Bioethics Blogs

Fake News and Partisan Epistemology

by Regina Rini

ABSTRACT. This paper does four things: (1) It provides an analysis of the concept ‘fake news.’ (2) It identifies distinctive epistemic features of social media testimony. (3) It argues that partisanship-in-testimony-reception is not always epistemically vicious; in fact some forms of partisanship are consistent with individual epistemic virtue. (4) It argues that a solution to the problem of fake news will require changes to institutions, such as social media platforms, not just to individual epistemic practices.

Did you know that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS? Or that Mike Pence called Michelle Obama “the most vulgar First Lady we’ve ever had”? No, you didn’t know these things. You couldn’t know them, because these claims are false.[1] But many American voters believed them.

One of the most distinctive features of the 2016 campaign was the rise of “fake news,” factually false claims circulated on social media, usually via channels of partisan camaraderie. Media analysts and social scientists are still debating what role fake news played in Trump’s victory.[2] But whether or not it drove the outcome, fake news certainly affected the choices of some individual voters.

Why were people willing to believe easily dis-confirmable, often ridiculous, stories? In this paper I will suggest the following answer: people believe fake news because they acquire it through social media sharing, which is a peculiar sort of testimony. Social media sharing has features that reduce audience willingness to think critically or check facts. This effect is amplified when the testifier and audience share a partisan orientation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.