Monday, November 8, 2021

What is Misinformation?

    Misinformation seems bad, and there seems to be an awful lot of it. Because of that, we might be sympathetic to some of the following claims:

Critical thinking classes should teach students how to identify misinformation.

People who spread misinformation, even unintentionally, are blameworthy.

There ought to be financial, legal, or social consequences for knowingly spreading misinformation.

    And if we want to teach people how to identify misinformation, morally evaluate those who spread it, or prescribe consequences for spreading it, it would be useful to have a clear idea of what misinformation is. A reasonable starting point would be that misinformation is just inaccurate information, and so:

(M1)     A piece of information I is misinformation just in case I is false.

    This is appealingly simple, and it gets many paradigmatic cases of misinformation right. A libelous headline reading ‘Brandon Carey Steals Cats!’ would be false, and it would also be misinformation. But (M1) faces two serious problems. First, many pieces of information, including paradigmatic cases of misinformation, are just not the right sort of thing to be false. A deepfake video is misinformation, but videos don’t have truth values—a video can be manipulated or inauthentic, but it can’t be false. So, since (M1) requires that misinformation be false, (M1) is too narrow. Second, many pieces of misinformation are true. For example, suppose that the ministry of propaganda distributes flyers proclaiming that our glorious leader is undefeated in professional mixed martial arts. If our glorious leader has never competed in MMA, then the information on those flyers is true, but it is still misinformation.

    We can avoid both problems by instead requiring that misinformation be misleading in the sense that, whether or not the information itself is true, it will tend to produce false beliefs in those who consume it:

(M2)     A piece of information I is misinformation just in case I is misleading.

    This is an improvement. Deepfake videos can’t be false, but they are typically misleading in the sense that they will tend lead people to falsely believe that the subject depicted in the video did whatever they are depicted doing. So, (M2) can account for pieces of visual misinformation that do not have any truth value. Similarly, while the ministry’s true-but-misleading propaganda claim poses a problem for (M1), (M2) correctly counts this as a piece of misinformation, since it will tend to produce false beliefs about our glorious leader’s combat prowess.

    But (M2) also faces a problem: some clear cases of misinformation will nevertheless tend to produce true beliefs. Suppose, for example, that I use a bunch of Twitter bots to spread rumors that a public figure that I personally dislike has committed tax fraud, even though I have no evidence at all to suggest that they have. Based on the tweets from my army of bots, several people then come to believe that this person has committed tax fraud. These tweets seem like a paradigm case of misinformation that we should teach people to be wary of, blame people for spreading, etc., and yet it is consistent with the story so far that these tweets are not misleading. If it turns out, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, that this public figure has in fact committed tax fraud, then the rumors I’ve spread are not misleading after all—the beliefs based on this information are true!

    Similarly, a fake news site motivated by ad revenue may craft thousands of headlines to maximize clicks and engagement, without any regard for whether the headlines are true. Nevertheless, some of those many headlines will coincidentally turn out to be true, and people who come to believe the content of those headlines will thereby form true beliefs. But none of this prevents these headlines from being misinformation, and so being misleading cannot be a necessary condition for being misinformation.

    So, misinformation need not be false, and it need not be misleading. What, then, do cases of misinformation have in common? I propose that the key characteristic of misinformation is that it is epistemically defective in the following sense:

(M3)     A piece of information I is misinformation just in case a belief based on I cannot be knowledge.

    (M3) has several virtues. First, it still gives the right results in the cases that (M1) gets right. If you believe the content of a false headline, that belief will not be knowledge, because knowledge requires truth. Furthermore, (M3) has all of the virtues of (M2) over (M1), since beliefs based on misleading information will also be false and so not knowledge. 

    But (M3) also avoids the problem of accidentally true misinformation for (M2), since a belief that is accidentally true cannot be knowledge. On the assumption that a tweet from a new account with no followers has an evidential value of approximately 0, people who truly believe that someone committed tax fraud on the basis of my Twitter bots’ tweets will not have knowledge, because their beliefs are not justified. And even if a fake news site copies the format, branding, and other conventions of a known reliable source so effectively that its readers are in fact justified in believing the contents of those headlines that turn out to be true, those readers will still not have knowledge. They will have justified, true, beliefs that they are nevertheless lucky to be right about in a way that is roughly analogous to traditional Gettier cases.

    (M3) is still probably not quite right, though. If you believe that I steal cats based on a deepfake video of me doing so, that belief won’t be knowledge because it’s false. But if you instead believe that there is a video that appears to show me abusing cats, that belief is true and plausibly qualifies as knowledge. To refine (M3), I would need to find an appropriate way of distinguishing between the ways in which these two beliefs are based on misinformation, but I don’t know how to do that.

Brandon Carey

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Pluralism on Positive & Negative Liberty

    Some political philosophers have taken a stand exclusively on either favoring positive or negative liberty.  Advocates of negative liberty commonly argue that the freedom government should provide is largely one of non-interference in the lives of its citizens or even non-domination.  Some critics have endorsed positive freedom that the liberty government should provide is one of enhancing control over one’s life such that one may fulfill one’s interests.  I espouse a pluralism that contains elements of positive and negative liberty.  

    Negative liberty is where there generally is an absence of external constraints or obstacles for action for an agent; obstacles that are arranged by other persons.  Positive freedom is where one has proper control such that one is self-determined, and one can realize one’s fundamental purposes and aims.  For positive freedom, there must be the presence rather than absence of something; namely, self-control or something like self-realization or self-mastery.  Positive freedom concentrates first on internal factors, where the external government might then proactively and paternalistically interfere to help us in these internal matters.  Meanwhile negative liberty denies positive liberty and concentrates first on external factors, where generally the government negatively ought not interfere in our lives and should prevent others from doing so as well.  

    An objection against positive liberty is that a slave can be made “free” if the slave diminishes his own desire set to be in accord with the restrictions set by his master.  The slave reaches his ultimate aims in life and is satisfied in bondage given that he has reduced what his ultimate life aims are.  If positive freedom is correct, the slave is now free.  However, obviously, the now happy slave isn’t free in this case, and the government should abolish slavery in the name of freedom, amongst other reasons.  

    Christenson adopts a modern positive liberty account and claims government shouldn’t be interfering to control the content of people’s desires but should be promoting (positive) freedom and autonomy in the way desires are formed.  Christman understands autonomy as where people should be self-reflective, and beliefs can’t be oppressively imposed on others or be indoctrinated through deceit.  A person should have the capacity to resist options, be instrumentally rational, and think with consistency.  This can include government interference like mandatory public education for children up to a certain age to receive relevant training.  

    Christman responds to the happy slave counterexample by stating that if the slave’s minimization of his desire set was oppressively imposed upon him, then the happy slave still isn’t free on Christman’s account.  Thus, the happy slave objection against positive liberty fails.  However, if the slave alters his desire set due to a rational and reflective process, the slave is free, and there is nothing that needs to be fixed here by the government.  Christman asks us to imagine a Tibetan monk who has carefully meditated his way to have a minimal desire set and then after this fact, is content meditating his life away behind a chained door.  The monk supposedly still is free.  
    However, my criticism is that to have a more analogous hypothetical with the original “happy slave” case, we should say that the happy monk is a proper slave that has a proper master; he’s a master with the power to control the monk’s life, who watches over the monk with whip in hand, and who has implemented rigorous constraints on the monk’s life typical of slavery.  The slave isn’t merely behind a chained door.  Now imagined as such, this is a poor example choice by Christman as even the Buddhist monk based on his religious doctrines would advocate the banning of slavery by the government.  Surely, we cannot say that the Buddhists are truly free with their masters hovering over them watching their every move and ready to strike.  
    Yet, negative liberty can be problematic too.  Republican liberty powerfully criticizes a more traditional type of negative freedom that is simply conceived of as non-interference.  For, a slave may have a master that allows her to realize her rich set of full desires.  The master may even let her do whatever she wants even though he technically is still her master and can revoke such freedom tomorrow on his whim.  Yet, we wouldn’t call this slave free even though there’s no interference at all today.  Non-interference isn’t enough.  Rather, freedom is non-domination, where one lives life in which non-interference is guaranteed by living within certain political institutions, such as a constitutional democracy with check and balances that disallows the government to wield power arbitrarily and disallows other practices like slavery.  

    Republican liberty can be viewed as a more extreme version of traditional negative liberty.  However, imagine a modern society in which an herb called ‘manna’ appears every day on the grass with the morning dew.  It’s highly addictive and makes those who eat it feel pleasure.  Everyone cannot help but eat it each morning.  However, it has the unfortunate consequence that it causes single people to live unmotivated lives regarding their careers despite their genuine fundamental desires to pursue ambitious jobs.  They eat by gathering wild fruits and vegetables and live in makeshift shacks.  They spend most of the day idle.  As most are single in this modern society, this results in most people being slaves in a different metaphorical sense.  They are slaves to manna and thus, cannot exercise their autonomy regarding their personal projects.  Rather they have a happy zombie like existence; they’re happy slaves that are high on manna but not on life.  Does political liberty require the democratic government to interfere in this case by using a safe cheap pesticide that easily eliminates and destroys manna from the grass so that the relevant people can attain self-realization?  Yes, it clearly does.  Positive freedom is required here. 
    Although this needs further development, I believe the above slave hypotheticals start pointing towards a pluralistic view on liberty where negative republican liberty is required at many times, but at some times the government should provide positive liberty.

John Park

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State