through the Internet
Internet has become one of the most consulted sources of information.
An essential characteristic of the Internet is its many-to-many
character. People who seek information can access the medium without
much difficulty. For people who provide information it is almost
equally easy to distribute information. Because of both the ease
with which the information is accessible and the ease with which
information can be dispersed, it is also relatively easy to be misled
and to mislead, intentionally or unintentionally.
information on the Internet can be the basis of moral decisions
and actions, the reliability of that information is morally significant.
The exact character of the problematic status of misinformation
through the Internet can be made more explicit by some reflection
on criteria for assessing the reliability of information. In judging
the reliability of information, we can use primary criteria of reliability.
These are, for instance, requirements of consistency, coherence,
accuracy, and accordance with observations.
seekers of information themselves are often unable to assess the
reliability of information in relation to the aforementioned primary
criteria. They are mostly no experts, and sometimes lack even the
slightest knowledge of the topics about which they seek information.
This applies equally to information published through the traditional
media and to information published through new media such as the
Internet. In order to judge whether one can trust the quality of
information in the traditional media, most people seem to apply
what I will call secondary epistemic criteria.
epistemic criteria have to do with the authority, trustworthiness
and credibility that are assigned to persons or organizations behind
the information. Viewed rather superficially, this assignment of
authority, trustworthiness and credibility may seem to happen on
the basis of just the history of these persons or organizations,
their reputation or their having others standing surety for them.
On a deeper level, however, the application of secondary epistemic
criteria appears to be based on an intricate complex of backgrounds
of all kinds of manifest or latent recognition procedures for persons
and organizations, traditions of reputations and usage. Most of
these are built in or embedded in conventions, social and institutional
arrangements and practices.
look for traces of the reliability of the information and of the
information provider by gathering all kinds of indications about
the background and the institutional setting of the source of information.
People can find out, for example, whether the provider works at
a university, what kind of university this is, whether it has a
good reputation, whether it is recognized as one where people work
according to commonly accepted methodological criteria, etc. Also,
people seem to be attentive to the context in which the information
is offered or made accessible, such as a university library, a reputed
scientific journal, etc.
very possibility of applying these kinds of secondary criteria is
often lacking where the Internet is concerned. Often, the content
provider is anonymous or has only a virtual identity. Generally,
the influence of individuals in the process of providing information
on the Internet is diminishing, whereas the influence of intelligent
systems is growing. Also, the lack of traditional intermediaries
(such as libraries, librarians, specialized publishers) may have
a negative influence on the capabilities of information seekers
to assess the reliability of information. These kinds of factors,
i.e. the lack of information about content providers, the diminishing
human influence in the provision of information, and the lack of
traditional intermediaries, are responsible for the fact that an
information seeker often lacks clues or any indication whatsoever
about the character, background, and institutional setting of the
to and further complicating the problem is the globalization which
goes hand in hand with the Internet. Even when the recipient has
some information about the content provider, he might not be able
to estimate the credibility of that provider. This is so, simply
because often he will not be acquainted with backgrounds and institutional
settings from all over the world, completely different societies,
with completely different cultures. The recognition procedures and
traditions that make up the institutional basis of the application
of secondary epistemic criteria may be different in different cultures.
A recipient from one culture may not recognize the procedures and
traditions of the provider from another culture. It could even be,
that if the recipient from one culture were able to recognize them,
he or she would not accept them.
solutions to the problem of misinformation through the Internet,
to my mind, are to be found in two strategies. These are not mutually
exclusive but rather mutually supportive.
first strategy is one of developing critical attitudes in recipients.
The second strategy consists of enabling people to apply secondary
epistemic criteria to the Internet by creating (an analogue of)
the institutionally embedded credibility conferring systems.
and implementing the two strategies as such is already difficult.
Additional complexities, however, arise from the obvious possibilities
of normative conflicts between the realization of reliability enhancing
measures on the one hand, and normative principles regarding individual
autonomy, the freedom to provide and to gather information, and
privacy norms, on the other hand. For reasons of enhancing reliability
of information on the Internet one may, for instance, consider restricting
the possibilities of dispersing information anonymously. Doing so,
however, may be detrimental to privacy and to the freedom of speech.
Something similar will be the case with teaching people and enabling
them to take a critical distance towards information on the Internet.
A point where empowerment of individuals changes into paternalistic
meddling is all too easily attained.
the prevailing global moral pluralism must be taken into account
when credibility conferring systems are designed or renovated, not
only because different moral outlooks and varieties of moral viewpoints
perhaps ought to be tolerated and respected. It is rather a matter
of effectiveness. Where systems clash with deeply felt convictions,
they will not be accepted.
Faculty of Law
Faculty of Law
P.O. Box 90153,
+31 13 466 3443 (phone)
+31 13 466 80 47 (fax)
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