Philosophy of Fake News and the diffusion of disinformation

Deconstructing fake news. |

trio of philosophers, all members of The American Philosophical Association (APA), will be discussing The Philosophy of Fake News, at the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Public Square as part of the 2019 Community Summit.

Endre Begby, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at SFU, will hold a discussion with Regina Rini, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Moral and Social Cognition, Department of Philosophy at York University and Jennifer Nagel, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and president of the APA Central Division. Together, they invite the public to join in this APA-sponsored conversation on April 17.

Begby intends to address the dichotomy behind the phenomenon termed as ‘fake news’ and the underlying mechanisms that make it so easily permeable in today’s news stream. In doing so, he intends to help the audience reevaluate attitudes that slander people who fall prey to such phenomena.

“One thing, to which philosophers can contribute, is to probe beyond or behind those initial appearances [of fake news] or look at those underlying mechanisms that information gets disseminated in [such as] peer networks, social media and so forth and see how it works,” says Begby.

Defining ‘fake news’

Endre Begby, assistant professor of philosophy, SFU.

According to Begby, the overarching concept of ‘fake news’ can be split into two distinct phenomena.

“The first are the fabricated click-bait stories. You have people who are sort of specializing in creating false stories that involve real people, and they involve settings that have a feeling of familiarity and so on,” he says.

The second phenomenon that comes under the banner of ‘fake news’ is when entire news organizations are deemed to be peddlers of fake news.

“From Donald Trump saying, ‘Oh the New York Times is fake news etc.,” says Begby, “you are trying to cast, not individual stories, but whole news organizations as peddlers of fake news.”

People could be led to believe that the organization itself is dubious and, in the process, could also suspect that all the stories that are published are fake and are agenda driven. In such cases, Begby states that they might not judge each individual story based on its actual merits.

How fake news permeates through society

The talk will focus on how (dis)information gets diffused in society and the underlying mechanisms as to how fake news is at times positively received by people.

“These phenomena [the two kinds of fake news] that we see these days work as well as they do because they are tailored to piggy-back on otherwise rational belief-forming processes,” says Begby.

Begby further explains that it is not the individual’s belief-formation process itself that is manipulated but the context in which the individual has to apply these processes. He adds that when people believe fake news, they use otherwise rational belief-formation processes but in a different context or information environment.

“We manipulate the information environment in which people operate. In a carefully manipulated information environment, even the most rational belief-forming process may output clearly false beliefs,” he adds.

Begby also notes that social media platforms act as catalysts for the accelerated inflow of such stories as it is now easier to share information in abundance through these arenas. Sharing of information through known contacts also lends some authority to the (dis)information being transmitted.

“You know maybe there is something to this because my friend retweeted or shared it – sort of gives it the stamp of approval,” he says.

Understanding victims of fake news

I do worry that people who are going to attend the talk aren’t the people who necessarily will be highly susceptible to this kind of, say, click-bait stories or something like that,” says Begby. “They are hostage to that kind of information. It’s not their fault that they grow up in this kind of context.”

The information environment itself is often manipulated and the belief-formation processes that are normally exercised would not yield the same results in a doctored environment or context.

“In that sense, I don’t think it will do to simply dismiss people who believe in such things as just being plain old dumb,” says Begby.

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