Shadows on A Facebook Wall: When Social Media Obscures Truth (Part 1)
The nature of knowledge, truth and power constantly shift in our online world.
Twitter is rife with trolls, Facebook with fake news and TikTok with misinformation. It’s almost impossible to check in with friends on a social media platform without reading of some disturbing conspiracy. As we’re constantly bombarded with so many contrasting facts, it’s easy to understand why skepticism is on the rise. It’s also easy to believe that what one perceives is all that there is.
When you can read 30+ posts that confirm your point of view, it’s easy to think you’ve done enough research to know the truth. Is this a new phenomenon? I don’t think so. Plato’s Cave Allegory was written in 517BC and it could well apply to the spread of information and conspiracy theories on social media.
Plato’s cave allegory describes a group of prisoners shackled together so that they can only see the cave wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners burns a fire, and behind the fire puppet showmen put on a performance, only the shadows of which are seen on the cave wall by the prisoners. Other shadows are cast by free people going about their daily business. Plato argues that the only truth these prisoners could know is that of the ‘shadows that are [continually] projected on the wall opposite them by the glow of the fire.’ In other words, their knowledge comes only from those in power. Any words the prisoners hear would be attributed to the shadows and the only beings the prisoners would believe in existence, would be the shadows.
This popular allegory has often been used to explain knowledge within the context of education structures. I find it an interesting way to think about social media conspiracy theories.
The theoretical lens of Foucault's ‘truth games’ further helps us navigate the changing nature of knowledge in a world where social media is ubiquitous. Foucault argues that freedom is of a definite, historically produced kind and there is no other kind, as such ‘thought is freedom in relation to what one does’ In this approach, freedom and behaviour in line with ethical beliefs are intrinsically linked. When people live as the sort of person that on reflection they think they ought to be then their conduct is ethical and free.
The problem is then when those ethics clash as the individual has to situate their ethical stance within society as it is, and not simply as they understand it to be. At this stage Foucauldian truth games kick in. Truth-games of the Foucauldian definition are:
‘a set of rules by which truth is produced...a set of procedures that lead to a certain result, which, on the basis of its principles and rules of procedure, may be considered valid or invalid’
By nature, truth games may only be declared won or lost only once they are over, they can also be conducted badly and interminably.
These truth games are everywhere. They contribute to online illusions, and put forward the argument that for there to be an illusion or truth of positionality, there must be an objective truth behind the shadows. We will briefly explore the problem of conspiracy theories by considering who controls and regulates the communication of truth and how they gain power to do so.
Truth-Games and Plato’s Cave
In Plato’s cave allegory, the prisoners mistake appearance for reality. They believe the shadows to be real because they don’t know about the puppet masters, or indeed any life behind the wall. When the prisoners discuss a tree or a wolf, they discuss the shadow rather than the object itself, but believe that what they see is all there is. If the prisoners were to turn their heads they would see their mistake. This metaphor applies well to the world of social media. Many prisoners to their screens, click a tweet or share an Instagram infographic believing it to be the entire truth on a subject. To turn their heads would mean to examine the source of the information in order to discover metadata which would help to process what they see into useful knowledge of the truth. But what is truth?
Foucault describes those who speak the truth as, ‘free individuals who establish a certain consensus, and who find themselves within a certain network of practices of power and constraining institutions.’ To Foucault, truth-games are connected to power relations and technologies of power and truth is a question of production.
But perhaps Foucault stops too soon. Having turned his head to the discovery there is more to life in the cave than the shadows before him, and learning that truth can be presented or constructed to some degree, perhaps Foucault does not turn around fully enough to learn that there are puppet masters manipulating the very reality he is trying to grasp, and that fact is one of many objective truths.
Perhaps varying perspectives are merely facets of the truth and not the whole story. In our example of a prisoner looking at a tree, conclusions could be drawn by an observer and these would all be believed to be true:
The prisoner looks at an item he calls a tree (absolute truth)
The item he looks at is a tree (relative truth)
The prisoner believes all trees to be one colour (truth of positionality)
The prisoners view of trees has been manipulated (absolute truth)
Trees are not real (untrue)
Trees exist and are usually several colours (absolute truth)
The observer may have carried a tree past the fire and cast a shadow on the wall inadvertently, but they did not deliberately engage in truth-games until they took on the role of a puppet master and used props to form an experiment to better understand the prisoners. Or perhaps, in a less benign mood, the observer decided to convince the prisoners of the existence of a talking tree. At this stage the observer creates a set of rules by which truth is produced and their produced truth is perceived as verifiable, absolute truth by the prisoners.
Truth games require an intention to change perceptions of the truth, whether for motives intended to be benevolent or otherwise, all truth-games require knowing manipulation of knowledge...
Truth Games in Conspiracy Theories and the Polarising Nature of Social Media
Thanks to the rise of social media, almost all people are agents capable of truth games, intentional or otherwise. So surely it should be hard to fool anyone? And yet this is clearly not the case. Why then? Well, in Plato’s allegory an escapee sees the world, the sun and the reflections of nature in water, and feels pity for the other prisoners still shackled and limited in view. He returns and tries to share the truth with the other prisoners, but they cannot process the concept of a tree beyond the one they see, let alone any light source beyond the flames that warm them in the cave. The truth is too far from what they’ve experienced with their own senses. The world the prisoners know if familiar and comfortable, even if it is limited, the risk of looking beyond is great and they cannot see a benefit to considering that the truths they know are all mere truths of positionality.
Once a prisoner is made aware of another aspect of the truth, they can choose to follow the escaped prisoner and see for themselves, or they can remain in the comfort of the relative truth they experience in the cave.
The belief systems of social media conspiracy theorists are a fascinating example of an area where those bound by certain beliefs lack the knowledge requisite for them to see the truth just beyond their grasp, if they only turned around.
That there is no evidence of any tangible benefit conferred by the conspiracy or any actor powerful enough to ensure it happens and that they then obtain that benefit, becomes a moot point on Facebook. If it is accepted that there are shadows, then there must be someone creating the shadow puppet show. Right? Many stop at this partial awareness, not seeking the full freedom of the escapee but instead occupying a middle ground: now aware of a wider world but unwilling to turn around and explore it. Between freed prisoners, the objective truth of the form of the puppet can be discussed: is the puppet wood, plastic or a hybrid? Is it of use in and of itself or merely a tool of the puppet master, but to get to these useful questions, one must accept that a puppet exists beyond the shadows...