Tuesday 2 May 2023

Epistemic Coverage and Fake News

Today's post is by Shane Ryan at Singapore Management University, on his recent paper “Fake News, Epistemic Coverage and Trust”  (The Political Quarterly. 2021).

Shane Ryan

Is there any relationship between low levels of trust in mainstream media and belief in fake news? I argue that there is such a link. Before we get to why I think so, it’s important to clarify some of the important terms in the question.

What is fake news? There is lots of disagreement about how to analyse the term and even some, such as Habgood-Coote, who suggest we shouldn’t try to analyse the term in the first place. Mindful of the difficult discussion, I don’t propose a full analysis of fake news but instead I propose that fake news requires that Information is presented as news that falls short of the (procedural) standards for news.

What do I mean by trust? I argue trust requires that the trusting agent believes that the trusted agent has the competence to do whatever the trusting agent trusts the trusted agent to do and that the trusting agent believes that the trusted agent has goodwill with regard to whatever the trusting agent trusts them to do.

I argue that a lack of trust in media sources to report on newsworthy items, whether because of a lack of belief in their competence or goodwill, facilitates acceptance of fake news. This is because of how something called epistemic coverage works.

You might believe that President Joe Biden didn’t die a week ago, because you believe that had he died a week ago, then you would have already heard about it. In other words, you believe that your epistemic environment is such that if certain things happen, then you will be exposed to the information that they’ve happened, say on the basis that you believe that a US president dying is the kind of information that would be reported on mainstream news sites, and you regularly access such news sites. As a result, if someone posts on social media, or links to an unfamiliar site presented as a news site, that Biden died last week, then you’ll have a reason to dismiss the claim.

On the other hand, however, you might believe that your epistemic coverage is such that if certain other things happened, perhaps even things you regard as very newsworthy, you wouldn’t hear about it from the mainstream media. This opens the way for fake news in a way that wouldn’t be open if you trusted the mainstream media – this is not to suggest that you should always trust the mainstream media. In such a case, you lack the reason, based on your perception of your epistemic coverage, to dismiss the post from someone on social media or story from an unfamiliar site presented as a news site. 

This of course doesn’t entail that one will believe the story. It means, rather, that one is more susceptible to believing as a result of lacking trust in mainstream media. This consequence raises questions about how mainstream media might become more trustworthy and be perceived as such by diverse audiences.

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