Epistemology of the Internet — and of Traditional Media

by Joseph Shieber

The scrapheap of history?

Given the seemingly daily stories of misinformation and its often tragic consequences, it can be tempting to search for ways to limit the impact of the Internet and social media outlets in contributing to the spread of misinformation. In a recent preprint, “The Epistemology of the Internet and the Regulation of Speech in America,” Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and a prominent blogger on both the philosophical and legal scenes, offers not only a very clear-headed diagnosis of the current landscape of online and media-driven misinformation, but also proposes remedies to improve our information landscape.

While Leiter’s discussion provides a useful — indeed necessary — way for thinking about the challenges posed by media outlets and the Internet alike, I will suggest that his focus on the Internet blinds him to the real culprit. Indeed, it is traditional media — and, in particular, Fox News — that is largely to blame for our current situation. I will suggest that this makes remedying the problems of our contemporary information environment at once easier, but also perhaps less exciting.

The epistemic environment before the internet

Leiter begins with the commonly accepted truism that pre-internet developed capitalist countries had social epistemic mechanisms that yielded predictable results regarding the commonly held beliefs of their populations. First, and most significantly, that there even were commonly held beliefs. Second, that the populations broadly accepted the economic and political hierarchies in the countries in which they lived — including accepting the official election results of scheduled elections. Third, the populations largely held mostly true beliefs about the “causal structure of the natural world,” resting on discoveries in the natural sciences and medicine.

What the internet hath wrought

According to Leiter, “the Internet looks to be the social-epistemological catastrophe of our time.” On this view, it upends all of the pre-lapsarian achievements of the pre-internet times. It demolishes any shared notion of truth. It destabilizes any broad acceptance of economic or political hierarchies — including the notion that offical election results ought to be accepted. And it institutes mechanisms that cause significant numbers of people to have false beliefs about the “causal structure of the natural world.”

Significantly, these false beliefs about scientific facts fly in the face of significant expert consensus about those facts. Leiter suggests that this phenomenon of false belief stems in part because the Internet has corroded the very idea of expertise. That is, the Internet has called into question the reliability of the heuristic if experts generally believe something within their domain of expertise, then it’s likely to be true.

Importantly, Leiter notes that it is likely an “illusion that the Internet is the root cause” of our current “epistemological crisis.”

The Challenge of Epistemic Authority

Leiter adopts Joseph Raz’s account of practical authorities (from Raz’s 1985 article, “Authority, Law and Morality”) to the case of epistemic authorities. Leiter suggests that an epistemic authority “is someone who tells people what they ought to believe, and in so doing, makes it much more likely that those people will believe what is true” than if they had “to figure out for themselves what they have reason to believe.”

Crucially, Leiter recognizes that, in order for there to be successful epistemic authorities, it is not realistic to expect that each individual member of society will be capable of recognizing those authorities. Crucially, if someone is in need of an epistemic authority with respect to a particular domain of knowledge, then it would be foolish to expect that person to know how to recognize epistemic authorities within that domain of knowledge.

For this reason, as Leiter so trenchantly puts it, “sustaining epistemic authority depends … on social institutions that inculcate reliable second-order norms about whom to believe.” Leiter puts this in terms of “recognized meta-epistemic authorities.” My own preference (see here, here, and here) is to put this in terms of socially distributed cognitive systems. While some of those systems might profitably be characterized as “meta-epistemic authorities,” others might function in ways not recognizable by the individual believers embedded in those systems — indeed, those believers might not even be aware that they are being influenced by those systems at all.

Importantly, Leiter’s interest is in commonly held beliefs within societies — the sorts of beliefs capable of sustaining healthy and broad consensus and of underwriting trust in the legitimacy of political institutions and outcomes. For that reason, it makes sense that Leiter’s focus is on the “recognition of genuine epistemic authority” (my emphasis), rather than simply on the characterization of the structures that underwrite such authority, more broadly.

The Collapse of Epistemic Authority in the United States

The Demise of the Fairness Doctrine

Leiter helpfully provides an extended discussion of the Fairness Doctrine, its demise, and the impact of that demise on the rise of partisan — particularly right-wing — media organizations in the United States.

The Fairness Doctrine involved a mid-20th century policy by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that favored granting and renewing licenses to radio and television stations that devoted airtime to issues of public importance and that made an affirmative effort to air “the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues presented” (29 Fed. Reg 10426 (1964); quoted by Kathleen Ann Ruane in her report for the Congressional Research Service, “Fairness Doctrine: History and Constitutional Issues”).

It was the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine by the FCC in 1987 that led to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio shock jocks, as well as Fox News and other far-right television outlets.

Leiter does a good job of making the case that the demise of the Fairness Doctrine is intimately connected with the advent of right wing media. His case rests on a number of points:

  1. Limbaugh himself went on air one year after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and quickly rose to prominence.
  2. Limbaugh and other right-wing media players (for example, the Wall Street Journal Editorial page) fought attempts by Congress to codify the Fairness Doctrine.
  3. Limbaugh’s successors in the 21st century (for example, Ben Shapiro) explicitly cite the demise of the Fairness Doctrine as instrumental to Limbaugh’s rise.
  4. In the case of Fox News, it is true that the network wasn’t founded until ten years after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. However, Leiter points to the comparison case of the UK, which maintains an analogue to the Fairness Doctrine (the Office of Communications, or OfCom, whose Broadcasting Code includes a section pertaining to “Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions”). Leiter notes that Fox News was forced to withdraw from the UK because two of its most popular offerings — Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight — ran afoul UK rules involving impartiality and the inclusion of a sufficiently wide range of viewpoints on controversial topics.

Misinformation and Right-Wing Media

As early as the 1990s, researchers were able to draw connections between listening to right-wing radio shock jocks and substantial levels of misinformation. Leiter points to these studies, as well as other studies showing that Fox News was a demonstrable source of misinformation in the prosecution of the Gulf War in the early 2000s.

Leiter could have cited similar studies about more recent events. He does note that news reports have linked Fox News viewership to the consumption of ivermectin and other spurious treatments for Covid-19. He could also have cited more rigorous studies noting negative effects of Fox News viewership.

For example, a June 2020 study by Ash, Galletta, Hangartner, Margalit, and Pinna found that “in localities with higher Fox News viewership — exogenous due to random variation in channel positioning — people were less likely to adopt behaviors geared toward social distancing.” Furthermore, a July 2021 study by Pinna, Picard, and Goessmann found that “in the later stages of the vaccine roll-out (starting May 2021), higher local viewership of Fox News Channel has been associated with lower local vaccination rates.”

Studies have also linked Fox News viewership to lower rates of acceptance of the scientific consensus on global warming. Indeed, studies in the last decade have linked consumption of Fox News to lower rates of knowledge on general issues of public and political interest. Some studies even suggested that Fox News consumers were less well informed than those who had consumed no news media at all.

What about the Internet?

What’s missing from Leiter’s discussion is the same level of rigor in connecting internet social media sites to similar negative outcomes.

Indeed, a number of studies suggest that the impact of the Internet of political information and participation is at best mixed, if not sometimes positive.

Consider the discussion the 2020 Annual Review of Economics by Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Maria Petrova, and Ruben Enikolopov on “Political Effects of the Internet and Social Media.” Although they note, for example, that research in Germany and Italy showed that areas with increased broadband access had decreased voter participation and increased support for populist political parties, they also noted that, in developing democracies, “Guriev et al. (2020) demonstrate, in a global setting, that mobile Internet access does help to expose actual government corruption, suggesting that at least part of the effect is coming from informing voters about their governments.”

Furthermore, Zhuravskaya, Petrova, and Enikolopov note that a review of the empirical literature suggests that social media has had a positive impact on the rise of large-scale political protests. They write, “Overall, there is convincing evidence that low entry barriers and the potential for horizontal flows of information make social media a vehicle to facilitate political protests.”

Furthermore, the evidence that the Internet has significantly contributed to negative social effects due to political polarization and echo chambers is far from clear. Zhuravskaya, Petrova, and Enikolopov summarize their review of the literature by noting that, “even if the Internet and social media do increase exposure to like-minded news compared to off-line interactions, it is not clear whether this exposure has any real-life impact on political polarization. So far, the literature is inconclusive on this issue, providing arguments and evidence supporting both sides of the debate.”

Finally, the evidence for a significant Internet role in the rise of misinformation is also mixed. On this, Zhuravskaya, Petrova, and Enikolopov write:

So far, the literature on false news in social media has not been able to credibly address the question of whether exposure to false news online has a tangible persuasion effect. There is a related and growing literature that conducts experiments on the effects of exposure to political false news and to fact-checking on political preferences, and in particular on support for the politician spreading misinformation (Swire et al. 2017Nyhan et al. 2019Barrera et al. 2020). These papers conclude that false news can be highly persuasive, whereas fact-checking does not undo the effect of false news on political views, despite substantially improving the factual knowledge of voters. However, they do not consider the propagation of false news on social media.

To sum up, the literature shows that false news does spread through social media, and its spread is faster and wider than that of true news. Future research needs to document how persuasive false news is when exposure occurs on social media.

Even this review of the literature concerning online misinformation, however, might fail to isolate the unique effect of the Internet, as opposed to traditional media sources like talk radio and Fox News. The reason for this is that a number of the misleading pieces of information spreading on the Internet originate from traditional media sources — or from the online platforms of media personalities (for example, the stars of talk radio or Fox News) who owe their vast followings to the exposure provided by traditional media.

One way to appreciate this last point is to consider the fate of “gatekeeping” in the Internet era. Leiter, for example, notes that the Internet has eroded the gatekeeping function that used to be reserved to traditional media. In the mid-20th century, if I wanted to spread my message to tens or hundreds of thousands of people, I would have to convince a print media editor or a radio or television programming executive to provide me with a platform to do so. In other words, there was a very high barrier to entry into the public sphere.

Now, in the age of social media, all that I have to do to broadcast my message is to have a cellphone and two thumbs. The barrier to entry, in other words, is negligible.

What this analysis so far fails to take into account is that, in the pre-Internet age, the only hurdle to face was the challenge of accessing a media platform. Once someone gained a platform on a traditional (print or broadcast) media outlet, they were guaranteed an audience — the subscriber or listener- or viewership base of that outlet.

In the Internet age, the hurdle has shifted. Whereas previously the hurdle was to get access to a media platform, the hurdle is now to get access to an audience. For example, suppose I use my cellphone and two thumbs to tweet out a message to the world. Although my three Twitter followers will no doubt be enraptured, that message will fail to have any broader impact.

What this suggests is that the Internet hasn’t done away with the gatekeeper function. Rather, it’s moved the location of the gate. Although many more people now have access to media platforms, there is now a gated area within those platforms where admission is still exclusive — and often reserved for traditional media outlets and their biggest stars.

Of the top 50 Twitter accounts, for example, other than sports and entertainment personalities and billionaires, the remaining accounts were, in order of followers: Barack Obama, CNN Breaking News, CNN, The New York Times, BBC Breaking News, and The Office of the Prime Minister of India. (Furthermore, a list of the 100 most influential news media Twitter accounts is largely dominated by traditional media outlets.)

What to do?

Leiter offers proposals to remedy the current epistemic crisis that he identifies. Most of these proposals focus on the internet: of the 15 or so pages devoted to remedies, only one page deals with traditional media, such as talk radio or Fox News.

Of course, given that law review articles are intended to discuss new and novel interpretations of the law, it is perhaps unsurprising that Leiter would focus on the questions involving Internet regulation, since those are the questions that promise new and interesting applications of existing law, as well as the possibility of the introduction of new regulations.

Is this misdirected emphasis on the Internet really a problem? I believe that it is, for at least two reasons.

The first reason is one that Leiter himself anticipates: there is little reason to think that the government will be responsible in regulating the Internet. As Leiter puts it, “The simple answer to the question whether we can trust the government to make sound filtering decisions is simple: no, of course not.”

Leiter, however, argues that we must trust the government — for example, “to arm the police and authorize them sometimes to shoot and kill; to set taxation policy; to promote public health; to provide crucial public services (water, sanitation, fire control, etc.)” — and that therefore we should think no differently about the decision to trust the government to regulate the Internet as well.

I think that Leiter undersells the danger here. Particularly if, as many argue, the systemic structural advantages enjoyed by the Republican Party are likely to result in a decade or more of right-wing control of, at minimum, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and potentially the Presidency, I would be loath to trust that trifecta with the regulation of information flow on the Internet. Particularly when you consider what a disaster the 2016-2020 Presidential Administration made of its responsibilities “to arm the police and authorize them sometimes to shoot and kill; to set taxation policy; to promote public health; to provide crucial public services,” I don’t look forward to seeing what the next Republican Administration would do to the Internet, if granted the power to regulate it.

The second reason is that we already have a blueprint for how to deal with the damaging societal effects of traditional media: the Fairness Doctrine. Codifying the Fairness Doctrine through Congressional action is workable; it’s an achievable goal that would lead to empirically backed, positive results for United States society. Confusing that easily communicable goal by attempting also to tackle Internet regulation would make achieving any reform more difficult.

I appreciate that it is sexier to sell reforms as tackling the supposed challenges posed by the newer technology of the Internet. However, the preponderance of the evidence and the political roadmap both suggest that the correct course of action is the boring course of action: resurrect the Fairness Doctrine for traditional media outlets.