This is a useful article in terms of thinking about the problems we have around misinformation online. Yes, we have a responsibility to be informed citizens, but there are structural issues which are actively working against that.
How might we alleviate our society’s misinformation problem? One suggestion goes as follows: the problem is that people are so ignorant, poorly informed, gullible, irrational that they lack the ability to discern credible information and real expertise from incredible information and fake expertise.
This view places the primary responsibility for our current informational predicament – and the responsibility to mend it – on individuals. It views them as somehow cognitively deficient. An attractive aspect of this view is that it suggests a solution (people need to become smarter) directly where the problem seems to lie (people are not smart). Simply, if we want to stop the spread of misinformation, people need to take responsibility to think better and learn how to stop spreading it. A closer philosophical and social scientific look at issues of responsibility with regard to information suggests that this view is mistaken on several accounts.
Even if there was a mass willingness to accept accountability, or if a responsibility could be articulated without blaming citizens, there is no guarantee that citizens would be successful in actually practising their responsibility to be informed. As I said, even the best intentions are often manipulated. Critical thinking, rationality and identifying the correct experts are extremely difficult things to practise effectively on their own, much less in warped information environments. This is not to say that people’s intentions are universally good, but that even sincere, well-meaning efforts do not necessarily have desirable outcomes. This speaks against proposing a greater individual responsibility for misinformation, because, if even the best intentions can be corrupted, then there isn’t a great chance of success.
Leaning away from individual responsibility means that the burden should be shifted to those who have structural control over our information environments. Solutions to our misinformation epidemic are effective when they are structural and address the problem at its roots. In the case of online misinformation, we should understand that technology giants aim at creating profit over creating public democratic goods. If disinformation can be made to be profitable, we should not expect those who profit to self-regulate and adopt a responsibility toward information by default. Placing accountability and responsibility on technology companies but also on government, regulatory bodies, traditional media and political parties by democratic means is a good first step to foster information environments that encourage good knowledge practices. This step provides a realistic distribution of both causal and effective remedial responsibility for our misinformation problem without nihilistically throwing out the entire concept of responsibility – which we should never do.