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Discerning what’s true in a digital age

Social media, the breakdown of communication, and the problems of a post-truth society

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August 31, 2022

We live in an unprecedented age of information, more than we can even begin to comprehend, right at our fingertips. The internet was once seen as an instrument that allowed the average person access to near limitless information, instead of limiting these things to certain elite groups, as was the practice in past generations. But as we know all too well today, one of the unintended downsides of this widespread availability of information is the breakdown of trust throughout society in what we hear or read. This shift is especially prevalent in our growing inability to discern what is true in a world that seems to be given over to misinformation and reinterpretations of reality often to gain status or prestige.  

Technology has a profound effect on us as human beings and shapes not only how we view ourselves but also the world around us. One of the most devastating effects of technology on society has been the breakdown, if not a full-on crisis, of what is considered true.1For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). This is especially widespread on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where terms like fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and post-truth have become part of our everyday vocabulary.2For a more in-depth look at the the technical and political factors involved in this debate, see my expanded chapter on misinformation and conspiracy theories in Jason Thacker, ed., The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2023). On this side of the often-utopian promises of technology, we now see how universal access to information and power actually helped to usher in a host of unexpected complex ethical questions—questions that many are unprepared to answer. Parents, philosophers, and tech-company founders alike seem to respond the same way as they wrestle with the ethical aftermath—if only we could have seen these things coming

French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, captures our blindness well when he wrote that “man can never foresee the totality of consequences of a given technical action.”3Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 105. Even our best intentions for these innovations can overlook the devastating unintended effects, especially when deployed at a massive scale throughout our society—especially a society that has sought to rid itself of a transcendent (or supernatural) understanding of truth and reality. We often pursue individuality at the expense of truth, and nowhere is that clearer than on social media.  

Post-truth problems

Filling the headlines of major media outlets and saturating our social media timelines, the influence of fake news, misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories grows each day. Where do we hear about these things most, though? In what context do you hear the term “fake news” thrown around? If your social feeds are anything like mine, your answer is probably, “When my political party takes issue with the opposing political party on a certain issue.” And that should upset us, shouldn’t it? That “fake news” or “fake facts” would be wielded as a weapon against our political opponents simply because they take a different position than us on a particular matter? Simply because they said something we don’t like or agree with? Simply because the information presented—even if it’s actually true—feels inconvenient or challenging? Shouldn’t it sadden believers that throughout our culture and even in our churches, it seems truth has become simply what we want it to be rather than some objective and knowable reality outside of us?  

I’ve noticed that trying to have a civil conversation online is getting harder and harder these days, even about the smallest of issues. Have you noticed this too? One idea or opinion expressed, and it’s like a fire erupts out of nowhere. We can blame our modern pursuit of defining truth on our own terms for this, as doing so creates an online atmosphere where “communication [with one another] is thwarted, and the possibility of rational discourse disappears,” as one ethicist put it.4D. Stephen Long, Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC, 2019), 8. It becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology—like the rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories—since we no longer have a common starting point for these debates in society or even a similar grasp on reality. Without agreeing on the foundational level about what’s morally good and bad, truth naturally becomes a political weapon, used to denigrate or “cancel” those who might hold to a different worldview or belief about how the world works.5For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). Though if you survey the top resources on the rise of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news, you will quickly find many are extremely partisan in nature, intentionally blaming one side of the political spectrum for rejecting reality or believing in fairy-tale fantasies in order to maintain some semblance of cultural power or influence.  

While the problems we face today in our post-truth society are exacerbated by technologies like the internet, social media, and even the rise of deepfakes—altered videos through artificial intelligence—the root of the problem is not the technology itself. Many of these pressing issues find their root cause in the philosophical and scientific movements of the last few hundred years, where there was a near total rejection of a transcendent reality, especially when it comes to moral norms. While many who write on these issues seek to blame “them” for the rise of our post-truth society and the chaos that naturally flows out of such a society, this kind of blame-shifting only makes the problem worse, driving the wedge deeper between opposing conversation partners. The result? Both sides increasingly fuel the breakdown not only of civil discourse but also of our shared pursuit of truth as a society.

Excerpted with permission from Following Jesus in a Digital Age by Jason Thacker. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing. 

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as director of research and chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He is the author or editor of several books, including his latest "Following Jesus in a Digital Age" and "The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society." He is a graduate of The … Read More