The Reliability of Blogs vs Conventional Media: A Response to David Coady

Response to David Coady’s “An Epistemic Defence of the Blogosphere”

Preamble/vocab for non-philosophers:  
I wrote this for a class so, although I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible, there are a few technical words which I’ll explain here:

Epistemic reliability: A source is epistemically reliable if it produces/conveys more true beliefs than false beliefs.  Epistemic just means having to do with knowledge.

Knowledge that is vertistic: knowledge as true belief.

I think that’s it!  

. . . [W]henever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” (Padover, 1939, p. 88). The implication here is the widely shared belief that a well-functioning democracy isn’t possible without the public knowing what’s going on in their government. Of course, this assumes that the information the public receives is likely to be true, which in turn depends on the reliability of the sources from which it is acquired by the public.

In the internet age, the blogosphere has emerged as a popular source for political news and commentary. Given its rise in popularity it’s worthwhile considering its epistemic benefits relative to those of the conventional media and whether the blogosphere positively contributes to our democratic practices. Goldman (2008) takes the negative view arguing that the blogosphere is a less reliable source of information than the conventional media and therefore does not benefit our democratic practices. In “An Epistemic Defence of the Blogosphere,” David Coady argues forthe positive position andcounters Goldman’s three main lines of argument against the epistemic reliability of the blogosphere (relative to that of the conventional media). Coady argues contraGoldman that the blogosphere (a) doesn’t undermine professional journalism, (b) doesn’t lack balance in any detrimental way, and (c) isn’t parasitic on the conventional media. Finally, Coady concludes that the blogosphere benefits our epistemic well-being and improves our democratic practices.

I will briefly outline Coady’s main argument then I will argue that bothGoldman and Coady are mistaken to focus their attention on evaluating the relative epistemic reliability of the blogosphere because (a) no meaningful distinction can be made in terms of reliability and (b) whatever current distinction there is will likely soon evaporate. I conclude that (c) even if we assume that one or the other class of media is more reliable this doesn’t matter one fig given the wide range of reliability within each class; what matters is whether the citizenry is able to distinguish between good and bad arguments and good and bad sources. A citizenry with low cognitive abilities will easily be mislead by the sensational and find themselves sucked into epistemic black holes–despite the existence of some reliable sources, conventional or otherwise.

Outline of Coady’s Argument:
(P1) Although the blogosphere might undermine professional journalism, it doesn’t follow that it harms the “epistemic prospects” of the citizenry because political questions shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of experts–we ought also appeal to ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ (i.e., bloggers).

(P2) The conventional media’s ostensible virtue of balance actually excludes genuine balance because it omits points of view that aren’t those of the dominant parties. The blogosphere, on the other hand, can accommodate every micro-perspective. This is an epistemic benefit to the citizenry.

(P3) Despite Goldman’s argument that the blogosphere isn’t independent from the conventional media, the dependance relation also runs the other way. The conventional media often turns to blogs as sources because blogs can do things the conventional media can’t or doesn’t do (like close examination of public documents, in depth analysis, etc…). These activities, which are most typical to the blogosphere, are an epistemic benefit to the citizenry.

(C) It follows from (P1), (P2), and (P3) that the blogosphere provides an epistemic benefit to the citizenry because it does things that the conventional media can’t or doesn’t do much of.

It Don’t Mean Stink if You Don’t Know How to Think
Instead of focusing on the central argument I will attempt to make the case that this debate over the relative epistemic benefits of the blogosphere and conventional media, while interesting, is of minimal importance. If our chief concern is epistemic well-being and good democratic decision-making, what really matters is the general level of critical thinking in the citizenry. An important part of the debate between Goldman and Coady hinges upon there being a meaningful distinction between journalists in the conventional media and bloggers. To begin making my case, I’ll try to show that this distinction cannot be sustained.

Coady gives several criteria to mark the distinction:

(a) Journalists are paid while bloggers are not; (b) journalists are part an institution and therefore subject to institutional norms (for better or for worse) while bloggers are not; (c) journalists have access to “the halls of power” to collect information while bloggers’ principle form of research consists in close examination of publicly available documents; (d) journalists have their information filtered in a way that bloggers don’t.

With the exception of perhaps (d), I suggest that these criteria do not establish a strong demarkation between the two categories because there are many obvious counter-examples to each of the criteria. Regarding (a), many bloggers are well-paid and make a living off of sponsorships and ads. In fact, many bloggers aspire to this. Regarding (b), many academics and professionals have blogs. When they blog in their capacity as academic and professional, just like journalists they are also subject to strong professional and institutional truth-telling norms, in these cases do they suddenly cease to be bloggers? That’s unlikely. Coady himself gives a counter-example to (c), and presumably as individual blogs grow their audience and opinion-making power, this distinction will be obliterated. Access to the halls of power is a poor demarkation criteria.

The last criteria is (d) is perhaps the most promising as a demarkation criterion. The concentration of corporate power and friendly ties to those in power suggest that the conventional media is subject to a type of filtering to which blogs are not. That said, as Coady himself indicates, there are examples of bloggers also gaining face-to-face access to politicians. It’s not unreasonable to suspect this access is because of their favorable disposition or reluctance to criticize the particular politician; i.e., filtering similar to that in the conventional media. Of course, the bloggers are not subject to institutionally-imposed filtering norms, nevertheless it seems that anyone who’s going to get face-to-face access—blogger and journalist–gets that access on the precondition of at least some filtering. One would presume that as individual blogs increase their audience and clout so too will their possibility of access increase, in turn further blurring the line between blogger and journalist. The point here is simply that in the long run this demarkation criteria probably going to grow increasingly porous and so isn’t going to succeed in drawing a clear line.

Recall why we even care about marking a distinction between the two categories of media. We want to know if the blogosphere is a net benefit for a democracy in terms of its ability to reliably provide true information to the citizenry which will in turn cash out as a benefit to good democratic decision-making. Now, suppose one were to reject my above arguments against a meaningful demarkation, I believe I can still make my case against it: For each category the range of reliability is so wide as to make any meaningful distinction irrelevant in terms of the property we care about: reliability. In sum, the degree to which the two categories (if we presuppose some essential difference) overlap in terms of reliability renders them indistinguishable from each other in this respect.

Consider the conventional media. Who’s in this category? Fox News, MSNBC, CBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Huffington Post, NYT, NPR, PRI, and PBS to name a few. In terms of reliability, anyone who’s bothered to look at recent media studies literature will tell you that there’s a huge gap between the reliability of say, Fox News and NPR. For example, in several polls testing knowledge of current events, Fox News viewers scored even lower those who don’t follow the news (citation). Not surprisingly, the more ideological the news source (regardless of ideology), the worse the participants’ knowledge of current events. The group who scored best were those who listened to NPR.

So what’s my point besides the fact that everyone should donate and listen to NPR? The point is that in terms of reliability—the property with which are concerned—the range within the category “conventional media” is so wide such that ascribing a reliability score to the category is rendered meaningless. “Conventional Media” captures pretty much any reliability value you choose, depending on the case you’re trying to make.

It should come as no surprise that the same argument can be made of the blogosphere. From Alex Jones’ Info Wars and the rest of the wacky wonderworld of conspiracy-of-everything blogs to blogs run by elite Ivy League professors, the range of reliability within the blogosphere is vast. The distribution is so wide that to speak of “the reliability of the blogosphere” is essentially meaningless—even more so than for the conventional media. You can make the reliability score fit whatever position you wish to support depending on the cluster of blogs you select.

Essentially, you can pick and choose a conventional source and a blog to make whatever case you want about the relative reliability of each category. One reply might be to average the reliability over all prototypical members of the class but this would do no more than distort what we really want to know: If a citizen gets their news from blogs or conventional media, which one is more likely to reliably report true beliefs? It all depends on which particular source of conventional media we are talking about and which particular blogs she chooses. It’ll return to this later.

There are further reasons to be skeptical of any attempt to meaningfully distinguish and make pronouncements about the conventional media and the blogosphere in terms of reliability. Consider a hypothetical situation where there’s no blogosphere and only conventional media. Is the conventional media reliable? That is, does it announce more true information than false? It depends. Do we live in North Korea? Or do we live in a Western democracy with strong laws protecting freedom of the press and a low concentration of media ownership? Or do we live somewhere in between? The point here is that there’s nothing intrinsically reliable about conventional media. It’s reliability is contingent upon many variables many of which are political, legal, and economic. With this in mind, lets return to the central issue: Does the conventional media improve our democratic practices (via epistemic benefits)? The answer and reasons are same as for the reliability question: it depends.

How about if we consider a population where there is only a blogosphere and no conventional media. Is the blogosphere more reliable? Again, it depends. What blogs is a person reading? How are they choosing what blogs they read? Do they pick blogs that confirm their pre-existing ideological biases or do they actively seek out blogs that challenge their point of view? The empirical evidence suggests the former.

The wide and overlapping distributions of reliability within and between the blogosphere and the conventional media as well as the contingent nature of each categories’ reliability score all suggest that the reliability issue is of only minimal significance. To true see why lets return to the issue that motivated the whole project to begin with: how can we best ensure that the public is well-informed such that our democratic practices are improved? Coady would have us believe that there mere fact that people have access to a range of positions where they will encounter mutually incompatible points of view implies that “as a result they are able to develop their critical faculties, which in turn helps them make better choices about what and whom to believe” (p. 291).

Unfortunately for Coady, there are journals replete with literature to the contrary. I wish I could share his optimism, but exposure to a plurality of views isn’t sufficient if we don’t take into account the various conditions under which these views are encountered. For example, consider level of education. The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that those least able to reason are most confident in their ability to do so and most recalcitrant to correction. Johnathan Haidt’s research shows that we are recalcitrant to facts that undercut cherished beliefs. Kahan’s research shows that our ideological biases determine who we consider to be an expert. The backfire-effect (Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler) shows that in the face of strong disconfirming evidence people will further entrench their beliefs rather than align them with new and better evidence. Even something as objective as doing basic math is distorted by our political biases (Kahan) and the effect is stronger withnumeracy! There’s also a growing body of literature on how people make media choices and it doesn’t support Coady’s hypothesis: the majority of the population chooses its media sources based on whether it confirms their existing views. Most people want confirmation and comfort rather than the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when their cherished beliefs and values are challenged.

There are too many studies to list here but the upshot is that (a) encountering disconfirming views on its own is unlikely to confer any epistemic benefit and, even if this weren’t the case, (b) the vast majority seek out sources which confirm rather than challenge their views essentially sending them into an epistemic echo chamber. For example, the literature on conspiracy theorists is clear. Anyone who enters this epistemic black hole has little chance of ever escaping: any evidence against the conspiracy is counted as evidence for it.

With the click of a mouse, you enter the world of conspiracism, and you never have to leave that world,” the University of Utah’s Goldberg explained. “You get a situation where you are confirmed, and you don’t have any information that advises you to look in a different direction … There’s an inner core of people who are committed.” And not only are these people stuck in a feedback loop of confirmation bias and groupthink, but they are actually being radicalized in the process as well, Goldberg maintained.1

Given massive cuts to education, emphasis on rote learning for standardized tests and its consequences to the critical thinking skills of the general populous, its hard to see how the rise of the conspiratorial and sensational in the blogosphere should be counted as epistemic gain.

The obvious reply is that I am committing the fallacy of confirming instances for surely there are also blogs that are extremely vertistic. True, but there are several confounding factors. First of all, as I’ve mentioned already, given the human propensity to seek confirmation we should expect that these “good” blogs will be ignored by those who could most benefit from them. Second, I’d wager the conspiratorial, sensationalist, and ideological blogs as a whole have way more traffic than the reliable blogs and that there’s little overlap between the audiences. Finally, for those that enter the blogosphere neutral, the gravitational force of the “bad” type of blog is much stronger than that of the “good” type.

So, what are we to make of this mess? Is there any way to draw a meaningful distinction between the blogosphere and the conventional media? I’m not sure but if there isany thing distinctive about the blogosphere it is that its possible range of epistemic reliability is wider than that of the conventional media. Conversely, at least in most Western democracies, there are institutional norms that prevent chronic outright fabrication in the conventional media. To be fair, Coady acknowledges as much when he marks the distinction between the epistemic virtues of avoiding false beliefs and acquiring true beliefs. The conventional media might win out over the blogosphere in achieving the former.

Lets return once again to the motivating issue. To the extent that we can even talk about the blogosphere and the conventional media as distinct categories and given the overlapping wide-ranges of reliability values between and within each class, can anything be said about the blogosphere in respect to its role in a democracy? To answer this, let me once again quote Padover: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (1939, p. 89). In other words, the blogosphere is only a benefit from an epistemic point of view if people have the requisite critical thinking skills such that they can distinguish between good and bad sources and good and bad arguments.

Blogs, like many tools, are proverbial double-edged swords. Some are more epistemically reliable than the best “conventional” news source and some are so epistemically naughty it would make Fox News blush. For the citizen who has the cognitive tools to critically evaluate the quality of sources or luckily stumbles on a network of credible blogs, blogs are a net epistemic benefit. For someone who tumbles down the rabbit whole of conspiracy or strongly ideological blogs, they are not likely to again see the light of reason. The same sword that defends you from harm can also cut you. It depends on the skill of he who wields it.

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