Preserving civil and civic public dialogue in a time of ‘Truth Decay’
February 7, 2019
Nathalie Hyde-Clarke, Head of Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS
Matteo Stocchetti, Senior Lecturer: Media Culture, Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS
At the recent ‘Speaking is Silver’ seminar held at Hanaholmen (1.2.2019), President and CEO of RAND corporation, Michael D. Rich, presented his research report titled ‘Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in Public Life’. The research is based on four pervasive and systematic social trends that reinforce each other, and negatively affect public confidence in the public sphere:
- Increased disagreement about fact and discourse analysis
- The increasing blurring of fact and opinion on information platforms
- Increased quantity of opinion versus fact due to the 24-hour news cycle and online content generation
- And a related loss of public trust in key authorities (especially government and media)
According to his findings, ‘Truth Decay’ has been increasing since 2000 due to a combination of individuals’ natural cognitive bias and the phenomenon that erroneous data ends to spread online faster than factual information. This has been further complicated by disinformation campaigns and the advent of ‘deep fakes’.
The conclusion therefore is that ‘truth decay’ erodes both civil and civic dialogue in the public sphere as individuals become more polarised and disengaged or disenchanted. This ultimately will result in political paralysis and an inability to compromise or negotiate – “an existential threat to democracy”.
These trends are highly unlikely to self-correct themselves, and thus there is a need for a sustained effort to reverse the process. In what way can our education address this need?
In response to similar concerns about the quality of information available to the public, Arcada launched the research program Media and Education in the Digital Age (MEDA) in 2014. Based on a constructivist epistemology, and the idea that truth in social sciences can hardly ever be ‘objective’, this initiative sought to address the challenges, risks and opportunities associated with the use of media in social practices and formal education.
From the standpoint of MEDA, for example, the suggestion that truth is ‘decaying’ should be rejected as such a statement is based on the objectification of truth itself: the idea that truth is like a piece of precious substance like for example water that can be found, owned, or corrupted.
From the constructionist perspective adopted by researchers associated with MEDA, truth is rather the impermanent result of intersubjective and mostly communicative practices: more a relationship than an object. An important aspect of this notion is that this kind of truth cannot decay but can only evolve, for better or worse, depending on the quality of the relationship between the participants. What in an objectivist perspective seems like a ‘decay of truth’, from the perspective of MEDA research and teaching is actually the deterioration of social relationships and communication that establish and legitimize truth – as a part of the broader process usually referred to as the social construction of reality.
Arguably, to blame digital media for the deterioration of these relationships is like blaming the car for the mistakes or the intentions of its driver. Also the tendency to blame particular groups, movements or even governments for the instrumental use of digital media hide the facts that media has always been used for manipulation. In the not too distant past, burning books was a practice recommended to preserve the purity of an allegedly objective truth.
In our opinion, we simply cannot afford to rely on these antiquated and ultimately authoritarian standpoints to address the challenges and even the risks of the digital age. Educational and research initiatives such as MEDA, should be designed to contribute to the development of a critical and constructionist approach to digital media in research and education.
For more information regarding MEDA’s activities, please contact Dr. Matteo Stocchetti: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rich, M. 2018. Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in Public Life. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2300/RR2314/RAND_RR2314.pdf (Accessed on 2.2.2019)
MEDA project. https://rdi.arcada.fi/meda/en/
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