In the eight years my career has revolved around creating internet content, a handful of concerns have come and gone and come again. Concerns about privacy, addiction, anxiety, and others are all valid and have rode a roller coaster of relevance throughout the entire life of the social internet. The concern at the center of the stage among observers of internet culture right now is a familiar foe: misinformation and its consequences.
Misinformation has only grown in influence since 2016 when it became most relevant because of the ways Russia poisoned the well of content on virtually every social media platform in an attempt to impact the U.S. Presidential Election. It’s easy to pin the blame on the Russians, and while they are culpable for their actions back then, they aren’t as easily blamed for the widespread lies that are shared on social media today. The lasting effects of what the Russians did in 2016 is a radioactive environment in which truth is almost entirely relative online—more than it had ever been before. The 2016 Russian misinformation poison is still felt today because it deformed our ability to discern what is true, which was already weak at the time.
To zoom out a bit, what we have to realize is that as we consume media in ever-changing ways, the way in which we determine what is “true” changes.
“Truth” Evolves With the Ways We Consume Media
I cite him often here, but Neil Postman’s words from 1985 are important as we consider how our perceptions of truth evolve as our media habits evolve. He writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death (emphasis mine):
I hope to persuade you that the decline of print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute. And that is why it is necessary for me to drive hard the point that the weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media communication.
“Seeing is believing” has always had a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, but “saying is believing,” “reading is believing,” “counting is believing,” “deducing is believing,” and “feeling is believing” are others that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures have undergone media change.
As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it.
Every philosophy is the philosophy of a stage of life, Nietzche remarked. To which we might add that every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development.
Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.
If you need a bit of assistance understanding what Postman is saying here, let me help: “What we believe is ‘true’ often changes with the ways we consume media.”
Postman’s case in Amusing is that as culture at that time, in 1985, was quickly moving toward a television-dominated media diet, they were moving further away from being able to discern what is actually true. They began to value “that which is entertaining” over “that which is true.”
How much more of a reality may this be today? Social media is like watching TV with the entire world in the same room communicating at the speed of light.
Stop Scrolling and Think
How often do we stop to consider what our relationship with social media is doing to how we understand what is true? Are we too consumed with Facebook group drama or funny cat videos to think about how our consumption is affecting the way we perceive reality?
If we have learned anything in the last few years amid the proliferation of misinformation and the obvious, real-life consequences of buying into such misinformation, we ought to learn that being too online can warp our understanding of reality. We need to pull our heads out of the feed, look around, and think for a moment.