Things are not always what they seem | Kurt Borg

Our lives are continually bombarded by images and catchphrases meant to persuade us. These all convey to us a reality. Yet, if left unexamined, appearances can harm political processes | Kurt Borg

One of the most evocative stories in the history of philosophy is Plato’s allegory of the cave.P lato compares the condition of humanity with being imprisoned inside a dark cave. Chained to the wall, the prisoners take the projected shadows that appear in front of them as reality. Until one of them breaks free, exits the cave, and realises that what was previously presented as truth was, in fact, an illusion. Concerned for his friends, the freed person returns to the cave in an attempt to liberate them from the chains of illusion. But the prisoners resist and threaten anyone who tries to make them leave the cave.

I was reminded of this story this week as news emerged of major news outlets being the targets of spoofing. Spoof websites are fake versions of actual websites which look just like the real thing, except that their content is made up. This is done in an attempt to convey information that is meant to deceive the reader. It can be easy to fall prey to spoofing, especially because the spoofed website would look just like the one it’s mimicking (except for minor changes in the URL) so the reader would safely assume that what they’re reading is the actual source. Among others, Newsbook, Net News, TVM and Times of Malta have been spoofed in the last few days.

What’s worrying about this is that such attempts are not meant to be harmless fun. Rather, this impacts one of the most important tools in a functioning democracy: sources of information. In a world already highly polarised and poisoned with deliberate misinformation, such attacks are precisely what is not needed.

The risks of deception is not a new thing in politics. Although we speak of ‘post-truth’ as if it’s a recent phenomenon, we would do well to remind ourselves that this same issue is what preoccupied Socrates in the 5th century BC.

As we can read in another dialogue by Plato, the Phaedrus, the use of rhetoric was a highly topical issue. Rhetoric is the art of using speech or writing in order to have a persuasive effect. A skilled rhetorician would be able to make the nonsensical sound profound, and the true sound unlikely. Particularly in the realm of decision-making, an important skill – indeed, a virtue – would be to know how to discern truth from falsity. Being a good rhetorician does not mean that what one says is, after all, good.

We live in a time when the boundary between what’s true and not isn’t easy to determine. No-one has a monopoly over truth, and it would be dangerous if we were to leave it up to one source to establish what constitutes truth. A quick look around us highlights how some of the fiercest ideological battles today are fought precisely over what counts as legitimate sources of truth, be it in debates about climate change, vaccination, or gender politics.

Truth isn’t always one, especially in the murky terrain of politics and ethics, and we must respect its complexity and multi-faceted nature. But this is not to say that anything goes. There can be such a thing as losing touch with reality. And I fear that we are living through such a political psychosis as a nation and a world.

We’re living in an age of appearances. Our lives are continually bombarded by images, catchphrases, adverts and soundbites meant to persuade us. These are all signs intended to convey to us a reality. Yet, if left unexamined, appearances can harm political processes.

As we approach a general election campaign (may the gods help us!), this issue becomes more urgent. Although voting is not the be-all and end-all of a democracy, it is a crucial component of it. So it’s all the more problematic that our mediascape is becoming increasingly populated with fake or outrageous sources.

This is not something that is happening now, simply because an election is approaching. It is something that we face on a daily basis. Fake news spreads faster than true ones. In political debates, arguments are by-passed in favour of easy clichés. While, in principle, they can be an opportunity to widen debates, comments beneath news articles have become flame wars where you’d find the same nauseating chains of responses.

Fake social media profiles, trolls and party apparatchiks have further ensured that political deliberation is reduced to confusing people’s minds and preventing them from thinking. These are the insidious ways through which political forces, particularly partisan ways, function to hijack people’s consciousness. This constitutes a failure in the functioning of democracy.

The point is not that truth is some pure thing that must be protected from illusions. There is not always an easy binary between the true and the false. And it helps no-one to assume that one is automatically in the right while the adversary is an ignorant idiot. Ultimately, such easy divisions block communication. This is what we are living through. Signs and appearances are hampering the channels of dialogue and meaningful debate.

Technology is a tool that, if not handled well, can transform into a dangerous weapon. A great deal of our life today happens through technology. We can hark on about the value of digital literacy but this would mean nothing if it simply translates into teaching people how to use the next device or platform without educating on what we are using these technologies for.

As things stand, for the most part, information technology is being used against us to surveil, deceive and feed us false needs, and not to empower people. Things such as spoofing make us victims of technology. Instead of using news portals critically to evaluate political matters, these are being used to mess with us.

A contemporary re-reading of Plato’s allegory of the cave is portrayed in the 1988 movie They Live. In this movie, the protagonist finds a mysterious pair of sunglasses that when worn reveals subliminal messages in the media. The sunglasses reveal to him the propaganda behind the slogans that surround us. Beneath the usual adverts, he sees signs reading ‘consume’, ‘obey’, ‘conform’, ‘buy’, ‘stay asleep’. Maybe such magical sunglasses do not exist. But an attitude of not taking things for what they seem to be can help us go beyond the illusions of spoofs, and approach some semblance of truth.

Dr Kurt Borg lectures in philosophy at the University of Malta