- Dror Margalit
The Liquidation of Truth(s) in the Digital Era
The essence of truth as absolute is being questioned lately. We have more access to information than ever before, and yet, it does not seem to help us reveal more of the truth. "Fake news" spread widely, conspiracy theories are more popular than ever, and on top of all, for the first time in U.S. history, the two leading candidates of the 2020 presidential elections looked at the same results and thought that, in truth, each won elections. All of which, among many other examples, raise the awareness that something in the way people perceive what is true seems to be liquified. In other words, truth does not seem to be absolute anymore. But while liquidation of truth seems unique to our times, looking at the data and interpreting it differently is not a new phenomenon.
Thousands of years ago, for example, a story about a conversation between God and Abram was recorded in writing in the Bible. For highly religious societies, such conversation can be considered sacred; the holiest of the holiest; writing that represents the words of God itself. And for highly religious societies, such a representation can be regarded as the most reliable source of information. Therefore, when God promised Abram the "promised land," it is no surprise that highly religious societies perceive this promise as absolute truth.
"On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates…" (Genesis 15:18)
But if this promise came from the most reliable source for religious societies (i.e., God), how come one group of people call the "promised land" Palestine, another group call it Israel, and both see their perspective as absolute truth? Both groups have fought each other for dozens of years to preserve their truth, but how God's promise became the center of the conflict in the first place? How can the two groups look at the same information and interpret it so differently? This example shows that looking at the same information and interpreting it differently is not a new phenomenon. And, the relationship between truth (or its absence) and media has existed since early forms of media (such as writing).
To explain this phenomenon, let us examine the flow of information from the moment it leaves its source, through media, to people. How do people collect information? What happens to it when it is mediated to have a greater influence on people? And finally, what are the consequences of looking at the same data and interpreting it as different truths?
Revealing More of the Truth
While different people can rely on different sources of information, the first part of determining whether something is true is gathering information. But where does the information come from, and how do we collect it?
In his essay, "The Question Concerning Technology," Martin Heidegger claims that "everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering." In other words, everything exists, nothing is new; everything reveals itself to humans in order, ready to be called. Heidegger sees this "calling" as the process of revealing - bringing forth the concealed to be unconcealed. And this process, in Heidegger's perspective, is not done by humans with bare hands. We use technology for it. Heidegger claims that the essence of technology is not technological. Technology, according to him, is an instrument that enables us to reveal more of the real. Furthermore, it is a mode of revealing. In his words, "technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e. of truth."
This idea of the essence of technology as a mode of revealing was presented by Heidegger in 1954 and I think it is fair to say that, so far, it stands the test of time. Today, thanks to technology, we not only gather more information faster but also every person has access to more information on a much larger scale. If, as Heidegger suggests, technology enables us to reveal more of the real, and we have such advanced technologies today, we can assume that we should see much more of the truth today, right? No.
"A popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world. Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalized and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus."
In the same year that a vaccine for a deadly virus was developed in a record time, thanks to the most advanced technologies, technology enabled the spread of misinformation that endangered and caused the death of thousands of people. And this is only one example of misinformation and "fake news" that spread widely through contemporary mass media channels. Technology enables us to reveal more of the real, yet we see so much more unreal.
The contrast between how technology enables us to reveal more of the truth to the way it allows the spread of misinformation has to do with how the information is processed. Heidegger claims that another part of bringing forth the concealed is “enframing” - in his words, "the gathering together of that setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenge him forth, to reveal the real…" That is to say that when the information is gathered, it is enframed by the technology's or gatherer's pre-existing information. When each of us is exposed to new information, we enframe it using information that we already know.
There are many ways to process or enframe information. Heidegger, for example, talks elaborately about modern physics as a way of enframing. Modern physics uses an objective set of variables to examine the information we gather in an attempt to understand the way things work. We reveal the concealed and examine it through the lens (or the frame) of modern physics to make sense of the world. But modern physics is not the only way people enframe information. Even though modern physics, and modern science in general, uses objective methods to examine information, many people still do not trust them as ways of revealing the truth. Rather than using objective methods, they prefer to enframe information using beliefs, opinions, etc. In that perspective, it can therefore be suggested that science, religion, and conspiracy theories all share the same means as people's ways to enframe information in an attempt to make sense of the world. And this, of course, opens a realm of truth liquidation; different people use different variables to interpret the same data. It can explain, for example, how can two presidential candidates looked at the same data and interpreted it differently. In the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, the two leading candidates looked at the same results and concluded that they won. The data was the same, but the “enframing method” to count votes each relied on was different. Because each looked at the results through their own way of enframing, they both could believe in two different absolute truths, looking at the same data. To resolve this conflict and determine who, in truth, won the elections, only one enframing method (vote-counting method) had to be chosen.
But there is more to it. While enframing by itself can be enough to make different people look at the same data and interpret it differently, I want to suggest another part in the flow of information that enables the liquidation of truth: mediation. After data is gathered and enframed, it is mediated through different media to the masses. The same media that make information so accessible on a large scale also enable the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and "fake news." Let us take a deeper look at what happens when information is mediated to the masses.
Mediating the Truth
In the 1940s, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld studied how the mass media influence people's opinions and attitudes. At the time, the focus of most mass media research had been the study of campaigns. Mass media research was mostly aimed at understanding how, and under what conditions, mass media campaigns succeed in influencing opinions and attitudes.
Lazarsfeld, however, suggests a different approach. Rather than focusing on the popular subdivisions of media research at the time, such as audience research and content analysis, Lazarsfeld argued that to understand mass media better, we need to understand "the sequence of events and variety of factors which 'intervene' between the mass media stimulus and the individual's response." He considered four factors that contribute to facilitating (or blocking) the flow of communication between the media and the masses: exposure, medium, content, and predispositions. As he researched those intervening factors, he discovered other factors which intervene in the communication flow between the media and the masses. One, in particular, that stood out in this research was interpersonal relations.
Lazarsfeld's study suggested that people are not influenced directly by the media but by other people in their environment. For example, he examined what made people make up their minds and change their opinions during an election campaign, and found that it was not the newspaper or the radio that proved to make a significant change in people's decisions. Rather, "when people were asked what had contributed to their decision, their answer was: other people... The one source of influence that seemed to be far ahead of all others in determining the way people made up their minds was personal influence." Moreover, in every group, there were people with more significant influence on their fellows' votes. In every social and economic level and all occupational groups, people with greater influence over others was found. Those people, who Lazarsfeld calls "opinion leaders," seemed to be influenced directly by the media and pass the information to the rest of the people. In his words, "ideas, often, seem to flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from them the less active sections of the population."
Lazarsfeld's "two-step flow of communication" theory suggests that the media has a smaller effect on people's opinions than previously thought. Instead of being affected directly by the media, people are affected by opinion leaders, and they play an integral part of everyday personal relationships.
The fact that opinion leaders "intervene" between the media and the masses in everyday communications sheds light on how information can leave its source and be perceived differently by different people. Lazarsfeld suggests that "the response of an individual to a campaign cannot be accounted for without reference to his social environment and to the character of his interpersonal relations."
Let us add back the enframing concept to the mix to get a broader picture of the factors that affect information flow. Information is gathered with the help of technology, enframed by the gatherer's and technology's pre-existing information, mediated through opinion leaders, and enframed again by the receiver. In addition, the fact that Lazarsfeld's study suggests that the social environment plays such a significant role in influencing people's opinions might indicate that the enframing method we use to process information is, too, directed to us by our social environment. The enframing and "two-step flow of communication" concepts can explain how different people can look at the same data and interpret it differently. After we gather data, it is distorted by our pre-existed information and social environment. It means that the amount of accessible information we have today plays a relatively less significant role than our social environment in determining what is true. In other words, different people from different social environments can look at the same data and interpret it differently. Let us now go back to God's covenant with Abram and examine, with the concepts of enframing and the two-step flow of communication, how two groups of people can interpret the "promised land" so differently.
Thousands of years ago, a story about a covenant between God and Abram was carried by oral cultures. It was later recorded in writings and, much later, mass-produced in the modern version of the Bible. Over thousands of years, this covenant has been enframed by different people with different pre-existing beliefs, mediated through different opinion leaders, and was settled so deeply in people's consciousness that they perceive the same conversation as various absolute truths. Palestinian opinion leaders may enframe it through Islam and see Abram's descendants from God's promise ("to your descendants I give this land") as the Muslims and Palestinians - because this is the truth that was directed to them by their social environment and previous opinion leaders. And, Israeli opinion leaders may enframe the covenant through Judaism and see Abram's descendants as the Jews and Israelis - because this is the truth that was directed to them by their social environment and previous opinion leaders. Both groups are absolutely right - in their perspective.
Unlike the 2020 U.S. election example, which required choosing single truth, to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli misinterpretation problem, the groups will need to accept each others’ truths. If the groups want to live together peacefully, they will need to understand that there is no objective way to look at information, no absolute truth, but several truths.
The Liquidation of Truth(s)
Because there is no objective way to look at data, there is no absolute truth. If we acknowledge it, we might become more open to other people’s beliefs, which, as the “promised land” example showed, is crucial in resolving conflicts and living peacefully. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that sometimes there is no room for several truths, and spreading misleading information can endanger people. There can be only one voting method to elect the U.S. president, and consumption of highly concentrated alcohol does not cure COVID-19 but kills people.
Because our social environment and enframing method influence our beliefs so deeply, there is a question left: how one can know that he or she knows the "real" truth. My opinion is: they can not. But do not listen to my opinion; it is influenced by social environment and preferred enframing method.
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Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology,” Basic Writings (p.287-316) (1977).
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Lazarsfeld, F. Paul and Kats, Elihu. Personal Influence (p.15-42). (1955).