Plato Warned Us About Post-Truth and Fake News

The Greek philosopher Plato and his teacher Socrates believed that rhetoric as used by the Sophists could be misleading due to the emphasis on emotion and performance, and lack of emphasis on logic, and more importantly, the fact that Sophists were paid to write speeches. Plato advocated the pursuit of truth through logic and reason, and Socrates outlined the structures of rhetoric that could make this pursuit possible.  The 2,000-year time difference is irrelevant since the parallels between their teaching and the digital world today are startling.

Three key concepts emerge from Plato’s writings that link classical rhetoric to digital rhetoric. First, a shift from literacy to electracy, which is analogous to the shift from orality to literacy in Plato’s time. The orality of the Homeric culture depended on memorized poems and storytelling to pass along information. Plato and Socrates worked in craft literacy, that is, using the available technology of alphabet and the written word on the way to full literacy for the society. Now the shift is to a culture of electronic communication from just a few to the masses, and the technology is the Internet and digital images.

Second, the election of Donald Trump left in its wake the shift from a public praise for the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” to a contingent-truth built from alternative facts. This change is akin to the shift from governance by seers to a search for the truth of the matter in the era after Socrates. Many have noticed that Trump’s “post-truth,” the international word of the year in 2016, attacks Plato’s definition of truth as the basis for politics and the ultimate referee for governance.

Third, the real possibility of a shift from democracy to tyranny, as feared and analyzed by Plato, has begun.

Simonides, who gave us the first memory device, and rhetoric, demonstrated a way that society remembers history and pursues the truth. As we move from literacy to electracy, we might no longer recognize literate reasoning; we may enter a new dark age as we move away from rationality as the foundation of science, governance, and social organization of civilized societies (Dr. C.Saper, February 16, 2017). Plato warned of the separation of reason from argument, so we might need to reconsider what the classic philosophers had to say as a lesson for our own time.


Author: Laura

Student of sociology, interested in how social media is related to inequality and correlates with well being and self-perception.

2 thoughts on “Plato Warned Us About Post-Truth and Fake News”

  1. Laura, excellent analysis of reasoning and argument in our post-truth culture: the question, how do you apply this analysis specifically to the readings and videos assigned last week? In other words, how does the Washington Post or Breitbart News support or attack ideologies of truth and substance and reasoned argument? And how does SNL satire reinvigorate argument and the collapse of the real and the imaginary we are discussing. Finally, how does Alec Jones and the conspiratorialists break down reason in the pursuit of argument towards a sought after truth. I think this analysis will shed light on the turmoil we see today in TRUMP’s post reality / post-truth assault on our political system.

    1. Dr. Packer,

      The Washington Post, less than a month ago, adopted a new tag line, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” which I find to be incredibly relevant to the concept that we might be entering a new dark age, and also gives a nod to Plato’s feeling that Democracy would ultimately be in danger of imploding. The Post clearly sees its role in the pursuit of truth (although some would disagree). Brietbart doesn’t bother with a non-editorial headline, expressing opinion even there.  Brietbart assumes the existence of the Deep State, its mission, its target and the hatred of Republicans by the Post, and takes a combative tone, riding the wave of emotions throughout. The Post, incidentally, denied their tagline was inspired by Trump, so clearly they have issues with truthfulness as well.

      Social media in general has created a collapse of the real and imaginary on a personal level, through heavily edited photos, stories and content of individual users, but I (maybe I am the only one?) assumed the news was sanctified and would not be subject to such blurring of lines.  The SNL skit shows that satire and parody can take the truth of a personality or issue and illustrate it with such hyperbole that it is laughable, but still retains its realness, and in a sense, shines a light on the realness. With the proliferation of memes and gifs, however, our laughable moments can become real themselves, and we venture into simulacra territory.

      Since I am a sociology student in real life, the Alex Jones piece just screams conflict theory to me. People of varying backgrounds and beliefs are united by the presence of a common enemy, and conflict can be productive in having those people unite for a solution. Jones is using emotional appeal to cultivate a common enemy (could the enemy also be logic?) to bring his conspiratorialists together.

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