What Would Michel Foucault Think of Social Media, Fake News & Our Post Truth World?

During the late 70s, Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures at the College de France in which he defined the concept of biopolitics, an idea Rachel Adams calls “political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject.” These ideas have come to have even more resonance in the spread of biometric identification systems and militarized population control policies.

Foucault begins his lecture series on biopolitics with an account of the birth of Neoliberalism, the engineered privatization of public goods and services and the concentration of capital and power into the hands of a few. “Everything I do,” he once said, “I do in order that it might be of use.” What would he have to say about the current situation? asks the BBC video above, a political landscape permeated by fake news, accusations of fake news, and the general admission that we are now “post truth”?

In some sense, Foucault, argued, we have always lived in such a world—not one in which real news and actual truth did not exist, but in which we are conditioned through language to adopt ideological perspectives that may have little to do with fact. What counts as knowledge, Foucault showed, gets authenticated to serve the interests of power. Later in his career, he saw more space for resistance and self-transformation emerge in power relations—and he would have seen such spaces in social media too, the video claims.

After his infamous acid trip in Death Valley, Foucault reportedly (and self-reportedly) returned a changed man, with a much less gloomy, claustrophobic outlook. The earlier Foucault may have emphasized the totalizing mechanisms of surveillance and control in social media, perhaps to the exclusion of any potential for liberation. The video doesn’t make these distinctions between early and late or give us much in the way of a history of his thought, though it acknowledges how critically important history was to Foucault himself.

We can’t know that he would say any of the things attributed to him here. He was a contrarian thinker, who “didn’t believe in all-embracing theories to explain the world,” the narrator admits. Perhaps he would have seen social media as technical elaboration of biopower: harvesting personal data, tracking everyone’s location, getting us all to watch each other. 

Or as a version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, in which we never know when someone’s watching us, so we internalize the control system. These are some of the prisons, Foucault might say, that appear under regimes of “security, territory, population.”

The video features Angie Hobbs, Professor of Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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