Critical digital literacy should be embedded throughout the higher education experience. We all need effective ways to tell the difference between truth and lies, not just for ourselves but those around us. In 1970, Alvin Tofler called our information explosion the Third Wave, the next greatest social movement following the Agrarian and Industrial ages. What would he say if he could see us now – not waving but drowning in information overload!
Yet the quantity is the least of our problems. It’s the quality which matters. New genres have appeared, in particular since since Brexit and Trump.
Post Truth and Fake Truth.
They sound similar but there’s a difference. Post truth, most often used in connection with politics, appeals to emotions rather than presenting factual evidence. With Post Truth, what is true is secondary to getting that emotional hit, appealing to the personal and turning it into political action. Fake Truth or False Truth is another way to describe spin. Also known as Fake News/False News, it describes not so much the misinformation but the spreading of it via social media. Like Chinese Whispers, the story changes, getting further away from the original sources, picking up more emotional overtones as it travels on through digital space and time.
A genre is born when new ways to structure and present information are created. Genres can be different styles of creative writing such as the thriller, detective or horror novel or it can be categories and styles of non-fiction news. Today we have what could be called genres of lies; deliberately false information masquerading as truth with the sole purpose of persuasion.
George Monbiot writes about the misinformation machines. He claims huge amounts of money are spent on setting up international and corporate think-tanks, bloggers and fake citizens’ groups. Their objective is swaying the hearts and minds of the electorate over big issues like immigration, employment and climate change. (Monbiot also refers to Trump and hyporeality which sounds to me ike Baurillard’s hyperreality nightmare come true – I think this may be is next week’s topic sorted!)
Falsity is not new. The internet has always been full of lies as has the world of advertising. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Edward Bernays applied the psychoanalytic ideas of his Uncle Siggy to persuade young women to smoke and increase the popularity of the colour green. His techniques were called Public Relations or Propaganda, depending if you were on stage controlling the show or in the audience watching it. Century of the Self by the brilliant documentary film maker Adam Curtis tells how America learned to take control of its population. Using archive footage, he tells the story of how Bernays, nephew to Sigmund Freud, laid the foundations of mental manipulation by the media, showing how ‘desire’ was created and blurred boundaries between truths and lies were established.
Control of the media equates with control of the people. George Orwell portrayed this as ‘Big Brother‘ in the novel 1984 and showed how deliberately vague or meaningless language was used to conceal the truth in his essay Politics of the English Language. In Understanding Media The Extensions of Man, (1964) Marshall McLuhan predicted the medium as well as the message would influence attitudes and behaviors while Neil Postman claimed we would be Amusing Ourselves to Death (1984) as the platforms of the public sphere were taken over by cable tv’s multiple channels leaving no place for discussion and critique of political discourse.
Were these writers prescient? Do we recognise the world they predicted?
Early founders of the internet claimed it was a tool for social democracy because it offered equal access to information. Instead we have digital exclusion as the new but invisible category of social and economic discrimination. The development of user generated content via sites like Facebook and Twitter was hailed as a tool for the revolution, giving voice to minority groups and bestowing powers of resistance and subversion. Instead, we have a mess.
For vast swathes of the population, social media has become the single source of truth. Mobile digital media supports speed swapping of news, presented in soundbites and video clips. Adjective heavy headlines and sensational straplines frame news stories telling the reader how to emotionally approach them. Reality TV confuses truth and fiction, magazine industries are built on ‘true’ confessions while multi-channel news is invaded by false news stories. As well as Monbiot, this weeks’ Guardian also has Roy Greenslade on Post Truth and the art of lies citing Barack Obama and his observation the morning after the US election that how the ‘new media ecosystem‘ of social media means ‘everything is true and nothing is true‘.
It seems this is the week for talking about truth.
But of course, after reading all this, you may not believe a single word I have said.