Fake News: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?

This year’s problem is unusually wicked. It was hard enough a few years ago, when just about everyone agreed that “fake news” meant false facts — bad information disseminated by accident or on purpose. Getting the story right has never been easy, and conspiracy theorists have been around as long as the experts and institutions they mistrust. But it’s harder now, when it is no longer clear what people mean when they say “fake news.” Is it deliberate misinformation, party-spun propaganda, or just news that makes you look bad? And who decides about definitions in the first place? Before we think about persuasion, then, more fundamental problems demand attention. Have we given up on truth itself?

These are questions of signal importance, especially for a university. If a crucial part of our mission is to generate expert knowledge and develop reliable interpretations of the same, how do we respond when expertise itself is seen as a threat, as a source of fake news rather than its antidote?

We are convinced that the problem should be tackled head-on, and on multiple levels. The first challenge is an epistemological one. As scholars and students, as teachers, artists, and practitioners, we regularly interrogate the production of knowledge in our disciplines. What do we know, and how do we know it? Second, we ask hard questions and offer solutions to the problem of persuasion. Once we arrive at a reliable understanding of a given problem, how can we communicate our findings clearly and effectively, with compassion, sensitivity, and respect for other ways of knowing?

Post-Truth, the Critical Engagements common read for 2019–2020, gets at many of the same questions, and by its title already suggests something of the theme’s breadth. For a more detailed sketch of some of the issues we’ll explore this year, see the list below.

Key Issues and Problems

  • Journalism and the news: The past, present, and future of a free press and its consumers
  • Science and its methods in the face of scrutiny from within and without
  • Social science and the “replication crisis”
  • Rhetoric, propaganda, and persuasion
  • Epistemology: Philosophical approaches to knowledge from antiquity to postmodernism
  • Experts, credentials, and conspiracy theories