March 2, 2024

How can neuroethics combat ‘fake news’?

What we need is effective ‘nudges to reason’, says Neil Levy

Fake news has a bioethical dimension, argues neuroethicist Neil Levy, in The Hastings Center blog.

Levy, who works at the University of Oxford and the University of Melbourne, argues that media literacy is not going to solve the problem of “fake news”.

For one thing, the response seems to require what it seeks to bring about: a better informed population. For another, while greater sophistication might allow us to identify many instances of fake news, some of it is well crafted enough to fool the most sophisticated (think of the recent report that the FBI was fooled by a possibly fabricated Russian intelligence report).

In Levy’s estimation, the problem is seriously intractable. Efforts to combat fake news with facts and arguments often strengthen false beliefs.

Familiarity – processing fluency, in the jargon of psychologists – influences the degree to which we come to regard a claim as plausible. Due to this effect, repeating urban legends in order to debunk them may leave people with a higher degree of belief in the legends than before. Whether for this reason or for others, people acquire beliefs from texts presented to them as fiction. In fact, they may be readier to accept that claims made in a fictional text are true of the real world than claims presented as factual

If education won’t work, what is to be done? Disappointly Levy says, “I must confess I don’t know.” But he suggests that there should be more research into making true information more palatable through “informational nudges” or “nudges to reason”. This is a topic which he discussed at length in the Journal of Medical Ethics recently. Although he provides no details of what he has in mind, he contends that such nudges would be ethical because they lead people towards the truth:

Perhaps there are nudges that make us more sensitive to genuine evidence that work by bypassing our deliberative capacities, but at least some such nudges appeal to capacities that are partially constitutive of these capacities. There is therefore no more reason to worry that such nudges undermine our autonomy or responsible agency than that arguments generally threaten these things.

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