Sunday, January 20, 2013

Truth, Lies and Imaginary Girlfriends

Socrates would never have had an imaginary girlfriend. If Notre Dame football player Manti T’eo insisted on a face-to-face meeting with Lennay Kekua he wouldn’t have been manipulated in a cruel hoax that led him fall in love with a fake personality who died of fake cancer. If Socrates had his way, no one would fall victim to catfishing, that weird phenomenon of our internet age where someone pursues an online romance using a false identity. As we discussed in class, Socrates, in The Phaedrus, finds truth through dialect. Face-to-face. In person.

It seems increasingly difficult to find the truth today, even though we have more information than we can possibly process and communication is everywhere. A friend of mine posted this picture of Bill Gates holding a gun, along with the text of a high school commencement speech attributed to Gates. I looked for more information and discovered that Gates didn’t deliver the speech and the gun is a work of Photoshop.

In Chapter  4 of Mass Communication and Social Thought, we hear about publicity, public opinion, newspapers and social control. Robert Ezra Park and Ernest W. Burgess write about the importance of the newspaper as "the great medium of communication" that provides information used to shape public opinion. But Park and Burgess say the newspaper can't "compete with the village gossips as a means of social control."

Today, social media, blogs and Oprah are the village and newspapers can't compete with the gossip on Facebook, Twitter, and the Drudge Report.

What's worse is that news reporters are sometimes complicit in a system that allows the spread of gossip and clouds the truth.

For example, in 1990, a young Kuwaiti teenager using an assumed name testified before Congress about Iraqi soldiers storming a Kuwaiti hospital, throwing premature babies out of their incubators and leaving them to die so the incubators could be taken back to Iraq. The account was reported in the press and repeated by then President George H.W. Bush. The story helped support the idea that the war against Iraq was a humanitarian issue, not one of access to oil. After the war was over,  Harper's, 60 Minutes and the New York Times investigated the incubator story and discovered it wasn't true. It didn't happen. The teenage girl who testified before Congress turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador but not a single reporter tracked down her identity.

In the book, The Press Effect, Katherine Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman write, "The conditions of war made the press more willing to accept the incubator story and less able to determine whether it was true." In chapter 8 of our text, Harold Dwight Lasswell writes about the power of propaganda, especially when people like reporters, "are drawn into the service of propaganda to amplify a master voice."

So how do we find the truth? The pressure is on all of us to search for accurate information that doesn't just affirm what we want to believe. 

And always be skeptical when a stranger wants to follow on Twitter.


  1. I might also argue that the ipod was photoshopped. Bill Gates using an Apple product? No way! :)

  2. I think the same happens with all these bad or good stories we read that individuals post on companies wall. I remember one about Panera bread that was a positive comment about food and the story of a old woman who loved clam chowder from there and in the other hand there was a story of a guy posting in Walmart's wall complaining about employees being disrespectful with customers'. Who really knows if this happens or not? And when it is spread and people start "liking" and sharing and commenting on it, it is something that can't be controlled and can help or damage a company's image. Managing social media for companies seems tricky and risky.