In this post we will (try to) unpack the issues of communication, featuring topics such as meaning, data, information, messages, misinformation, disinformation, fake news, facts, truth and their role in social diffusion.
(Strap in, this is going to be a bumby ride...)
What is communication?
To start off, we should establish a common understanding of communication. First, we must acknowledge that (just like any other definition) the definition of communication depends on the field of study one finds oneself in. Alternatively, we could say that it depends on the context, where context refers to “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.” (Oxford Learners‘ Dictionary) Of course, in this case we would have to assume that the definition of context is true.
The main issue stems from the ubiquitous nature of communication. Communication is everywhere, at any time and in everything. Even if one is completely alone, they are bombarded with communication. The omnipresence of communication explains why it is hard to fully contextualize and understand it. However, just because there is no absolute way to define communication, that does not mean we should overlook the many definitions that do exist.
Here, we have two examples that answer our first question, ‘What is communication?’
In The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (1950) communication is defined as, “the discriminatory response of an organism to a stimulus.”
Whereas, according to Robert T. Craig (1999) communication is, “the process of sending and receiving messages or transferring information from one part (sender) to another (receiver).”
From the examples above we can see that there are two different frames used to define communication (To be exact, the first one is from the behavioural perspective, and the second one is based on the Shannon-Weaver model of communication, 1960.) – both are defining communication in their own respective way.
However, for our purposes we might want to focus on a different definition altogether. Where, “communication is the process of creating, interpreting, and negotiating meaning. Communication can be verbal, nonverbal, or textual. It can be aural, visual, or even physical. Although communication occurs in a variety of different ways, it is always a learned behaviour. While most human beings are born with the physical abilities to speak, to hear, to see, and so on, people must learn to communicate through codes, symbols, and systems of language. In this way, communication is a collective practice in which people use symbols to generate and interpret meaning.” (Pierce, Corey, 2009)
This definition goes beyond the previously mentioned statements about communication, as it also uncovers the different forms of communication – perhaps only leaving out the human/nonhuman distinction (ie. communication with technology – like Alexa). It also mentions the process of interpreting and negotiating meaning (which relies heavily on the ability to listen and/or observe). The outcome and alignment of these processes determines how successful the Process of Communication will be, because if the intended meaning does not match the interpreted meaning the whole system falls apart.
Why do we communicate?
The next most logical question is ‘Why do we communicate?’
Here, you might want to recall the first definition, which points us to a stimulus, but is that all we have?
Well, as you can imagine there are many reasons why we communicate, which include - requesting help, expressing wants and needs, informing others, asking, or commenting, sharing attitudes, bonding, and developing social relationships… and if we went into the details this list could be much longer. For the sake of clarity, we can establish that any form of communication serves a certain purpose, and that there are five general purposes which are relatively common to most, if not all, forms of communication. These purposes are to learn, to relate, to help, to influence, and to play. (DeVito, 2013)
How do we communicate?
Now, that we have defined the ‘What?’ and the ‘Why?’, we can move on to the next question, which is the ‘How?’, which brings us to the Process of Communication. We have already established that there are many forms of communication (verbal, nonverbal, textual, visual, physical) and each one has its own characteristics (possibilities and limits), but they all utilize a message and an information. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably but in the Process of Communication each one has a distinct role (which will be illustrated in the following paragraph).
Let’s start from the beginning. Communication is a continuous process which mainly involves the sender, the message, and the receiver. To start, the sender acquires a set of data (which are units of information, often numeric, collected through observation). On their own data do not hold much value, which is why these bits of information must be put into context (organized and presented in a meaningful way) to create information. The information is then encoded into a message (using words, symbols, gestures, etc.) The format of the message must be compatible with the medium, which represents the means or ways of transmitting the message (a face-to-face conversation, or a video conference, email, photography, social media, broadcasting, presentation, website, etc.).
Once the sender conveys the message to the receiver, the receiver has to first decode and understand the message. Then the receiver sends feedback to the sender to confirm that the message has been received. Only once the feedback has been received by the sender the Process of Communication is completed.
We have already discussed that the Process of Communication can be disturbed in certain situations (when the interpreted meaning does not match the intended meaning), these dangers can be put under one common umbrella of noise, which are obstructions in the communication process caused by the sender, the message, or the receiver (bad connection, faulty encoding, faulty decoding, poor understanding, bias, inappropriate language, or gestures, etc.). (Communication, 2018)
This isolated step-by-step description makes communication seem like a very time-consuming task, but under normal circumstances we rarely think about it in such detail. Additionally, communication does not ever stop (unless you happen to be in a sensory deprivation tank, but even then, you still have your inner dialogue to deal with). Rationally, it is hard to determine where a single strand of communication begins or ends because they are all overlaid on top of each other - certain pieces of information connect, some get lost in the noise, and others drift apart – leaving a tangled mess. From this standpoint, it is almost admirable that we can make sense of anything at all.
Issues of Truth
Now that we have gone through the Process of Communication and its flaws we can move on to the issues of truth, which has been the topic of discussion for thousands of years. To this day there is no generally accepted theory of truth, but the problem of truth is quite easy to state: “what truths are, and what makes them true” (Glanzberg, 2021). However, this statement does not get us any closer to the answer.
“In just about all societies, there is an inherent assumption of truth-telling when people communicate.” (Faruk, 2017)
Misinformation and Disinformation
These days, people tend to use data to support and defend their truths, opinions, and beliefs. However, we have already established that data must be put into context (it must be organized and presented in a meaningful way) to create information. The issue is that data can be grouped and divided in any number of ways, which opens the door for different interpretations. This can cause unintentional distortion of the data - also known as Misinformation - or it can be used for intentional deception - also known as Disinformation. Therefore, even if the data source is 100% true, we cannot guarantee that the extracted information is also 100% true. It is not that surprising if we were to talk about these issues in relation to the general public – prejudice, bias, misinterpretation – are to be expected, but reports, statistics, and studies are subject to similar issues, which is well illustrated in the How statistics can be misleading TedTalk by Mark Lideell (2016),
“Imagine you need to choose between two hospitals for an elderly relatives’ surgery. Out of each hospitals last 1000 patients - 900 survived in Hospital A, while only 800 survived in Hospital B. So, it looks like Hospital A is the better choice, but before you make your decision remember that not all patients arrive at the hospital with the same level of health. If we divide each hospitals last 1000 patients into those who arrived in good health and those who arrived in poor health - the picture starts to look very different.
Hospital A had only 100 patients, who arrived in poor health of which 30 survived, but Hospital B had 400 and they were able to save 210. So, Hospital B is the better choice for patients who arrive at the hospital in poor health with a survival rate of 52.5%.
What if your relative’s health is good when she arrives at the hospital? Strangely enough, Hospital B is still the better choice with a survival rate of over 98%.
So how can Hospital A have a better overall survival rate if Hospital B has a better survival rate for patients in each of the two groups?” “…It is a case of Simpson’s Paradox where the same set of data appears to show opposite trends depending on how it’s grouped. This often occurs when aggregated data hides a conditional variable, sometimes known as a lurking variable.” (Lidell, 2016)
Some of the other reasons why Misinformation thrives are:
Circular Reporting - That is when ‘Publication A’ publishes misinformation, ‘Publication B’ reprints it and ‘Publication A’ then cites ‘B’ as the source for the information.
Joke articles - Satirical articles ‘used as’ or ‘mistaken for’ legitimate evidence.
User-generated Content - Wikipedia, personal blogs, Quora, Reddit, YouTube videos, etc.
And lastly, The desire for quick answers is stronger than the desire for validity. (Tavlin, 2015)
False news – “false stories spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.” (Oxford Learners‘ Dictionary) - are closely attached to the topics of misinformation and disinformation.
Sinan Aral (2018) dives deeper into the issues of Fake News in his ‘How we can protect truth in the age of misinformation’ TED Talk.
During which he states that, “False news diffuses farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than truth online …and false political news spread even farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than any other type of false news.” (Aral, 2018)
In his talk he also provides answers to the following questions.
Who is spreading Fake News?
The first hypothesis was that false news spreaders are simply more active, have more followers and tweet more often. However, the exact opposite was true. False-news spreaders had fewer followers, followed fewer people, were less active, less often "verified" and had been on Twitter for a shorter period of time. And yet, false news was 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth, controlling for all of these and many other factors. (Aral, 2018)
Why are Fake news spreading so fast?
According to the Novelty theory, we like to share novelty information because it makes us seem like we have insight information, and we are gaining status by spreading this kind of information. (Essentially, human attention is drawn to novelty.)
Another key factor is our perception of false news. To get a better understanding of this phenomenon the responses to false and true news were observed – namely looking for the information and sentiment contained in these replies. False news exhibited significantly more surprise and disgust in the replies to false tweets. And true news exhibited significantly more anticipation, joy, and trust in reply to true tweets. The surprise corroborates the novelty hypothesis. -> This is new and surprising, and so we are more likely to share it. (Aral, 2018)
What about Bots?
Bots (software programs that operate on the Internet and perform repetitive tasks) accelerate the spread of both true and false news online at the same rate. Therefore, bots are not responsible for the differential diffusion of truth and falsity online. We (humans) are responsible for that spread. (Aral, 2018)
Are there any solutions?
Labelling – Providing a ‘nutritional label’ for any information published online. Stating the credibility of the source, the contents, where and when it was gathered etc. The issue with this strategy is determining who gets to decide what is truth and what is false?
Eliminating Economic Incentives
Regulations – Regulating political speech online and making sure that foreign actors cannot fund political speech. This has its own dangers – Malaysia just instituted a six-year prison sentence for anyone found spreading misinformation -> in authoritarian regimes these regulations can be used to supress minorities.
Transparency – Demand to see the inner workings of social media. However, the paradox is that we want social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter to be as secure as possible (to protect us and our information) but at the same time we would like them to be more transparent (to provide us with access to shared data, to disclose their algorithms, and other systems).
Technology is not a solution for this – ethics and philosophy are the solution.
Philosophical Theories about Truth
As we can see from the observations made in the previous paragraphs Truth is the subject of many discussions and many issues relate to the definition of truth. Therefore, we shall observe and discuss some of the Philosophical theories of truth, with the goal to expand our understanding of truth, and to explore how do we distinguish truth from falsehood.
1) The Correspondence Theory
Is a theory associated with Metaphysical Realism, “…the thesis that the objects, properties and relations the world contains, collectively: the structure of the world…, exists independently of our thoughts about it or our perceptions of it.” (Khlentzos, 2021)
The Correspondence theory states that,
“A belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity – a fact – to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false.” (Glanzberg, 2021)
In this theory,
“it is the way the world provides us with appropriately structured entities that explains truth.” (Glanzberg, 2021)
The Correspondence theory can be also illustrated using this definition.
x is true iff x corresponds to some fact; x is false iff x does not correspond to any fact.
(“iff” means “if and only if”) (David, 2018)
Alternatively, we can say that, ‘Something is true if it corresponds with something real.’
Fact is, “something that is true or something that has occurred or has been proven correct.” (Oxford Learners‘ Dictionary)
An example of a fact is that the world is round. (Although there are still some of us who deny or challenge this truth. - for reference, see the ‘Behind the Curve’ Netflix Documentary.)
Let’s imagine what would happen if someone moved the Eiffel tower to Tokyo. Of course, rationally we know that it is very unlikely, and the news (whether true or false) would spread fast. This however, points to the issue that we are often provided with facts, which we cannot verify ourselves. In these instances, how are we supposed to know if a proposition corresponds to reality? We cannot personally check everything, which means that we are left to (in some cases blindly) believe. The counter argument might be that we should always base our judgements on the provided evidence like photos, videos, testimonials, etc. However, we must acknowledge that such evidence can be easily altered, misinterpreted, fabricated, and forged, which is admittedly not the case in every situation, but it is worth noting regardless.
Additionally, we must consider the ‘fact’ that facts change over time. A perfect example is the status of Pluto – some of us have been taught that Pluto is the 9th planet from the sun. However, in 2006 it was reclassified as a dwarf planet and therefore officially excluded from the Planetary Solar System.
These fact-changes occur because there are no absolutes in subjective fields - there is always room for doubt, and Science (just like Physics, Biology and Chemistry) fits in both the subjective and the objective field. On the opposite side, we have the objective fields like Mathematics where there is an absolute truth (right) and falsity (wrong) with no room for objections. In subjective fields (or subjective and objective fields) we are uncovering new discoveries by the second. The evidence to support one’s theory must be gathered for long periods of time and the result is still just a current-best-evidence-guess – open to doubts and counter arguments. Which ultimately allows us to explore and disagree with theories so that discourse can occur. When discourse occurs, progress occurs, which is ultimately more desirable than an undisputable truth.
Furthermore, the objections to the Correspondence Theory itself also point out that the definition is too narrow, while it might suffice for the domain of Science, it would not be that helpful for the domain of Morality as there are no moral facts, which the moral truths should correspond to. On the flip side, others say that the definition is too broad – the substitution of truth for facts is commonly used in everyday speech and arguments. If facts can be substituted for truths is there any need for truth at all?
The bottom line is that this theory is easy to understand if we use simple propositions (e.g. John signs, which corresponds to a fact/reality - John, signing.) however, we would run into a number of issues if we were to extend this theory to more complex cases.
2) The Coherence Theory of Truth
Is a theory associated with British Idealism, where Idealism,“is a philosophical approach that has as its central tenet that ideas are the only true reality, the only thing worth knowing. In a search for truth, beauty, and justice that is enduring and everlasting, the focus is on conscious reasoning in the mind.” (Cohen, 1999)
The theory states that, “A belief is true if and only if it is part of a coherent system of beliefs.” (Glanzberg, 2021)
This theory is not a test for truth (which is the case with the Correspondence theory), rather it is offered as an analysis of the nature of truth. As it is stated above, the earliest versions of this theory were associated with Idealism and from this perspective “Reality is something like a collection of beliefs.”(Young, 2018), which implies that there is no objective reality or objective facts, which we could use to compare or measure our beliefs against. The Epistemological argument for coherentism is that we simply cannot “get outside” of our set of beliefs (our reality/perspective) – we can only know that a proposition coheres with a set of beliefs (is consistent). (Young, 2018)
What is false?
The objections to this theory point out that coherent theorists cannot identify propositions as true or false. If we take for example these two propositions,
(1) “The Earth is round.”
(2) “The Earth is flat.”
Coherent theorists can only state that proposition (1) is coherent with some set of beliefs and that proposition (2) is coherent with another set of beliefs. Most of us would say that (2) is false, but coherentists have no ground to identify it as such. Another issue is that this theory seems to substitute beliefs for truths, which would raise the question why would we have the need for the ‘truth’ label anyway? Lastly, the Coherence theory does not account for propositions which are truth despite them not being coherent with any set of beliefs.
3) Pragmatist Theories
Is a different perspective on truth, which stems from the Pragmatic theory (as the name implies), where Pragmatism is “an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” (Capps, 2019)
Pragmatist Theories state that,
“Truth is the end of an inquiry.” (Capps, 2019)
“…truth and falsity are properties only of that subject-matter which is the end, the close, of the inquiry by means of which it is reached.” (Capps, 2019)
In the first statement the ‘end’ is not to be understood as a finish (some point in time when all our questions are answered) but rather as a goal or a final cause.
In Pragmatism truth is described as a utility and is sought for its usefulness. Implying that if a certain belief can withstand a thorough scientific inquiry then there is no point in withholding the title ‘true’ from it. (Capps, 2019)
Utility over Truth?
The Objection to the Pragmatic theory points out the fact that when we say a certain belief is ‘true’ it does not convey the same thought as if we say that the belief ‘furthers our purposes’ (is useful), therefore ‘true’ does not mean ‘furthering our purposes’ (useful). To illustrate, we could say that the belief in the existence of god is useful. However, that does not necessarily make it true. Pragmatism is generally criticised for linking truth to utility, and the fact that this theory fails to make a difference in our understanding of truth. (Capps, 2019)
The term Relativism is a label that, “is attached to a wide range of ideas and positions which may explain the lack of consensus on how the term should be defined. The profusion of the use of the term “relativism” in contemporary philosophy means that there is no ready consensus on any one definition.” (Baghramian, Carter, 2021)
(a) Justice is relative to local norms.
(b) Truth is relative to a language-game.
(c) The measurement of temperature is relative to the scale we use.
(Baghramian, Carter, 2021)
Essentially stating that,
“What is true or false is always relative to a conceptual, cultural, or linguistic framework.” (Baghramian, Carter, 2021)
The objections point out that according to Relativism the same statement can be both truth and false, depending on the standpoint taken.
i.e. The same statement can be truth relative to the standpoint A, but false relative to the standpoint B.
Furthermore, Cognitive and Moral Relativism undermine our commitment and belief in the possibility of progress.
To conclude this pursuit for truth it is tempting to insert that - “There is no absolute truth.” - especially after observing the plethora of arguments against the above-mentioned theories. However, this last statement has its own issues. The main problem is that the statement, “There is no absolute truth.” is self-contradicting. If there are no absolute truths then the statement itself cannot be an absolute truth.
There are also logical issues. Namely, that all humans have limited knowledge and finite minds, we cannot logically make absolute negative statements. Furthermore, in a world where there is no absolute truth there would be no right or wrong to inform our behaviour, no rules or laws to obey, and no justice to hope for – just a miserable chaos.
If we understand absolute truth to mean, “exhaustive, maximum knowledge of the world as a whole, full realisation of all the potentials of human reason, the achievement of frontiers beyond which there is nothing worth knowing.” (Spirkin, 1983) Then in principle it is possible to get to the absolute truth. But, knowledge and cognition are passed down by succeeding generations and never fully retained, therefore in reality we are not capable of reaching such a state.
Notes on the topics explored in this post:
We do not have to speed up the spread of truth, we can just slow down the spread of lies instead.
Use care before you share.
Do not engage with surprising/negative news.
If you do not know, research it.
Remember, you are the media.
A world without information is a Naked, Stripped, Bare, Nude, Exposed, Devoid – World.
Other topics worth exploring:
Reality vs Fiction
Is Language fictional? (Language is a system and a tool for communication, but it is a made-up thing. A collection of Symbols, Sounds, Gestures, Words and Structures, which are meant to correspond with the world around us, but do they?)
Inner Speech (An internalized conversation with oneself – a dialogue - a hidden part of human experience that no one else can observe, see, or hear.)
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