Published 06/11/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

Epistemic Control

In 1989, two seemingly unrelated events occurred: the Chinese Army squashed a student protest in Tiananmen Square and Noam Chomsky published a book-adaptation of lectures he gave on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio the year prior. On June 4th of this year, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, those two events intersected in a frightening combination—Microsoft's Bing search engine reportedly blocked all image and video search results of the "tank man" of Tiananmen Square due to "human error". Chomsky's book, Necessary Illusions, is about the undue control private media corporations have over the thoughts and beliefs of citizens—an abuse of what is contemporarily called "epistemic power." News media from the American Left and the American Right have presented the Microsoft misstep as an exposé of how China's influence may be creeping overseas. This analysis, though, misses the point: that the people of the United States are susceptible to the very same tactic of information control as Chinese citizens.

Democracy and Epistemic Power

The defining feature of democracy is that the power of the government primarily rests in the hands of the people, those who are governed. This feature can be justified as good by appealing to any number of evaluative measures. Some people think that democracy is a good form of governance because of its ability to yield accurate assessments about the world. Other people believe that democratic rule is good because it provides a framework of equality between the class of people in the government and the class of people ruled by the governments. There are other evaluations of democracy too, but they are all united by the quality of power being in the hands of those who are governed, including epistemic power.

Epistemic power is the extent to which a person "is able to influence what people think, believe, and know, and [the extent to which a person] is able to enable and disable others from exerting epistemic influence." A parent, for example, has epistemic power over their child. In teaching their child something new, they provide new information that shapes the set of knowledge and beliefs that child holds, shaping what they think about the world. The parent also similarly holds epistemic power in the sense that, upon recommending a particular book, instill their child a trust in the book's contents. In this way, a parent can lend credence to other sources than themself.

Because epistemic power shapes the contents of decision-making variables—beliefs, knowledge, and thoughts—it is necessary that epistemic power in a democracy remain in the hands of the people, the decision-making body of the social structure. If epistemic power over the decision-making body is concentrated elsewhere, then the democracy is undermined; power is no longer in the hands of the people.

Microsoft's mistake on June 4th displayed where epistemic power truly lies in our society: outside the people of American democracy and in the hands of corporations, tech companies and news media, that have the power to set the agenda for public discourse.

Epistemic Abuse

Chomsky's "Propaganda Model" of the media originally was formed in a world without internet-based media giants, but many aspects of the model still carry predictive and explanatory power today. In Necessary Illusions, he explains that the rhetoric of news media surrounding the reporting of U.S. interaction with "the enemy" has a limited ranged of expressed opinion determined by the corporate interests "at home." In this case, the range of opinion excludes a critical eye on the informational infrastructure "at home", instead opting to speculate about unconfirmed powers "the enemy" may have.

The New York Times, Associated Press, Fox News, NBC News, The Guardian, the New York Post, Slate, Newsweek, and Business Insider (along with many others I'm sure) all reported on the limited search results of "tank man" on Bing. But not a single one comments on the concentration of power that Bing and other tech-giants hold, only the potential power China may have beyond its borders. The range of expressible opinion on this matter starts at accusing Microsoft of intentionally censoring search results at China's request and ends at calling the censored search results an "egregious mistake".

Microsoft's intentional suppression of search results anywhere, and purportedly unintentional suppression of search results in places other than China, has demonstrated the degree of epistemic power tech corporations have over the citizens of any country, including those of United States. The response to this demonstration of power by news media further demonstrates their epistemic power in the U.S. What epistemic power, if any, do American citizens have? If there's anything to speak of at all, it is dwarfed in comparison to the level of epistemic power that these media corporations have. With no democratic system in place to give epistemic power to citizens of a democratic society, epistemic power forever resides at the corporate and state level—at the command of corporate interests rather than public interests.

In our current state, we are susceptible to epistemic abuse.

It could be argued that we have already been the subjects of epistemic abuse. In 2018, Deadspin posted a video-compilation of Sinclair-Broadcast-Group-owned local news stations around the country reciting a word-for-word message making allegations of poor fact-checking by major national news outlets, among other things. The message was delivered as though it was a product of that particular local news station, but as we can see, it was the product of corporate design.

Maybe just as concerning, CNN's coverage of Sinclair's epistemic assault on public perception conveniently leaves out that it exists under an even larger company than Sinclair. CNN exists under TimeWarner, one of the "Big 6" companies that own 90% of American media. Rather than news media informing the public, this looks like a war between two media corporations with conflicting private interests.

Google may be exerting their epistemic influence over the American public in their control of how search results present themselves. In at least one case, Google has used this power to "boost" a major advertising customer, eBay, increasing the flow of public interest in eBay's products.

These few examples don't serve to show that all media of maliciously altering information and exerting epistemic power over the general public, but they certainly show that the potential is there, and that there are no systems or plans in place stop this sort of epistemic abuse should it occur.

Democratizing Epistemic Power

To ensure the continuance of a well-functioning democratic America, we need to return epistemic power to the hands of the American people.

Chomsky gives the example of Catholic bishops in the Brazil who supported a policy proposal that "envision[ed] the creation of a National Communications Council made up of civilian and government representatives [that]...would develop a democratic communications policy and grant licenses to radio and television operations" (pg. 9).

Americans, he notes, would likely be against this type of policy measure. Many would take this to be a regulation on what is already a free press, and a restriction to Freedom of Speech. This view, however, operates on the flawed assumption that media, when free, operates such that it truly liberates speech and maintains the power of democratic expression. Instead, we live in a society where corporate influences set limits on permitted expression in media and mandate the communication of specific ideas, forcefully injecting them into the "public mind".

Rather than Facebook hiring a Facebook-formed and Facebook-funded committee to decide whether Former-President Trump should be allowed back onto their platform, average Americans should have representation in that decision. After all, the outcome of Trump's social media bans have had measurable effects on the topics of public conversation.

The people of a democracy should hold the greatest amount of epistemic power, and the only way to do that is to democratize the media institutions that currently hoard it for themselves.

The Weekly Phil is a publication exploring social, political, and individual issues through the lens of applied philosophy.

New articles every Friday at 5pm MDT.