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Vice Epistemology of the Internet

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Robin K. Hill, University of Wyoming

The philosophical study epistemology deals with the definition and nature of knowledge, where it comes from and how it is acquired, and how it fits into other mental faculties. The state of the Internet (the "Bad" Internet) reflects a dearth of knowledge, or perhaps cognition. Knowledge is often thought to be facilitated by information. But much of the alleged information cascading around the Internet is false. The case of the pizza place in Washington, D.C. will serve as our example—so preposterous, so baffling, so out-of-control, and, at the end, so dangerous. Deceitful parties spread the rumor that Hillary Clinton maintained a child sex ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, driving a disturbed follower of social media to invade the restaurant with a gun [Robb]. (This will be hard to explain to our grandchildren. At least, I hope so.)

Let us first stipulate that the Internet is a great place for helpful and beneficial information, facilitation of arrangements, paperwork and communication of all kinds, and that any medium of publication, electronic or print, suffers the threat of carrying distortions of the facts. Nevertheless, unprecedented challenges to knowledge emerge on the modern Internet. The Internet (and prominently, its World Wide Web) exhibits, as it has grown to global significance, the spread of anti-knowledge, the spread of rumor, gossip, and worst of all, blatant falsehood with an inflammatory spin. We want to figure out what is going on here. We want to find and adopt a condemnatory but wise stance toward to the fake news and other falsehood. We want to fix it, to find the bad actors as a means of rectifying the problem. We want to assign blame.

What does philosophy have to do with this, with people behaving badly? Some might say that such people are just jerks, or dunderheads, or troublemakers, and that there is nothing to be gained by inquiring into their mental functions. Philosophy can help us not only to assign blame, but to characterize the sin, to give us a vocabulary of transgression that may throw some light on the dark side of the Internet.

First we ask if it is legitimate to apply morality, or a value system, to belief and knowledge. A constellation of live questions in epistemology says "yes," addressing normative aspects of how we come to form beliefs and how we come to know things, supported by human behavior. In common discourse, we make such judgments. We criticize flawed concepts and the actions based on them by saying that someone "should have known better." Certainly the word "should" is normative. Hence the question: In this context, what is the meaning of "should" ?

Here is the background in a nutshell. In the long history of epistemology, the two main sources of knowledge traditionally accepted are perception and reasoning; we gain knowledge through our senses and through figuring things out from what we already know. This framework leads to rule-based analyses, in which knowledge is made up of propositional states derived from premises given by sensory input [SEP]. The standard working definition of knowledge is justified true belief, that is, true belief that comes about not by accident but by some sort of aim ("on purpose," in colloquial English). The nature of that justification is central to much of modern epistemological research.

Virtue epistemology is an alternative to the axiomatic and rule-driven approaches. For the virtue epistemologist, knowledge is something that makes its holder a better person, in the sense of "better" as "better off" and also in the sense of "better" as "more good." Virtue epistemology examines the way knowledge exhibits and generates credit, and interrogates the traits of the knower that lend virtue. Just as virtue ethics captures the intuition that the right thing done for the wrong reasons does not garner moral credit, virtue epistemology captures the intuition that a true belief held under the wrong motivation does not garner credit, intellectual or moral. As with virtue ethics [Hill], no formula is proffered; neither appeal to virtue can offer a cut-and-dried formula.

Dealing with knowledge or its absence normatively might be just what we need to apply to the Bad Internet, that den of intellectual iniquity. If knowledge is an creditable achievement, we might be able to say something about the anti-knowledge of inflammatory falsehood. What follows is speculative probing of different paths to take.

Neither sensory data nor reasoning is at play in the case of fake news. The mechanism is another source of knowledge, less studied until recently—testimony. Testimony is what people tell us. It's ubiquitous. It's the basis of teaching. Perception and reasoning are under closer control by the learner, yet testimony is the common, everyday path to knowing useful things. The epistemological issue is explaining why we trust it, and why it seems to work. (If a strange woman on the street tells you that the Post Office is around the corner over there, why in the world would you believe her? And why would she tell you anyway?) Certainly testimony is fallible—we can come to believe something that is not true; we can be lied to—but all knowledge sources are fallible in practice, and the fact remains that testimony is used constantly. Perhaps our weak understanding of testimony as a knowledge acquisition mechanism is part of the problem. If we understood virtuous testimony, we might understand its evil twin, malicious testimony.

The problem of the Bad Internet is not where true belief comes from, and what justifies its uptake; the problem is where false belief comes from and what justifies its uptake in real world while blocking its uptake in the ideal. We need to examine epistemological vice, a move that has already been made in the philosophical literature [Cassam, Zagzebski, Fricker]. This category includes the failings or defects of human intellect, such as prejudice, narrow-mindedness, gullibility, rashness, and so forth (where the virtues would be conscientiousness, rationality, intellectual courage, inquiry, and so forth).

Several agents are involved in a chain of testimony in theory, and several agents are involved in a chain of fake news in reality, complicating both analyses as we struggle to identify justification and responsibility. We might accuse those who pass on fake news of being gullible, careless, narrow-minded, trouble-making, or malicious. The Rolling Stone article by Robb quotes an expert, Ben Nimmo, explaining in an analogy to shepherd, sheepdogs, and sheep [Robb]. We can conceivably divide them into the gullible and the culpable, where the gullible have decent intentions—to inform, to warn. The gullible, the sheep, who are followers, may rely on someone else in the chain of testimony to apply some epistemological virtue, to point out a falsehood, which is often how it works in testimony. But no one does. How exactly would we label that vice, or rather, those vices?

And some, the culpable, pass on fake news to mislead the public deliberately. As experts explore the additional sanction of justification to explain why knowledge is better than true belief, we might explore the additional sanction of condemnation to explain why denial of truth is worse than false belief. There's some kind of involvement, some willfulness, more blameworthy than non-knowing. How exactly would we label that vice?

Much of the modern research in virtue epistemology places trust in a central position, and addresses its genesis and operation [Faulkner, Taddeo, McCraw]. Purveyors of fake news violate the trust, a violation that we all probably view as a worse sin against knowledge than is simple ignorance. And it looks like much of the mendacious testimony is spread by bots. Readers routinely apply the same assumption of trust as they would apply to a person. Does that make a difference, when the very same material could be promulgated by a person?

More food for thought could come from deeper scrutiny by social epistemology. Social epistemology emphasizes the community contribution to knowledge, embracing testimony as well as broader arrangements. One aspect of our new problem is that the isolated extreme epistemological vice that was once embodied in the local crank with crazy theories has been replaced by the pervasive extreme epistemological vice that is, so to speak, disembodied in a strange coterie of provocateurs, some human and some robotic.

Another possible research area views the Internet as a huge experiment in the physical-interpersonal contribution to the role of testimony in knowledge acquisition mechanism, showing us how it works, or doesn't, when the interpersonal elements (face-to-face assessment of expression, stance, mannerisms, and so forth) are removed.

We might observe that character is revealed under stress, and, we hope, strengthened. Confrontation of novel and frightening things in the info-world let loose epistemological vices. The facilities of the Internet are new to us, and untamed. We are still impressed by inflated approval counts and false testimony because we have not yet formed the virtues to manage them. This is the bleak period of epidemic, until society develops immunity to the disease. We need virtuous intellects to attend to this problem.


[Cassam] Quassim Cassam. Vice epistemology. The Monist 99:2. Oxford University Press.

[Faulkner] Paul Faulkner. 2014. IX—A Virtue Theory of Testimony. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 114: Issue 2, Pt. 2. Oxford University Press.

[Fricker] Miranda Fricker. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press.

[Hill] Robin K. Hill. 2017. Ethical Theories Spotted in Silicon Valley. Blog@CACM. Blog posted March 16, 2017

[Robb] Amanda Robb. 2017. Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal. Rolling Stone. November 16, 2017.

[McCraw] Benjamin W. McCraw. 2014. Virtue Epistemology, Testimony, and Trust. Logos & Episteme 5:1.

[SEP] John Turri, Mark Alfano, and John Greco. 2019. Virtue Epistemology. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, Editor.

[Taddeo] Mariarosaria Taddeo 2010. An Informationā€based Solution for the Puzzle of Testimony and Trust. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, 24:4.

[Zagzebski] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski. 1996. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.


Robin K. Hill is a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and an affiliate of both the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming. She has been a member of ACM since 1978.

1 October:  Minor correction made, thanks to conscientious reader S. Leinen.



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