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Plato’S Allegory Of The Cave And Social Media

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Philosophy encompasses a vast compilation of ideas that span centuries of human history, and some very old ideas remain just as relevant today, as they were ages ago. Some of the ideas that ancient philosophers devised over two thousand years ago, are still very present in modern schools of thought, particularly the religious schools of thought among the Christian thinkers, but certainly not limited to them. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have foundations laid by Plato and Aristotle. Plato gave us the abstract world of the forms, and solidified the belief that abstract ideas are real, and that they exist in a higher, more true form of reality than the things we can see and touch. Aristotle took that further and reasoned that there must be one god, one power, that put everything in existence in motion, the Unmoved Mover. At a time in history when there where many gods to believe in, Aristotle reasoned that one god must be above all the rest. Without those two central ideas, three of the world’s major religions would not have a leg to stand on. Beyond discussing the well-known influence of these two ancient philosophers on religion, because that is too broad of a topic for this paper, I would say Plato’s ideas are just as relevant when thinking of modern social media, something that has easily been almost as influential to modern society in less than two decades, as religion has been for centuries.

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I see some direct correlations between Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and the impact that social media can have on the way people consume and share information. I would argue that specifically the Facebook algorithm has created caves of thought for many ways of thinking, and large groups of people are willing prisoners of those caves. The caves of thought are created with an algorithm that determines the content for every individual user based on what they will be interested in, and what they will have a positive reaction to. It is driven further by individual responses to posts, such as comments, likes and shares. So, on the one hand, I can see how we may have created individual caves for ourselves, like echo chambers, where everything we see is the content we would want to see. Like the shadows on the wall of the cave, the content that scrolls across our Facebook feed is considered the truth of things, and like the prisoners we believe what we see because it is easy to believe the things you want to believe.

However, just as a person would not live in a cave alone forever, our caves of thought expand to include other people, and usually it includes the people we find on social media that agree with our ways of thinking. There are an endless number of groups for likeminded people on Facebook, groups that focus on a wide range of topics from political to academic, and some groups just for entertainment. Some examples of the groups I’m referencing are The Garden Professors’ Blog, Inside the Climate Crisis, and Studio Ghibli Fans, but that is just a tiny sample of groups available to people. As Facebook users, we then separate ourselves into these caves of thought where everyone knows and shares the same truths you do, and everyone shares content that interests you. The groups become caves where the shadows on the wall are familiar, comfortable, and aligned with how you see the world. It is too easy to stay in the caves we have created for ourselves, because everything we see reinforces what we already believe, except when it doesn’t.

The human element to interactions on Facebook guarantees that you will eventually see something that you disagree with. Individual users have a lot of influence over the algorithm that creates the feed, and they also have the freedom to share almost anything, regardless if it is true or false. Which brings us to another dangerous correlation to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the shadows on the wall represented the prisoners seeing something less than the truth, or something that was just a partial truth. The prisoners easily believed the shadows on the wall showed the true nature of things because it was all they could see, but the prisoner that had escaped could see more of the truth of things than the other prisoners could. While escaping the cave sounds like the most logical step, escaping a cave of thought is not as straight forward as breaking the chains and climbing out of a real cave. People must realize they are in the cave before they can have any desire to escape it.

With all this freedom to share information on Facebook, there has been a wave of misinformation and disinformation. False content is shared by people frequently, unintentionally or not, the false information spreads, now faster than it ever could have before just 20 years ago. However, I believe that intentionally sharing false content is far more damaging and sinister than unintentionally sharing false information. The Washington Post reported that researchers at Oxford found evidence of social media manipulation campaigns, just this year, from governments or political parties in 70 different countries around the world. Which makes the Russian meddling in our 2016 presidential election just the tip of the iceberg. With political groups, and even governments using disinformation campaigns on social media to influence what people believe, I can see the people Socrates mentions in Plato’s allegory. Socrates mentions the people in the cave that were causing the shadows on the wall that the prisoners would see. I don’t believe the people Socrates mentions are intentionally deceiving the prisoners, but just that they are creating the shadows that can paint a false narrative for the prisoners to believe. In the same way, misinformation campaigns on social media can paint a false narrative that people among the general public will believe.

Finally, at the end of Plato’s allegory, he highlights the general distaste people have for being told the truth when they would rather keep believing in their comfortable falsehoods. Socrates and Glaucon agree that the prisoner returning to free the other prisoners from the cave would most certainly be killed by the same prisoners he meant to free. Beyond this being a critique of Athens putting Socrates to death, this is a critique of how people react to being told truths that do not align with their understanding of the world. This is demonstrated on social media all the time when people argue incessantly about a post they saw, or a comment someone made that they disagreed with. Beyond just arguments, or trolls on social media, there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of death threats posted on Twitter over the last decade. The truth of that brings to mind the last two lines of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which Socrates says, “and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?” To which Glaucon replies, “They certainly will. ”

10 October 2020

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