Misinformation, Expertise and Challenges to Democracy

Text: Carline Klijnman and Lucas Dijker

The annual MANCEPT workshop in political theory took place at the University of Manchester on Wednesday 7 through Friday 9 September 2022. In collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Benson (University of Manchester, Hallsworth Fellowship Fund), we co-organised the panel Misinformation, Expertise and Challenges to Democracy.

The workshop aimed at bringing scholars from various philosophical traditions together to discuss epistemic challenges to democracy, and re-evaluate our normative assumptions regarding the role of knowledge and expertise in democratic politics. Allowing for a wide inclusion of various participants, the hybrid panel welcomed a great diversity of speakers from all over the world both online and in-person, including three invited speakers: Cathrine Holst (PERITIA), Gloria Origgi (PERITIA) and Leonie Smith.

The presentations and panel discussions provided interesting and critical insights in various topics, including the role of misinformation in affective polarisation on social media, right-wing populism’s relationship with expertise and science, epistemic injustices, misinformation and conspiracy theories. This article gives a short overview of how different speakers engaged with these topics from various angles.

Given that social media has become an important distributor of political information and part of the public sphere, it is not surprising that these online platforms came up quite a lot in the discussions. Several speakers discussed how social media not only increases misinformation, but also undermines (epistemic) trust. Some emphasised how distrust is the main harm of polarisation, whilst others argued that disruptions of trust mechanisms affect even the modal status of our true beliefs.

Follow-up discussions aided in creating a more nuanced picture of the kind of potential remedies one might think of when tackling these issues, ranging from individual (virtue based) responsibilities as well as collective and institutional efforts to better structure (online) information channels. It sounds intuitive to say that citizens are to some extent responsible for creating and/or remedying misinformation, however, as one talk emphasised, these responsibilities are not as easily assigned to individuals as one might assume.

The lively discussions we had on the topic of populism proved that it is difficult to pin down what exactly characterises the epistemic attitude of a ‘populist’, and as several talks illustrated, the relationship between populism and science is a lot more nuanced than we often assume. Contrary to what seems to be the mainstream thought, populists don’t reject expertise by default. Rather, whether or not populists trust expert-testimony is often influenced by identity-protective reasoning, prior beliefs, knowledge of the workings (and limits) of scientific research, and past experiences – including past experiences of perceived epistemic injustices.

For deliberative and epistemic democrats, the phenomenon of epistemic injustice is problematic as it entails the exclusion of certain individuals and social groups from public deliberation. Exclusion from public deliberation, or from any epistemic practice for that manner, can be epistemically and morally harmful to the epistemic agent in question, and lead to epistemic losses to the epistemic community at large. At the same time, we had discussions about whether epistemic exclusion can be justified, for example when the content is obviously false or morally problematic. A talk on conspiracy theories in deliberation provoked further thoughts on a tension between deliberative democracy’s desire for inclusivity and the need to maintain appropriate standards of evidence-based reasoning.

One of the speakers dove into the epistemic consequences of meritocracy as a political myth. The idea of meritocracy is resistant to evidence, ideological and accepted broadly as valid. Smith showed how the persistent myth of meritocracy leads to forms of epistemic injustice, as people’s socio-economical struggles are taken to be the result of their own decisions and behaviour, as well as their epistemic capacities. Another speaker spoke of the important role experts have in policy making, while simultaneously highlighting the epistemic and democratic limits of expert bodies.

These contributions opened up discussions concerning trust in expertise, misinformation and other epistemic challenges to democracy – topics that are at the heart of PERITIA.

Resulting discussions and insights have once again underscored how (epistemic) trust in expertise, and trust in each other, is vital for a well-functioning democracy – and for social epistemic practices in general.

In a pluralist society wherein citizens hold conflicting interests and contradicting experiences, this trust is always susceptible to challenges. Several technological, social and political developments have put further pressure on our epistemic trust relationships, and the complexity and interconnectedness of these phenomena entails that solving these issues requires constantly evaluating and rethinking our deliberative and epistemic practices.

More information on the full description and programme of the panel can be found here.