Perhaps the most important advice one can give regarding the problem of what one should trust when trying to gain knowledge through the internet comes from a school of philosophy known as hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. Particularly, it is the study of how to interpret texts whether those texts are books or websites. Authors have always been tricky and strategic in providing information. Sometimes they are trying to advance one special cause, and sometimes they are trying to appear as advancing one cause while really—“between the lines”—advancing some other cause. Readers have to be very critical and self-reflective when they read if they are to grasp what is really being said in a text.
The French philosopher of hermeneutics, Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), advocated a hermeneutics of suspicion especially when reading the tricky texts of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. These authors were very conscious of the effects words can have and often, Ricœur argued, seemed to say one thing while really meaning something else. They deliberately set out puzzles and paradoxes in order to prompt readers to think for themselves and reach some further conclusion that was not stated explicitly in the texts themselves. But setting aside the challenges of reading such difficult philosophical authors, for our purposes we might consider adopting a hermeneutics of suspicion toward our readings of online texts.
In adopting a hermeneutics of suspicion, we must first recognize that in any exchange of information, the provider of the information is attempting to cause the receiver to adopt some belief. If we are suspicious, we will begin to ask who is getting us to believe what and for what purpose:
Who? Who is providing this information? Are they in a position to have this information? Are they relying on other sources? How reliable are those sources?
What? What is this provider trying to get me to believe? Is that claim, given my prior experience, likely to be true? What sort of initial probability would I put on that claim, before reading the account of this provider, and to what extent should this new information change that probability?
For what purpose? Why would this provider want me to gain this belief? Is it this provider’s “job” to simply communicate truths — or are they working for some other cause?
The hermeneutics of suspicion asks us to adopt the sort of attitude toward information that one might adopt in buying a used car from a stranger. We will want to gauge the character of this stranger, what they are selling us, and for what purpose.
Very often, of course, a stranger is selling us a used car that has no hidden flaws, merely because they no longer need the car and they would like a fair amount of money for it. That’s a good and very common scenario. Similarly, in many instances, the providers of information on the internet are simply trying to provide accurate information based on reliable sources so that readers gain accurate information. Reputable news media on the internet—the Associated Press (AP), for example—are dedicated to providing accurate news information. That is their brand, and they command a large population of readers precisely because they are seen over time to be reliable providers of information. Their “business model” is based on providing accurate and reliable information. It would be very hard to find one set of claims that the AP is trying to get its readers to believe, since stories are provided on a wealth of topics from a variety of angles, and there is not a single theme that runs through them all.
But other cases are far less straightforward. Some providers of information on the internet clearly provide only information that is meant to encourage a narrow range of beliefs in readers, and it is relatively easy to identify what those beliefs are. The sources that are relied upon are only sources that are interested in promoting those beliefs, and there is little or no discussion of other sources or support for other beliefs. These sites are like sellers of used cars who only point out the positive features of the car in question and refuse to answer any questions about recent repairs, mileage, oil changes, etc.
As in every case of trying to determine what sources to trust, we are always working from some initial information we have about the world and assessing new information on the basis of our existing information. Someone who is antecedently convinced that big news media like the AP are only offering stories to justify those in power, and, for example, are refusing to report widespread alien landings and the efforts of those aliens to take control over national governments, will provide a very different assessment of the reliability of those media. Or, somewhat more plausibly, if someone holds that big news media are thoroughly embedded in capitalistic economic structures, and they refuse to highlight the evils and injustices of those structures, they also will give less credence to the reports of those media. We must always begin with the worldview we have, make our assessments from that starting place, and be willing to change our minds as new evidence is presented and as that evidence warrants changing our beliefs. (This is the lesson of Bayesianism.) A hermeneutics of suspicion should always be running in the background as we take on the endeavor of trying to gain knowledge through the internet.
For what it is worth, we may consider the judgments of media experts who take on the task of sorting through various news outlets and making assessments as to their accuracy and reliability. Ad Fontes Media, for example, is a crowd-funded organization that uses a team of about 20 analysts with varying political perspectives to rate the accuracy and objectivity of hundreds of stories from dozens of major news outlets. In the end, they provide a chart displaying their findings. Here, for example, is the chart as of January 2021:
Of course, this chart will only be authoritative to someone who antecedently agrees that Ad Fontes Media and the analysts they use are in positions to make assessments of objectivity and accuracy. But we might see what results if we confront Ad Fontes Media with our suspicious questions. (In what follows, I will provide answers as made available on Wikipedia since by this point it should be clear to everyone that I have drunk the Wikipedia Kool-Aid!)
Who? “Ad Fontes Media, Inc. is a Colorado-based media watchdog organization primarily known for its Media Bias Chart which rates media sources in terms of political bias and reliability. The organization was founded in 2014 by patent attorney Vanessa Otero with the goal of combating political polarization. Ad Fontes Media uses a panel of analysts across the political spectrum to evaluate articles for the Chart.”
What? The Ad Fontes media chart is meant to show that some news sources are more reliable than others and some more biased than others. For the 2020 chart, for example, “nearly 1800 individual articles and TV news shows were rated by at least three analysts with different political views (left, right and center). There were 20 analysts, [and] each reviewed about 370 articles and about 17 TV shows.”
For what purpose? “Otero [the founder] sees the Media Bias Chart as an ‘anchor’ that counteracts political polarization in news media and aspires for Ad Fontes to become a ‘Consumer Reports for media ratings’. She compared low-quality news sources to junk food and described sources with extreme bias as ‘very toxic and damaging to the country’.”
Both Wikipedia and Ad Fontes Media are about as crowd-sourced as information sources can be. This suggests that, in the judgment of a very broad consensus, the chart represents an honest effort to communicate information about media bias for the sake of having smarter consumers of information. Anyone with serious doubts as to their impartiality should be expected to justify those doubts using all that we have learned about Humean and Bayesian probability with a robust but sensible hermeneutics of suspicion.