Fake news, politics and what we think we know

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He has admitted in court that his radio show is just "performance art", but still people believe Infowars host Alex Jones' far-fetched conspiracy theories (Image via @FionaAdorno)

Why are dangerous politicians like Trump, Putin and Pauline Hanson supported by millions of people? It’s not just conspiracy theories or having picked up misinformed beliefs, argues Dr Samuel Douglas, there are deeper, philosophical issues in play.

I’m a philosopher. For me, this means I get into a lot of arguments, usually deliberately. And I love a robust, good-natured discussion with even my most contrarian acquaintances.

But over the past year, some of these conversations have taken a worrying turn:

I don’t believe anything the left-wing media says – don’t even watch or read any of it – you can’t trust them. But Breitbart, Infowars and some random guy on YouTube are telling me the truth about the Clintons and Pizzagate. Trump is actually trying to save civilisation! I support him, and you should too.

OK, so they didn’t say that word for word — the real dialogue involved a lot more swearing and frequent use of the term "red-pilled". But it’s a fair distillation of some of the ideas they expressed. I’ve lost a lot of sleep grappling with how I might turn them around, because I’m aware this is about much more than the disagreement between the two of us.

My friends have plenty of raw intelligence. I know they are capable of learning complex technical skills and theories. Nor are they totally lacking any moral compass. They’re not some cartoon villain revelling in how evil they are. While some Trump supporters exhibit an amazing disconnect with his campaign promises and presidential actions, I’m sure there are others who are in this situation. Why is it that people who are otherwise smart and motivated to do good end up supporting such repugnant political ideologies?

A big part of the problem is that they believe things that I’m pretty sure just aren’t true. Worse, these beliefs are resistant to challenge, not least because any source that contradicts them is deemed untrustworthy.

I’ve spent years discussing ethical issues in the classroom, so I agree that ethics matters. But for me, it’s hard to be reasonable about resettling refugees with someone who believes that Muslim immigration is part of a Cultural-Marxist conspiracy to eliminate white people. If someone believes that belonging to a certain ethnic group or having a certain skin colour makes a person inherently dangerous and immoral, then even with the best intentions, how can they be reasonable about racial equality? They can’t!

These are specific beliefs — specific things some people think they ‘know’. They might even think they’re supported by facts and evidence. As we’ve seen in respect of the more extreme followers of some populist leaders, people think they "know" something is true when, to the rest of us, it is patently false.

But the true-believer’s stubbornness in the face of "fake news" leads to more general puzzles from a branch of philosophy called epistemology. What do we know? How do we know it? What does it mean to say that we know something? Why is it rational we believe one thing and not another?

In the age of alternative facts and fake news, such questions aren’t just for stoned uni students watching The Matrix. They have occupied philosophers for as long as people have been trying to make sense of each other and the world around them. But now, a widespread inability to think clearly about this threatens to utterly change the political landscape — and not for the better.

In the most basic sense, what’s not been applied is the idea that we only know something if, as well as believing it, we actually have good evidence to justify our belief. Most importantly, this evidence also requires justification; we need evidence to support our evidence and so on.

For example, I know that Serena Williams won the Australian Open in 2017 because I saw many news reports to that effect and those reports count as evidence because these news outlets tended not to falsify or misreport sports results. But why does that count as evidence?

And so on. It’s getting harder now, but the next link could be something about how the present behaviour of news outlets usually (but not always) resembles their past behaviour.

This model of knowledge, "Justified True Belief", has its problems; philosophers can’t agree on where (if anywhere) the chain of justification ends. And as the tennis example shows, you can quickly get to questions that are hard to answer, such as: Is my memory of the past a good guide for what to expect in the future?

But contrast it with Pizzagate — the conspiracy theory that the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant was a venue for Democratic Party-linked satanic paedophilia.

Someone using this to troll or influence elections needn’t believe it, but some people do seem to be convinced. A person willing to accept that this fictitious scandal is true would need some evidence — for example Alex Jones’ (now disavowed) YouTube video on the topic. But why is his video to count as justification, especially in the face of contradictory reports? To explain this, Mr Jones’ followers have to produce evidence that he tells the truth when most media outlets don’t. The next link in the chain requires evidence of a massive media conspiracy, which then requires an even bigger conspiracy to explain why that evidence is so inaccessible. This grand conspiracy might even explain how Jones’ work isn’t political satire, even when his lawyer says it is.

What makes it hard for the conspiracy theorists (of every persuasion) is that their chain of evidence cannot get much further without them either making claims that are impossible to verify or appealing to evidence that illegitimately assumes at least one other link in the chain is true.

How do you stop yourself falling into this conspiracy theory "rabbit hole"?

Start by asking yourself a series of iterative questions:

  1. What do I believe?
  2. Why do I believe it?
  3. Why does that count as evidence?

Going through at least a few repetitions of this process won’t work every time, but it does shake a lot of unfounded ideas loose. This requires effort though, and can be confronting.

Maybe, as I did, you’ll realise that some of your spiritual beliefs have no actual foundation. Or perhaps your knowledge of science is based on a trust of what other people have told you, rather than your own technical understanding.

Maybe this is all too much and most people are never going to accept that a great deal of the time, they only think they know something.

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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