Beyond True and False: Fake News and the Digital Epistemic Divide
53 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2022
Date Written: April 7, 2022
No amount of fact-checking will save us from digital fake news. The massive fact-checking, flagging, and content removal campaigns run by major digital platforms during the 2020 elections and the COVID-19 pandemic did some good. However, it failed to prevent substantial portions of the population from believing that the election was stolen or that vaccinations are dangerous.
In this Article, we argue that the reason for this impotence of truth-based solutions—such as fact-checking— is that they do not reach the heart of the problem. Both scholars and policymakers commonly assume that the harm of digital fake news lies in the proliferation of false information as such, which provides a rotten basis for democratic decision-making. While acknowledging the importance of accurate information, we argue that the main problem with fake news is not that it is false. Instead, what is distinctly threatening about digital misinformation –rather than plain old inaccuracies—is its ability to circumvent and undermine common knowledge-producing institutions: Scientists, the courts, medical experts, and the media. The fundamental challenge rather is the fragmentation of our societies into separate epistemic communities. This shakes the factual common ground we stand on. What does fact-checking matter if twenty percent of the population thinks that the fact-checkers are chronic liars? We call this new reality the Digital Epistemic Divide.
Epistemic fragmentation of society is both more fundamental and more dangerous than the harms of false information as such. It is more fundamental because once a society is epistemically fragmented, the lack of trust in common epistemic authorities will inevitably proliferate disagreement over factual beliefs. It is more dangerous because it can exacerbate political polarization. It is one thing to believe that the other side of a political issue holds wrong values and preferences; it is quite another to believe that they are either constantly lying or deeply manipulated.
To bridge the digital epistemic divide, we must go beyond truth-based solutions and implement policies to reconstitute societal trust in common epistemic authorities.
Keywords: Fake News, Politics, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Platform, Privacy, First Amendment, Freedom of Speech, Misinformation
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation