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How to Fix Fake News

Technology spawned the problem of fake news, and it’s tempting to think that technology can solve it, that we only need to find the right algorithm and code the problem away. But this approach ignores valuable lessons from epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with how we acquire knowledge.

To understand how we might fix the problem of fake news, start with cocktail hour gossip. Imagine you’re out for drinks when one of your friends shocks the table with a rumor about a local politician. The story is so scandalous you’re not sure it could be right. But then, here’s your good friend, vouching for it, putting their reputation on the line. Maybe you should believe it.

This is an instance of what philosophers call testimony. It’s similar to the sort of testimony given in a courtroom, but it’s less formal and much more frequent. Testimony happens any time you believe something because someone else vouched for the information. Most of our knowledge about the world is secondhand knowledge that comes to us through testimony. After all, we can’t each do all of our own scientific research, or make our own maps of distant cities.

All of this relies upon norms of testimony. Making a factual claim in person, even if you are merely passing on some news you picked up elsewhere, means taking on the responsibility for it, and putting your epistemic reputation — that is, your credibility as a source — at risk. Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

But social media has weird testimonial norms. On Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms, people don’t always mean what they say, and we don’t always expect them to. As the informal Twitter slogan goes: “A retweet is not an endorsement.” When Donald Trump was caught retweeting fake statistics about race and crime, he told Fox News it wasn’t a big deal: “am I gonna check every statistic? All it was is a retweet. It wasn’t from me.” Intellectually, we know that people do this all of the time on social media, and pass along news without verifying its accuracy, but many of us listen to them anyway. The information they share is just too tempting to ignore — especially when it reaffirms our existing political beliefs.

To fight fake news, we need to take the same norms that keep us (relatively) honest over cocktails, and apply them to social media. The problem, however, is that social media is like going out for drinks with your 500 closest friends, every night. You might pick up a lot of information, but in all the din you’re unlikely to remember who told you what and who you should question if the information later turns out to be wrong. There’s simply too much information for our minds to keep track of. You read a headline — and sometimes that might be all you read — and you’ll be shocked, click the angry face button, and keep scrolling. There’s always another story, another outrage. React, scroll, repeat.

DMU Timestamp: December 19, 2018 18:14

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