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KIE Hosts Michael Lynch for first event in speaker series on data ethics

Last week, the KIE hosted Michael Patrick Lynch, PhD, for its first event in a speaker series on data ethics. Lynch is a writer and professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, where his works spans topics such as truth, democracy, public discourse, and the ethics of technology. Lynch also visited two Ethics Lab classes, Social Media and Democracy and Data Ethics, where students had the opportunity to ask Lynch questions about his latest book, The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data.

The talk, titled “Fake News and the Politics of Truth,” focused on what Lynch calls “epistemic bad faith” or an inauthentic attitude toward evidence and truth. In Lynch’s words, epistemic bad faith corrupts our “information culture,” or the totality of our various practices of consuming, distributing, and producing information purported to be factual.

“Our culture has something of a troubled relationship with truth,” Lynch said. “One example of that relationship is the use of ‘fake news’ right now. ‘Fake news’ is one indication of epistemic bad faith that some of us are falling into and is particularly corrosive to democracy.”

Lynch categorized fake news as a kind of “information pollution,” which he considers to also include misleading advertisements, and overt and covert propaganda. At the root of such information pollution, Lynch said, is consequential deception – but focusing solely on deception may cause us to overlook more insidious effects. Instead, Lynch argued, we must consider other harmful consequences of information pollution, including confusion and uncertainty. The most common result of fake news, Lynch said, is the creation of a state of constant uncertainty – and with it a lack of trust in news media, certainty, and each other. But it can also cause us to deceive ourselves, Lynch said, about our how much we care about truth and evidence.

When discussing our information culture, Lynch outlined situations in which such a culture is corrupted. In his words, a social system is corrupt when its stated rules are not its real rules. An information culture is corrupt to when the rules of evidence and reliability in information acquisition and distribution are no longer utilized or considered the norm in those environments.

For example, we view social media as a way to share information. In our online life, even without fake news on our newsfeeds, we often assume we are engaging in fact-sharing when in reality our posts and tweets are functionally purely to express our emotions. According to Lynch, 60 to 90 percent of Facebook news items that are shared are not read. Instead, Facebook actively encourages users to react to these postings emotionally, through its “liking,” “loving,” and emoji features.

Therefore, Lynch hypothesized, many politically oriented postings, while conveying some information, primarily function to express emotions like outrage. Postings are expressive, not descriptive. This leads us to have false beliefs about the true function of a use of language.

“We treat ourselves as if we’re engaging in information acquisition and distribution online when, often, we are not,” Lynch said. “Fake news deliberately exploits the false belief that we’re actively engaged in the knowledge distribution game. But we’re not. We’re really engaging in outrage expression.”

Encouraging individuals to express outrage, Lynch argued, is “a really good way to put people in a sense of uncertainty.” According to Lynch, fake news spread via social media deliberately exploits these false beliefs and expressions of outrage. This not only corrupts our epistemic environment, it can perpetuate false beliefs about what types of claims should be taken seriously, further promoting epistemic bad faith.

Information pollution, including fake news, does more than promote epistemic bad faith, Lynch argued.

“The causes of epistemic bad faith stretch way beyond the bounds of news, fake or otherwise,” Lynch said. “Another way to be in epistemic bad faith is to deceive yourself about the objectivity of your evidence.”

This deception, according to Lynch, is caused by active ignorance. Such ignorance is often rooted in “motivated cognition,” or our natural disposition to gravitate toward evidence that supports our conclusion. In explaining this phenomenon, Lynch provided the example of a politician’s use of contradiction. When contradictions are voiced in a particular way, they contribute to information pollution. According to Lynch, a contradiction forces the listener to take responsibility for what was said, thereby requiring the listener to choose which side of the contradiction he or she thinks the speaker really believes. According to Lynch, people are inclined to choose the conjunct that reflects what they already believe. In Lynch’s words, “with contradictions, you can deduce anything from absurdity.”

“Epistemic bad faith can lead us to be in a state of epistemic arrogance, which can lead to more epistemic bad faith,” Lynch said. “It’s a feedback loop.”

Lynch defines “epistemic arrogance” as “an unwillingness to update your beliefs in the light of evidence and experience of others.” Such arrogance, Lynch argued, can result from self-defensiveness and a desire to protect one’s self-esteem from real or perceived threats. It causes one to discount or ignore inconvenient truths.

“When you’re in this state (of epistemic arrogance), you’re confident. You do not have to listen to what others say on this particular topic. And even if you do listen to them, you’re not listening to learn about their beliefs. You’re listening to wait for them to stop talking so you can inform them of the truth,” Lynch said. “The truly arrogant delude themselves into thinking they are the measure of all things. For them, challenges are not simply to be ignored; they are just false. They are ‘fake news.’”

The evening ended with time for questions and comments. Many audience members asked Lynch what can we do in times of information pollution. Lynch’s response: support traditional journalism and train journalists in traditional investigative techniques.

This talk is the first in a series of speakers on data ethics. The series is supported by a Reflective Engagement Grant from the Georgetown President’s Office. Future events will be scheduled and hosted by the KIE.

For more on Lynch’s work on data ethics, see his latest book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data.