Weaponized skepticism: An analysis of social media deception as applied political epistemology

In Elizabeth Edenburg & Michael Hannon (eds.), Political Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 31-48 (2021)
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Since at least 2016, many have worried that social media enables authoritarians to meddle in democratic politics. The concern is that trolls and bots amplify deceptive content. In this chapter I argue that these tactics have a more insidious anti-democratic purpose. Lies implanted in democratic discourse by authoritarians are often intended to be caught. Their primary goal is not to successfully deceive, but rather to undermine the democratic value of testimony. In well-functioning democracies, our mutual reliance on testimony also generates a distinctively democratic value: decentralized testimonial networks evade control by the state or powerful actors. The deliberate exposure of deception in democratic testimonial networks undermines this value by implicating citizens in their own epistemic corruption, weakening the resilience of democratic society against authoritarian pressure. In this chapter I illustrate that danger through a close reading of recent Russian social media interference operations, showing both their epistemic underpinnings and their ongoing political threat.

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Regina Rini
York University


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