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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defence of Truth

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defence of Truth

Written by Jonathon Rausch

Disinformation. Trolling. Conspiracies. Social media pile-ons. Campus intolerance. On the surface, these recent additions to our daily vocabulary appear to have little in common. But together, they are driving an epistemic crisis: a multi-front challenge to America's ability to distinguish fact from fiction and elevate truth above falsehood.

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defence of Truth’ by Jonathan Rauch came to my attention on hearing an interview with its author Jonathon Rausch. He was talking about the similarities of Stalin, Lenin, Hitler … and Trump in mastering the art of public lying to sway and manipulate populations.

I’m presently between ‘The Constitution’s ’ covers. I haven’t reached the section yet, but what caught my attention in the interview addressed why today’s on-line communication platforms are so conducive to the growth of conspiracy theories and the distribution of disinformation.

My translation: Advertising became the default business model of the web as large numbers of web publishers and social media influencers jumped into contractual relationships with ad networks, using any revenue made from generating audience growth to the advertising network to cover their ongoing content expenses. (You host the ads. Organic search engine traffic coming to your site clicks on the pop-ups/ads/clickbait/headline ... and the advertising company gives you a clip). Whenever one of these pop-ups or links reaches a degree of popularity it will be taken up by an algorithm and the information or product promoted begins its exponential distribution, sometimes to almost ubiquitous levels.

Plain old boring ‘truth’ is not the stuff on which clickbait flourishes, however ‘Hilary Clinton runs a Paedophile ring from a Pizza restaurant’ is far more likely to garner attention. It is a similar technique to those who honed the eye-catching headlines in our old hard-copy papers. The difference is that an attention grabber on the web can hover in the faces of the masses for a long, long time. Should a disgruntled ‘anyone’ feel that one of these headlines aligns with their paranoia (or belief system), they more than likely share this link with a similarly minded cohort. Multiplied by many, many disgruntled ‘anyones’, and many, many similarly minded cohorts and you have got yourself a disinformation revolution! (*Of course, this applies to opinion pieces carrying accepted truths, but their exponential growth is negligible, as their political perspective is already mainstream and easy to find; ie it is not an unusual and rare opinion-piece that the supporter is motivated to distribute as they know that their cohort is already well informed).

Now, ‘The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defence of Truth’ covers a lot more ground than my particular web-as-distribution-platform fascination. It ranges from government-choreographed trolling to random online abuse as a political tool; to a fascinating description of how an outmoded journalese model (using an imaginary funnel) filtered a mass of free speech opinions and news leads (feeding into the fat end of the funnel) to be left with accepted, evidence based ‘approximate truth’ (distributed/published through the funnel’s skinny end) … to how disinformation and propaganda once only used by totalitarian governments is now being used more and more by governments of the free world.

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