Misinformation through the Internet


Anton Vedder
Tilburg University,
Faculty of Law
Tilburg University,
Schoordijk Institute,
Faculty of Law
The Netherlands


The Internet has become one of the most consulted sources of information. An essential characteristic of the Internet is its many-to-many character. People who seek information can access the medium without much difficulty. For people who provide information it is almost equally easy to distribute information. Because of both the ease with which the information is accessible and the ease with which information can be dispersed, it is also relatively easy to be misled and to mislead, intentionally or unintentionally.

Because information on the Internet can be the basis of moral decisions and actions, the reliability of that information is morally significant. The exact character of the problematic status of misinformation through the Internet can be made more explicit by some reflection on criteria for assessing the reliability of information. In judging the reliability of information, we can use primary criteria of reliability. These are, for instance, requirements of consistency, coherence, accuracy, and accordance with observations.

Now, seekers of information themselves are often unable to assess the reliability of information in relation to the aforementioned primary criteria. They are mostly no experts, and sometimes lack even the slightest knowledge of the topics about which they seek information. This applies equally to information published through the traditional media and to information published through new media such as the Internet. In order to judge whether one can trust the quality of information in the traditional media, most people seem to apply what I will call secondary epistemic criteria.

Secondary epistemic criteria have to do with the authority, trustworthiness and credibility that are assigned to persons or organizations behind the information. Viewed rather superficially, this assignment of authority, trustworthiness and credibility may seem to happen on the basis of just the history of these persons or organizations, their reputation or their having others standing surety for them. On a deeper level, however, the application of secondary epistemic criteria appears to be based on an intricate complex of backgrounds of all kinds of manifest or latent recognition procedures for persons and organizations, traditions of reputations and usage. Most of these are built in or embedded in conventions, social and institutional arrangements and practices.

People look for traces of the reliability of the information and of the information provider by gathering all kinds of indications about the background and the institutional setting of the source of information. People can find out, for example, whether the provider works at a university, what kind of university this is, whether it has a good reputation, whether it is recognized as one where people work according to commonly accepted methodological criteria, etc. Also, people seem to be attentive to the context in which the information is offered or made accessible, such as a university library, a reputed scientific journal, etc.

The very possibility of applying these kinds of secondary criteria is often lacking where the Internet is concerned. Often, the content provider is anonymous or has only a virtual identity. Generally, the influence of individuals in the process of providing information on the Internet is diminishing, whereas the influence of intelligent systems is growing. Also, the lack of traditional intermediaries (such as libraries, librarians, specialized publishers) may have a negative influence on the capabilities of information seekers to assess the reliability of information. These kinds of factors, i.e. the lack of information about content providers, the diminishing human influence in the provision of information, and the lack of traditional intermediaries, are responsible for the fact that an information seeker often lacks clues or any indication whatsoever about the character, background, and institutional setting of the content provider.

Adding to and further complicating the problem is the globalization which goes hand in hand with the Internet. Even when the recipient has some information about the content provider, he might not be able to estimate the credibility of that provider. This is so, simply because often he will not be acquainted with backgrounds and institutional settings from all over the world, completely different societies, with completely different cultures. The recognition procedures and traditions that make up the institutional basis of the application of secondary epistemic criteria may be different in different cultures. A recipient from one culture may not recognize the procedures and traditions of the provider from another culture. It could even be, that if the recipient from one culture were able to recognize them, he or she would not accept them.

Possible solutions to the problem of misinformation through the Internet, to my mind, are to be found in two strategies. These are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually supportive.

The first strategy is one of developing critical attitudes in recipients. The second strategy consists of enabling people to apply secondary epistemic criteria to the Internet by creating (an analogue of) the institutionally embedded credibility conferring systems.

Specifying and implementing the two strategies as such is already difficult. Additional complexities, however, arise from the obvious possibilities of normative conflicts between the realization of reliability enhancing measures on the one hand, and normative principles regarding individual autonomy, the freedom to provide and to gather information, and privacy norms, on the other hand. For reasons of enhancing reliability of information on the Internet one may, for instance, consider restricting the possibilities of dispersing information anonymously. Doing so, however, may be detrimental to privacy and to the freedom of speech. Something similar will be the case with teaching people and enabling them to take a critical distance towards information on the Internet. A point where empowerment of individuals changes into paternalistic meddling is all too easily attained.

Finally, the prevailing global moral pluralism must be taken into account when credibility conferring systems are designed or renovated, not only because different moral outlooks and varieties of moral viewpoints perhaps ought to be tolerated and respected. It is rather a matter of effectiveness. Where systems clash with deeply felt convictions, they will not be accepted.