Online Misinformation and “Phantom Patterns”: Epistemic Exploitation in the Era of Big Data

Southern Journal of Philosophy 60 (1):57-87 (2021)
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In this paper, we examine how the availability of massive quantities of data i.e., the “Big Data” phenomenon, contributes to the creation, spread, and harms of online misinformation. Specifically, we argue that a factor in the problem of online misinformation is the evolved human instinct to recognize patterns. While the pattern-recognition instinct is a crucial evolutionary adaptation, we argue that in the age of Big Data, these capacities have, unfortunately, rendered us vulnerable. Given the ways in which online media outlets profit from the spread of misinformation by preying on this pattern-finding instinct, we conceptualize the problem that we identify as a morally objectionable form of “epistemic exploitation.” As we argue, the consumer of digital misinformation is often exploited by having her pattern-recognition instinct used against her. This exploitation is morally objectionable because it deprives her of an epistemic good to which she has a right. This epistemic good is the integrity of the pattern-recognition instinct itself which, we argue, is a capacity that allows us to participate in uniquely human goods. While our primary goal is to bring attention to this form of epistemic exploitation, we conclude by briefly evaluating some general solutions to the growing problem of online misinformation.

Author Profiles

Megan Fritts
University of Arkansas, Little Rock
Frank Cabrera
University of Arkansas, Little Rock


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