In recent philosophical and social-scientific discussions of fake news and misinformation, it’s become common to suggest that we should not focus on the purported epistemic vices of the individuals who fall prey to the misinformation in question, but rather on the institutions that place such individuals in a polluted informational environment (Rini 2017; Millar 2019; Phillips and Milner 2021). The upshot is supposed to be that any solution to the problems of fake news and information will have to be “structural”, rather than aimed at reforming individual behavior and belief-forming processes … [please read below the rest of the article].
Worsnip, Alex. 2022. “Fake News and Epistemic Criticizability: Reflections on Croce and Piazza.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (2): 42-48. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6xD.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
❧ Croce, Michel and Tommaso Piazza. 2021. “Consuming Fake News: Can We Do Any Better?” Social Epistemology 1-10. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2021.1949643.
❦ Rini, Regina. 2022. “Confronting Fake News Through Non-Ideal Epistemology: A Reply to Croce and Piazza.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (2): 22-28.
❦ Millar, Boyd. 2021. “Misinformation and the Limits of Individual Responsibility.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (12): 8-21.
❦ Millar, Boyd. 2019. “The Information Environment and Blameworthy Beliefs.” Social Epistemology 33 (6): 525-537.
In their paper “Consuming Fake News: Can We Do Any Better?,” Michel Croce and Tommaso Piazza (2021) (qualifiedly) push back on this view by addressing some recent arguments for it from Regina Rini (2017) and Boyd Millar (2019). Croce and Piazza contend that these arguments fail to show that individuals are not epistemically criticizable for believing fake news, or that efforts to reform individual belief-forming processes cannot be at least part of the solution to the problem. In particular, they suggest that individuals can reasonably be asked to widen their informational diet to consume some reputable, mainstream news sources that check the fake news and misinformation they consume on social media.
Much of what Croce and Piazza say strikes me as correct. At least on a fairly narrow construal of ‘fake news’—I’ll return to this—I agree with them those who believe fake news are typically epistemically criticizable for doing so. I also agree with them that individuals should in general widen their information diets (cf. Worsnip 2019). In this critical discussion, then, I’ll explore two questions that remain despite this agreement. First: is the epistemic criticizability of believing fake news really relevant for the question of how we should address the problem of fake news? Croce and Piazza, with those they criticize, think it is, but I am not convinced, and I’ll explain why. Second: exactly why—and relatedly, when—are individuals epistemically criticizable for believing fake news? As I’ll contend, here it is crucial what exactly we mean by ‘fake news’: if we use the term in a narrow sense, we can explain why (most) cases of believing fake news are criticizable, but if we use it in a broader sense to encompass a wider range of misinformation, we are less able to draw general conclusions about the criticizability of believing it.
1. Does the Criticizability of Believing Fake News Bear on How We Should Address It?
To begin, let us distinguish two questions:
1. Are individuals who believe fake news (typically) epistemically criticizable for so doing?
2. Are strategies aimed at reforming individual epistemic conduct a desirable and effective part of a solution to the problems raised by fake news?
The second question calls for some clarification. Strategies aimed at reforming individual epistemic conduct include anything that is targeted at changing the ways in which individuals respond to the fake news, and misinformation more broadly, that they are presented with. A paradigm example would be the teaching of “media literacy” courses in high schools, so that they can become more savvy and discerning consumers of media. Likewise, Croce and Piazza’s suggestion that we advise individuals to widen their informational diets, construed as a putative solution to the problem of fake news, is an individually-focused strategy. The contrast here is with “structural” or “institutional” solutions, which are in some way aimed at changing the information that individuals are exposed to, rather than trying to improve the ways in which they respond to that information. A paradigm example of this would be platform governance in the context of social media sites—for example, proposed changes to Facebook and Twitter’s policies for dealing with misinformation, or to the algorithms they use to determine what posts users are exposed to.
Croce and Piazza want to answer both question (1) and question (2) in the affirmative. Subject to some qualifications I’ll issue in Part 2, I join them in answering the first question in the affirmative. However, I am agnostic about the second question. Moreover, while Croce and Piazza seem to assume (along with the authors they criticize) that the two questions are in some important way related, I want to suggest that they are pretty much completely orthogonal.
How might the two questions be related? One suggestion is that an affirmative answer to the first question directly supports an affirmative answer to the second. However, this is clearly not right. Even if individuals who believe fake news are typically epistemically criticizable for so doing, this does not show that strategies aimed at changing this criticizable behavior (for example, strategies aimed at inculcating “media literacy”) will be effective. As a general matter, it is clearly a possibility that individuals are irrational (or otherwise epistemically criticizable) in their beliefs and belief-forming practices, but that it is extremely hard to get them to change these practices using strategies aimed at reforming individual behavior.
Whether strategies aimed at reforming individual behavior are effective in the case of fake news (or that of misinformation more broadly) is an empirical question that cannot be settled by armchair philosophizing. But some of the empirical literature provides reasons for pessimism about the efficacy of strategies aimed at reforming individuals’ poor epistemic practices more broadly (see Ahlstrom-Vij 2013 for an overview). Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that the specific strategy Croce and Piazza recommend—namely consuming a broader range of informational sources, including news from “traditional” media sources, that will provide “counterevidence debunking fake news” (6)—may be limited in its efficacy in combatting misinformation. Specifically, there is evidence for a “continued influence effect”: continued exposure to a false claim can instill belief in that false claim that is extremely hard to dislodge with counterevidence (see Bernecker 2021, 292-3 and the references therein). If strategies aimed at reforming individual epistemic practices are inefficacious in these ways, it may be a mistake to make them a significant plank of an attempted solution to the problem of fake news.
It bears stressing, however, that just as it’s a mistake to think that the epistemic criticizability of individuals who believe fake news establishes the desirability and efficacy of solutions aimed at correcting these individuals’ epistemic practices, likewise (contraposing) it’s a mistake to think that the inefficacy of such solutions (if they are indeed inefficacious) establishes that such individuals are not epistemically criticizable. It is not a good objection to someone who holds that such individuals are epistemically criticizable to contend that individually-focused solutions to the problem of fake news will not work. Some of Croce and Piazza’s “structuralist” opponents may be guilty of this mistake.
A somewhat subtler proposal about the relationship of our two questions is this: while an affirmative answer to the first question does not establish an affirmative answer to the second, a negative answer to the first question would preclude an affirmative answer to the second. Thus, it might be thought, arguing for an affirmative answer to the first question will at least defuse one potential line of resistance to an affirmative answer to the second. This seems to be Croce and Piazza’s thought. They note that both Rini (2017) and Millar (2019) have argued against solutions focused on reforming individual epistemic practices, and in doing so have appealed to the claim that such individual epistemic practices (viz. believing fake news and other misinformation) are (at least often) not unreasonable or otherwise criticizable in the first place. Thus, the thought is, if Croce and Piazza can rebut Rini and Millar’s arguments that this behavior is not criticizable, they will have neutralized their arguments against solutions focused on reforming individual epistemic practices.
However—against Rini, Millar, and Croce and Piazza—I am unconvinced that there is even this subtler relationship between the criticizability of individual epistemic practices and the desirability or efficacy of solutions focused on reforming such individual behavior. As they acknowledge, there is a distinction between whether certain epistemic practices are criticizable (because unreasonable, irrational, etc.) and whether such epistemic practices are harmful or regrettable. And even if individuals who believe fake news are not criticizable, unreasonable or irrational—say, because they have been exposed to misleading evidence that makes it rational for them to believe fake news, or because they are not in a position to tell that the news is fake—it still seems clear that it is harmful and regrettable when individuals are taken in by fake news. And this seems to be enough to (using Croce and Piazza’s language) “motivate” strategies aimed at reforming these individual practices. Of course, again, this doesn’t show that such strategies will be effective, but nor does it preclude this conclusion.
Suppose, for example, that some individual is taken in by fake news because they lack media literacy, and that given their epistemic environment and what they have been exposed to, they are blameless for lacking this media literacy. We might want to say that such an individual is not epistemically criticizable for being taken in by fake news as things stand. But this doesn’t show that providing such an individual with media literacy education in order to prevent their being taken in by fake news wouldn’t be both desirable and effective as an intervention. Thus, I think it’s false to say, as Croce and Piazza do, that such educational interventions “presuppose that epistemic agents consuming fake news do so because they commit mistakes for which they can be criticized” (3). One can try to educate someone without thinking that their previously uneducated state was criticizable.
Overall, then, the question of whether individuals are epistemically criticizable for believing fake news (and misinformation more broadly) seems pretty much entirely orthogonal to the question about whether interventions designed to change individual behavior are desirable and effective. Both Croce and Piazza and those they criticize, it seems to me, have tied these questions too closely together.
2. When and Why are Believers of Fake News Epistemically Criticizable?
Although I’ve claimed that the extent to which believers of fake news are epistemically criticizable is largely irrelevant for whether we should favor “individual-focused” or “structural” solutions to fake news (or some combination of the two), I do think that the question of whether believers of fake news are epistemically criticizable is intrinsically interesting. While Croce and Piazza defend an affirmative answer to this question, what they say in defense of it is largely negative: they rebut arguments from Rini and Millar for the contrary view. I agree that those arguments fail (see Worsnip 2019 for some of my own criticisms of Rini’s argument). However, ideally we would have something positive to say about why (and when) those who believe fake news are typically epistemically criticizable. That is what I want to explore in the remainder of my discussion.
Here it seems to me that it does matter greatly how exactly we define ‘fake news’ (an issue that Croce and Piazza explicitly set aside, choosing to leave the notion “at the intuitive level” (1), though they have proposed an account elsewhere). In early uses of the term ‘fake news’, it seemed to have two particularly important features that limited its scope, both of which are reflected in Rini’s (2017, E-45) definition. The first is that fake news stories (deceptively) “mimic the conventions of traditional media reportage”. The second is that fake news is “known by its creators to be significantly false”. Thus, the original paradigm case of a fake news outlet was a website designed to look like a legitimate news site, with stories written in the style of traditional news, reporting straightforwardly and entirely false news stories that the writers knew full well to be entirely false, since they themselves had made them up out of whole cloth. Some such sites, like the infamous National Report (now rebranded as a satire site), seem to have been created largely for the entertainment of their creators; others, such as Oneworld.Press, are widely held to be backed by government intelligence agencies (in this case, Russian military intelligence) with the aim of spreading deliberate misinformation to further a political agenda (Barnes and Sanger 2020).
However, the term ‘fake news’ has gradually come to encompass a much broader range of phenomena. For example, it is now sometimes used to describe (mis)information shared on social media or blogs that in no way mimics traditional reporting; to describe the writings of (what at least may be) true-believing conspiracy theorists who do not believe themselves to be spreading anything false; to describe TV shows that give airtime to guest interviewees who make false claims while on air, but do not themselves outright endorse those claims as true; and more broadly as referring to any news that makes (or mentions without explicitly disavowing) a false claim. Though this trend toward broadening the meaning of ‘fake news’ is most evident in colloquial usage, it’s also present in some academic work. For example, Lackey (2021, 217) classifies Fox News as fake news, even though it clearly doesn’t fit the original, narrower paradigm of the concept, and explicitly chooses not to distinguish fake news and false news.
If we restrict ourselves to the original, narrower meaning of ‘fake news’, it seems quite plausible that, at least in the significant majority of cases, those who are taken in by such fake news are epistemically criticizable. All that is needed to protect yourself against being taken in by such fake news sites is to pay attention to what the source that is reporting some stories is, and—if you’re not familiar with it as an established news source—to quickly google it. If you google a site like National Report or Oneworld.Press, you’ll immediately see that these are fake news sites, and there is no significant counternarrative claiming that such sites are legitimate. Those who are taken in by stories from these sites are typically taken in because they clicked on a link and didn’t bother checking what site they were reading or anything about its credentials. Plausibly, someone who doesn’t check the source of a story in this minimal way before believing it is being negligent in their evidence-gathering, and indeed, believing upon insufficient evidence. This explains why they are epistemically criticizable.
If we use ‘fake news’ to encompass the much broader range of phenomena beyond the original, narrow usage, however, things are murkier. It is much harder to find out whether a blog or social media user is a reliable source of information than it is to find out whether a site is a fake news site in the narrow sense. Moreover, conspiracy theorists (true-believing and otherwise) acknowledge and even trumpet their lack of mainstream credentials, and push a narrative about how the mainstream media cannot be trusted. This creates a difficult situation for some news consumers about who to trust, since third-party sites that position themselves as neutral arbiters of the reliability of different sources are said by conspiracy theorists to themselves be part of the conspiracy. It thus seems hard to independently verify who is reliable, without already knowing whom to trust as a reliable arbiter of reliability. Finally, it is common for individuals to be embedded in a community in which one’s authority figures all trust Fox News, whereas the same is not true of National Report or Oneworld.Press.
All of this makes it much less clear whether someone who believes the misinformation that is covered by ‘fake news’ in this much broader sense is epistemically criticizable. It seems to me that there is no general answer to be had to this question: whether the individual taken in by this sort of misinformation is epistemically criticizable will depend on myriad contextual details of the particular case.
In effect, Croce and Piazza acknowledge this, in admitting that there are those “whose informational situation is so pathological that their doxastic conduct deserves a different diagnosis” (7). They write:
Suppose someone believes that all mainstream media routinely hides the truth to the public in the pursuit of some political agenda. When ‘independent’ sources report P and no mainstream media does, this person would arguably fail to have a reason to reject P as fake news. Since they believe that the traditional media omit unsettling truths on purpose, this person would more likely be rationally required to believe P and perhaps—somewhat perversely, from an epistemological point of view—increase her confidence in the media conspiracy (7).
Here, though, I actually think Croce and Piazza grant too much to their opponents. The passage relies on the thought that merely believing that the traditional media is engaged in a cover-up of the truth makes it rational, or even rationally required, for one to write off the fact that the mainstream media has not reported P as irrelevant to whether P, and to continue believing P (on the basis of the say-so of “independent” media sources) nevertheless. This is tendentious, to say the least. It is widely denied that unjustified beliefs can make it (substantively) rational to hold further downstream beliefs that follow (either deductively or via some looser process of reasoning) from them (see Worsnip 2019, n. 15 for references). Plausibly, then, whether the person in Croce and Piazza’s example is rational in continuing to believe P depends (in part) on whether their belief that the traditional media is engaged in a cover-up is itself rational or justified. Of course, whether that is so is likewise a difficult question to answer, and again, will likely depend on the details of the particular case.
It will also depend, it seems to me, on how internalist or externalist our theory of epistemic justification is. On some externalist theories of justification, it may suffice for the believers’ being unjustified that their beliefs are based on sources of information that are in fact very unreliable, whether or not there’s any straightforward way for the believers in question to be aware of this. On more internalist theories, this may not suffice for such believers being unjustified.
In conclusion, then, it seems to me that those who believe fake news in the original, narrow sense of the term are at least typically epistemically criticizable—but that when it comes to believing fake news in the broader sense that encompasses a wider range of misinformation, it is harder to say anything informative at a high level of generality, and independent of our general theory of epistemic justification, about whether such beliefs are epistemically criticizable or not.
In some ways, this is an unsettling result. In 2022, intense concern with fake news in the narrow sense seems a little passé, quaint even. Online communities of true-believing conspiracy theorists (like QAnon) and mainstream, at least partially-accurate outlets that are nevertheless complicit in the spread of misinformation (like Fox News) seem to pose a much greater epistemic threat than mocked-up fake publications like National Report or Oneworld.Press. Yet it is the belief in the misinformation spread by the former that it is harder to definitively brand as epistemically criticizable. Thus, while we may be confident that those who get their information from these sources are getting information that is in fact unreliable, it can be unclear what we have to say to them to demonstrate this, or that ought to rationally change their mind. But, to return to the themes I explored in Part 1, this need only be cause for true despair if we thought that criticizing others as epistemically irrational was the most effective way to change their minds in the first place. Since this is independently doubtful, an inability to aptly level such a charge may not be neither here nor there when it comes to practically solving the problems posed by misinformation.
Ahlstrom-Vij, Kristoffer. 2013. “Why We Cannot Rely on Ourselves for Epistemic Improvement,” Philosophical Issues 23 (1): 276-296.
Barnes, Julian E. and David E. Sanger. 2020. “Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Pandemic,” The New York Times, July 28. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/us/politics/russia-disinformation-coronavirus.html.
Bernecker, Sven. 2021. “An Epistemic Defense of News Abstinence.” In The Epistemology of Fake News. Oxford, edited by Sven Bernecker, Amy K. Flowerree, and Thomas Grundmann, 286-309. Oxford University Press.
Croce, Michel and Tommaso Piazza. 2021. “Consuming Fake News: Can We Do Any Better?” Social Epistemology 1-10. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2021.1949643.
Lackey, Jennifer. 2021. “Echo Chambers, Fake News, and Social Epistemology,” In The Epistemology of Fake News. Oxford, edited by Sven Bernecker, Amy K. Flowerree, and Thomas Grundmann, 206-227. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Millar, Boyd. 2019. “The Information Environment and Blameworthy Beliefs.” Social Epistemology 33 (6): 525-537.
Phillips, Whitney and Ryan M. Milner. 2021. You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rini, Regina. 2017. “Fake News and Partisan Epistemology.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 27/S2: E43-E64.
Worsnip, Alex. 2019. “The Obligation to Diversify One’s Sources: Against Epistemic Partisanship in the Consumption of News Media.” In Media Ethics: Free Speech and the Requirements of Democracy edited by Carl Fox and Joe Saunders, 240-264. Routledge.
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