What follows is a guest post by Beba Cibralic (Georgetown University).
Like every self-respecting queer 20-something-year-old, I dabble in star signs. I’ll check my horoscope every once in a while to find out what kind of month it’s going to be and I’ve been known to create compatibility charts when I start dating someone. (For the uninitiated: these charts are based on factors related to your and the other person’s birth date and birth location.)
To be sure, these are far from upstanding epistemic practices. Reading star signs does not reliably lead to knowledge, and there’s no way to verify that what you’re reading is true. There is no theory in epistemology that I’m aware of that would endorse my using star signs to form beliefs about whom I should date or to predict what will happen in a given month.
But I don’t read star signs because I’m seeking knowledge. I read them because it’s fun.
Before you read your horoscope, all you have is a nebulous future. Now, your horoscope doesn’t make your future any clearer, but it does make things more exciting. After reading, you have to map out all the possible interpretations of what the super vague horoscope might mean. This is tricky, but not as tricky as trying to make sense of which interpretation is the one that applies to your current reality. It’s all so absurd and enjoyable. And, importantly, it’s a kind of play. Imagination, creativity, and fantasy are involved – much of what you read in the star sign is what you put in. There’s also a community aspect to horoscopes: reading star signs is a kind of information practice that allows me to participate in a subculture I love and reinforces aspects of my identity that I want to celebrate.
Are star signs an example of misinformation or disinformation? Should we be concerned about the potential uptake of false beliefs? I suggest there may be certain spaces we occupy and activities we can engage in while suspending our typical epistemic routines and standards for evaluating information because, simply put, truth-seeking is not the point. But we shouldn’t be naïve: there’s a difficult-to-mitigate risk in engaging in these activities at both the individual and social levels.
Generally speaking, both misinformation and disinformation are false or somehow inaccurate or misleading. The difference is that misinformation is accidentally inaccurate, and disinformation is non-accidentally inaccurate. A prime example of disinformation occurs when the purveyor is intentionally deceptive. But these definitions are not universally accepted and, indeed, continue to be debated in philosophy (see here, here, and here). Determining whether something was non-accidentally or accidentally false is difficult and somewhat outside our terrain. While the term is clunky, I will refer to mis/disinformation to avoid attributing intentionality when it has not been clearly established.
Underpinning many conversations about mis/disinformation is the default belief that the purpose of most communication is to seek and share knowledge. The harm of mis/disinformation is that it gets in the way of knowledge. Because of mis/disinformation, there is increased skepticism about well-supported facts and uptake of false beliefs in some communities. The result is that there is no set of common facts we all believe and can refer to as we engage in disagreement and discourse. Mis/disinformation also leads to other kinds of social harms: we are more polarized as a society, there is decreased trust in public institutions, and many of us believe in dangerous conspiracy theories.
While the spread of mis/disinformation is a serious concern for epistemic, ethical, and political reasons, the default belief isn’t right. We communicate for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with seeking knowledge.
Our intentions and motivations for communicating vary widely. We sometimes seek to gain, keep, or share knowledge, but we also communicate to build community, to enjoy ourselves, to reinforce elements of our identities, to be entertained, and so on. This also applies to online communication – a tweet is not necessarily an endorsement, a “like” is a multifaceted and complex speech act, and sharing content is done for different reasons, including because the content is silly and so obviously wrong. As communicators in the world, many of our information activities are not oriented toward truth-seeking.
We may, for example, consume certain kinds of information because of an atmosphere that is created when we do. We know that we do this with entertainment – with movies and music, for instance (think: listening to breakup songs because you need to cry, or putting on a Christmas movie in early December to get yourself into the holiday spirit). What we may not realize is that we do it with all sorts of information, too. Skimming the news headlines in the morning while sipping coffee is typically understood as a “morning routine”, and it is. But it is also an information practice that helps create an atmosphere which sets the tone for the day and stimulates us in a particular kind of way. We use information not just to know, but to feel.
Information – like art, even if it is not presented to us within the paradigm of art – enables us to experience time, place, and ourselves in different ways. We can become immersed in something (a Netflix series or your Twitter feed) and be transported into a different qualitative reality. We can experience pain, pleasure, excitement, anger, hope, despair; sometimes, we even seek out information precisely because we know it will help us to feel these emotions.
Of course, epistemic norms may still regulate the sharing of information when truth-seeking is not the primary goal. If someone shares a fake news article they think is ridiculous and worth mocking but provides no context for it, readers may believe the story is true because they trust the person sharing it. In a case like this, we might want to say that the sharer was epistemically negligent for not providing the necessary context. We could also, depending on the specifics of the case, say that the reader did not practice adequate epistemic hygiene; they ought to have thought more critically about the material they read (perhaps even asked themselves if they were reading satire) and not assumed it was true just because their friend shared it. Suffice it to say that we can be praised and blamed for our epistemic activities even when we’re not engaged in knowledge consumption or transmission. And it’s not just epistemic norms that remain relevant. One only needs to think about the poor excuse, “Oh, but it was only a joke”, to realize that we have complex and context-specific social and moral norms that govern our communicative practices, even those that have nothing to do with knowledge transmission.
So far, all of the information practices mentioned have been innocuous enough. Things get more complicated when we home in on particular cases. Think about Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous purveyor of health and wellness mis/disinformation. Goop and its founder have been criticized and boycotted for spreading mis/disinformation, most recently because of Paltrow’s dubious claims about how to apply sunscreen.
People may know that Goop recommends things that aren’t backed by science but still enjoy the atmosphere they create for themselves when they’re reading Goop. They scroll through Goop to be entertained and to engage in a little escapism. (To be sure, Goop transports readers to an alternative reality where ridiculous and unaffordable products are perfectly unobjectionable and even recommendation-worthy, like this $8,600 necklace that Gwyneth Paltrow believes is perfect for a hike.) Is this information practice so different from reading star signs?
On an individual level, the harms of scrolling through Goop or reading star signs hinges on one’s ability to actively suspend belief. If perfect vigilance is maintained and one finds oneself impervious to false beliefs, it seems like there are no discernible harms to the individual.
Note, however, that we may be affected by exposure to mis/disinformation and yet remain consciously unaware of it. This is a nascent area of research, and definite conclusions are not yet available. Still, I take for granted that, in general, we do not have voluntary control over our beliefs (although we may have some control over some beliefs). Given this, it seems feasible that we are impacted by our exposure to information even when we are trying to resist the uptake of a belief. Consider a distinct but related phenomenon in another area of media: research shows us that the consumption of visual information containing unrealistic or “perfect” body types leads consumers of that information to believe that they are inadequate. Even though media literacy has improved and many people “know” that the model body is far from typical and unattainable for most of us, the mere exposure to this kind of visual information leads to harmful effects on individuals.
The same could be true for reading Goop or star signs. This might be a risk we accept if we think the harms are insignificant. I, for example, feel pretty confident that I am incompatible with a Virgo (and by pretty confident, I mean ‘I will die on this hill’). When I put on my epistemologist’s hat, I can see that even though I usually just read star signs in a playful manner and don’t “really believe” that they’re true, some false belief has wormed its way in and become part of my mental architecture. But it’s not a belief that does harm to me or, in any meaningful way, to those around me (no Virgo has ever fallen madly in love with me). But if there were harm caused by the false belief, I would be responsible for revising it, and for revising the kinds of information practices that led to my uptake of the false belief in the first place. Similarly, if someone found themselves thinking it might be worth a few months’ rent for a nice hiking necklace, revising the information practice (i.e., ceasing to scroll through Goop) might be necessary.
Some may think that a kind of media abstinence policy is a safer bet: you don’t have to be careful and vigilant if you just don’t consume that kind of media. This, I believe, is the wrong response. Wanting to play is a powerful motivator and, in an increasingly stressful world, where burn out is the norm, the importance of fun shouldn’t be understated. Fun/play is a worthwhile goal in itself. In cases like the astrology one, where there is some tension between the fun information activity, on the one hand, and our standard epistemic practices, on the other, it’s not obvious that our standard epistemic practices should win.
Moreover, entertainment media is never completely epistemically or normatively innocent. If that’s true, then the elite-sanctioned entertainment media are not completely or necessarily innocent either. And yet, some kinds of information practices are mercilessly targeted while others, often in mainstream media, get a pass. Before entirely dismissing an information practice, we ought to be sensitive to which communities are being affected and whether it’s fair to target them. There remain elitist hierarchies in what constitutes “worthwhile” leisure, media, art, and sometimes, one kind of information practice is dismissed as if its loss were insignificant. This kind of dismissal diminishes the value that individuals and communities may find only in this kind of information practice. (Was Twilight problematic? Yes. But was it significantly worse than The Fast and the Furious? Arguably, no. And yet our culture reserves a special kind of hate and mockery for what teenage girls love.)
Our standards for understanding and evaluating the harms of certain information practices depend in part on an individual’s motivation for engaging in those practices and the individual’s ability to suspend belief. The practices may be innocuous in some contexts but not in others. Zooming out, the picture looks very different. Even if someone has actively suspended belief and is causing no direct harm to herself or others in her community, she may be supporting an enterprise that, on scale, does more harm than good. The question of complicity becomes important. This argument applies to other kinds of media consumption. For example, we watch many problematic TV shows (e.g., Sex and the City) and, in so doing, bolster the companies involved in creating that kind of content. There are, of course, different degrees to which one can be complicit, and we may attribute responsibility depending on a wide variety of factors like age, knowledge of the harm caused, the impact one’s consumption has on others, and so on. All this is to say that the situation is messy, and individual consumption can never be fully detached from the broader social implications.
But we shouldn’t scapegoat the individual. Companies like Goop make a lot of money selling products that could not possibly work. In this way, Goop is remarkably like Dr. Oz. Irrespective of whether an individual is capable of suspending belief when they are on Goop, responsibility does not lie with the individual. Companies should be held to a higher normative standard for the kinds of advertising they use.
Ultimately, we need to grapple with the social implications of the information practice in order to aptly characterize its harms. Our focus should be on those information practices that are deceptive and exploitative, which often involve some kind of monetary or political gain. The best response to Goop’s mis/disinformation is to demand higher standards for profit-making companies when they advertise their products in inaccurate, misleading, manipulative, or false ways. If the world of horoscopes and star signs were to become as monetized, lucrative, and exploitative as Goop, we should then be just as critical of it. Magazines might still be able to keep their star sign section, so long as we’re not being sold more than an idea and a bit of fun.
Beba Cibralic is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University. She focuses on applied ethics, social and political epistemology, and philosophy of technology. Beba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.