The above classic illustration is designed to confuse you, to mess with your mind and force you to see more than four legs, while wrestling with the truth that the elephant should only have four legs. The medium (a confusing visual image) messed with Truth. Over the next several paragraphs, I want to help you see how the media of our world is messing with Truth – purposely.
Let me begin, though, by clarifying what I’m not talking about. I’m not merely referring to the news media, which is what most people in our hyper-politicized culture think of when they hear the word media. Yes, news media have biases and slanted worldviews that come out in their reporting, even in what they choose to report or not to report. Yes, the news media is guilty of staging, mis-contexualizing, and cropping images to convey the truth they want to convey. So, yes, the news media is guilty of messing with Truth. And, yes, Christians MUST LEARN to be discerning when they’re consuming news. They must learn that the producers of our news media have carefully chosen and framed what is being shown to communicate a specific message.
When I use the word media in this article, though, I’m referring to the means through which the message is communicated. So, I’m not focusing so much on the content of the message being communicated (although this is obviously of great importance!); I’m referring to the window through which you’re viewing the message. And I’m suggesting that the window is tinted. I’m suggesting that the window is changing how truth is viewed.
So, to be more specific, I’m talking about Facebook, Netflix, You Tube, Twitter, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and Instagram, along with the devices that make these visible to us such as smartphones, televisions, and Roku. These media are messing with Truth. My specific concerns center around the following: 1) The images that distract us from the question of Truth, 2) The assumption that truth arises from the social group, and 3) The fragmentation of thought.
The Images that Distract Us from the Question of Truth
It’s no profound insight to observe that much of our media is visual in nature today. Words now serve images. And this affects the way we interact with truth. Consider these insightful (and prescient) words from Neil Postman (writing in the 1980s and 90s before the internet and digital media explosion):
The words ‘true’ and ‘false’ come from the universe of language, and no other. When applied to a photograph, the question, Is it true? Means only, Is this a reproduction of a real slice of space-time? If the answer is ‘Yes,’ there is no ground for argument, for it makes no sense to disagree with an unfaked photograph. The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 73).
Then he adds, “The picture forced exposition into the background, and in some instances obliterated it altogether” (74). Make sure you appreciate what he’s saying because this is the very thing we’re missing. The visual medium has changed the way we think about Truth. Truth, much like an image, is no longer something that requires careful consideration or argument; it has been reduced merely to something we like or don’t like, much like a post on Facebook or Instagram.
So Postman observes,
a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling (27).
The last phrase is the point. Visual media is creating new forms of truth-telling. And most of us aren’t paying attention. And this leaves us vulnerable, because as Postman also rightly observes, “Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned.” We must learn to discern the Truth claims being made through images. This isn’t easy because images don’t typically enter the mind through the door labeled “Truth,” but through one marked “Pathos.” In other words, images evoke feelings before they elicit questions of Truth. We must learn, therefore, to ask what Truth claim is being made by the images flickering through social media or on the evening news. Truth never comes unadorned.
Truth never comes unadorned.
This is not to say that images are bad; they’re not. The very image of God, after all, took on flesh in Jesus Christ, Truth adorned in human vesture. This is to say, however, that images can convey Truth (or lies) and we need to know it when we consume media lest we be deceived or manipulated.
The Assumption that Truth Arises from the Social Group
Throughout this article I have used a capital “T” to adorn Truth. This has been intentional. I’m communicating the objective nature of Truth. It transcends us. It’s outside of us. It defines us. We don’t determine it, we discover it. Social media, however, changes this. Social media assumes that truth (notice the lowercase “t”) belongs to the group. It does not transcend us or define us, but arises out of us. It belongs to us. Capital “T” Truth has been Facebooked into lowercase “t” truth. Truth must now bow before thumbs-ups, hearts, emojis, and an endless array of social media criteria.
As with images, this doesn’t make the social group evil, but it does make it dangerous. Just as with things like fire, cars, and farm equipment, we need to appreciate the inherent danger. If misused, things can go terribly wrong. Social media may be useful in communicating information or opinions, but be we should be concerned for Truth if it is abducted by the group.
The Fragmentation of Thought
Before the internet and the world of social media, the great enemy of linear thought revealed itself on the evening news in these words “Now this…” A story about social unrest in Iran. Now this: a story of disaster in the wake of hurricane Michael. Now this: football scores. Now this: weather. Now this: the latest in fashion trends. And not one story requiring more than three minutes!
A country in turmoil and we are experts in 2 minutes. A region devastated and we know it all in 75 seconds. And football, the weather, and fashion trends are given comparable time, as if they merit the same coverage. The nature of the medium – visual snapshots forced between commercials – changes the way Truth is told.
Add the internet and social media and “now this” is snowed under the hyperlink, the finger flip, scroll, and tap. As Nicholas Carr argues in his thought provoking book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, we’re skipping across an ocean of depth, learning, and thought on a ski-do of distraction.
Worse, we’re no longer concerned by discontinuity and contradiction. Consider Postman’s observation (and remember, he’s writing before Internet was ubiquitous).
And in the ‘Now… this’ world of television… the fundamental assumption of that world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist (110).
In other words, a medium that presents information in disconnected bits or units isn’t concerned when those disconnected bits contradict. The medium is aimed at information dissemination, not Truth examination. Examining Truth requires careful, linear and logical thought. And our media today are not aimed at that.
The medium is aimed at information dissemination, not Truth examination.
Again, this doesn’t mean our media are evil; it means we need to be discerning. We need to understand that the medium through which a message is communicated affects the message in some way. The very fact that you’re reading this article instead of listening to me read it means you’re hearing your voice in your head instead of mine and that affects how you interact with the article. The medium affects the message.
Our world adds new media forms every year (sometimes it seems like every day!). As confessing Christians, we need to be discerning people. Truth, as mentioned above, doesn’t come unadorned. Media is not neutral; it will mess with Truth. We need to understand this and ensure that our children understand this. We cannot simply hand them a smartphone or some internet connected device and expect their assumptions about Truth not to be affected (to say nothing of the inappropriate images available through a few simple clicks or taps that can never be unseen and threaten to ruin real relationships!).
Now, perhaps more than ever, it is of vital importance for us both to think deeply and carefully about the media in which we’re immersed (how is it messing with Truth?) and for us to practice the daily drills
of the faith to ensure we, and our children, stay grounded in and founded on the Truth. There’s too much at stake to do nothing. Need help getting started? Talk to me. Email/call/come and visit. Truth is worth it. – Pastor Conner