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I know what I think I know

August 1, 2023

In his talk at the World Congress of Sociology in Melbourne (Australia), Marian Adolf, Senior Researcher at the Department of Communication at FHWien der WKW, addressed today’s disinformation crisis.

This disinformation crisis is not only driven by digitalization and social media, but also by a crisis of knowledge. And with it the social institutions that are involved in its production and stabilization, according to Marian Adolf’s thesis.

The erosion of our shared reality

In the face of the current disinformation crisis, the resurgence of propaganda, and increasing domestic and geopolitical polarization, we are astonished at the erosion of what we thought was a reliable social order. Instead, we see our shared social reality crumbling around us: Conspiracy theories abound, and there is growing distrust of others. Many people are becoming increasingly alienated from traditional social institutions. Knowledge is doubted, facts are denied, a rational course of action can no longer be assumed. Time and again, there is a feeling that the rug of our shared reality is being pulled from under our feet.

The nature of human knowledge as the central question

Various phenomena have been identified as the culprits, such as digital media, malicious political actors and their propaganda, or the intellectual disorientation of contemporary modernity. Although many factors play a role, Marian Adolf’s contribution focuses on the nature of human knowledge as the key instance where all these processes intertwine. His goal is an integrated understanding of communication and social organization in the digital environment of contemporary society. In modern societies, which are quite substantially based on mediated communication, it is difficult to distinguish what we commonly call knowledge from trust. Therefore, knowledge emerges as a fundamentally social and fragile phenomenon that is intimately linked to the identity of the individual: Who we think we are, is based on our knowledge of the world. And our knowledge of the world is based on who we think we are.

Returning to meaningful discourse through understanding the nature of knowledge.

This socio-epistemological insight lies at the heart of who we are as individuals, what we stand for, and what we strive for. Thus, the possibility of returning to meaningful discourse, of getting through to one another, rests on a deeper understanding of the ways in which communication, knowledge, and identity are interwoven. In other words, in order to develop strategies for rebuilding a shared social reality, we need to better understand the social nature of knowledge.