Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.


My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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