feel any closeness to (no friend names). They then came to the Freud CanBeLab (Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and Behavior Lab) where they were shown their selected names in a random sequence (two rounds), while their brain activities were recorded via electroencephalography (EEG) and later calculated into event-related potentials (ERPs). We found short (ca. 100 ms) left frontal brain activity starting at around 250 ms post-stimulus to process real friend and no friend names similarly, while both ERPs differed from those elicited by fake friend names. This is followed by a longer effect (ca. 400 ms), where left and right frontal and temporoparietal ERPs also differed between fake and real friend names, but at this later processing stage, no friend names elicited similar brain activities to fake friend names in those regions. In general, real friend names elicited the most negative going brain potentials (interpreted as highest brain activation levels). These exploratory findings represent objective empirical evidence that the human brain clearly distinguishes between influencers or other celebrities and close people out of real life even though subjective feelings of closeness and trust can be similar. In summary, brain imaging shows there is nothing like a real friend. The findings of this study might be seen as a starting point for future studies using ERPs to investigate social media impact and topics such as fake friendship.
Keywords: celebrity; electroencephalography; event-related potential (ERP); fake friendship; friend; influencer; non-conscious processing; social media.