9. Social Media, Epistemology, and “Post-Truth”

Fake news, “post-truth” as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016, epistemological politics, propaganda, Trump’s Twitter wisdom, Facebook: all of these indicate the ambiguous relation to something known as “truth” through both the US election and Brexit.

The bus famous during the Brexit campaign promising that monies which the UK paid to the EU would be put into the National Health Service. This promise was withdrawn the day after the Brexit vote.

But equally there is a problem of over-information, sensationalised and premature reporting, infotainment, overstatement, all of which erode the integrity of the media and make it difficult to formulate an informed opinion. Whether it is because news and opinion is primarily sourced through social media, or due to a lack of trust in journalism more generally, the lack of discernible consequence following from the paucity of print media endorsements Trump received illustrates the dwindling significance of traditional media forms.

The first reading for this week examines a number of these dynamics, beginning with an example of media manipulation and misreporting in service to a scoop, before moving to a reflection on how blogs process information and capture attention. This election cycle seems less dependent on blogging than it does on Twitter and Facebook. Nevertheless, the question of truth remains salient.

  • Munger, Michael C. “Blogging and Political Information: Truth or Truthiness.” Public Choice 134, no. 1/2 (2008): 125–38.

Social media is one element in the equation. A second concerns the use of language within the political process itself: the caricature of a “lying politician” contains more than a little truth. The article by Alexander Livingston looks at William Connolly’s account of the “visceral register” and the role “embodied responses like disgust, shame, and hatred” play in the political decision making process (p. 272). When set in relation to the conflict basic to micropolitics the temptation is to engage in “consciousness-subverting rather than consciousness-raising critique” (p. 283). Yet there is a way forward. If the “public sphere is the decentered network of voluntary associations and media channels that crisscross civil society.” If this sphere form as a “rhizome” (“a multiplicity of lively points and intersections that hang together that lacks organization and is not subject to central control,” then “it is a complex mediating institution that allows ideas and reasons to become public—that is, it circulates and distributes reasons and ideas beyond the bounds of local conversations, turning them into resources to be drawn on, tested, and sometimes rejected in more local exercises of reason giving” (p. 285). This seems precisely to be a role played by a Christian community and so indicates the importance of raising these issues within the community itself.

  • Livingston, Alexander. “Avoiding Deliberative Democracy? Micropolitics, Manipulation, and the Public Sphere.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 45, no. 3 (2012): 269–94.

The reading from Amy Elias considers the place of paranoia within politics. She contrasts cultural readings which describe the problem in terms of metaphysics (defined as “basic assumptions about the world” p. 283), with an account based in hermeneutics and governed by theological mysticism. For the latter, Elias turns to Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Levinas.

  • Elias, Amy J. “Paranoia, Theology, and Inductive Style.” Soundings 86, no. 3/4 (2003): 281–313.

The final reading focuses on the origins, influence and consequence of bullshit within contemporary culture.

  • Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.

For an interesting link between this post-truth phenomenon and evangelical religious belief, see:

Further Reading:

  • Ambirajan, S. “Globalisation, Media and Culture.” Economic and Political Weekly 35, no. 25 (2000): 2141–47.
  • Kang, Jaeho. “The Media and the Crisis of Democracy: Rethinking Aesthetic Politics.” Theoria 57, no. 124 (2010): 1–22.
  • Keyes, Ralph. The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
  • Weber, Theodore R. “Truth and Political Leadership.” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 9 (1989): 3–19.
  • Murthy, Dhiraj. “Towards a Sociological Understanding of Social Media: Theorizing Twitter.” Sociology 46, no. 6 (2012): 1059–73.
  • Rohlinger, Deana A. “American Media and Deliberative Democratic Processes.” Sociological Theory 25, no. 2 (2007): 122–48.