This post reflects on an online book symposium that took place on Tuesday 16th March 2021, as part of an ongoing series of Digital University Network events, organised through my work with the Society for Research into Higher Education. The event showcased a diverse and inter-disciplinary collection of contributions from an edited volume entitled ‘The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery By Design’ by Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose & Ibrar Bhatt. Out in June 2021, the book is part of the Springer’s new Postdigital Science & Education book series edited by Petar Jandrić, also one of the event’s speakers.
The papers tackle a number of critical issues in relation to the current crisis of trust and, as a collective body of work, lend theoretical and philosophical insight into how digital technologies interact with belief systems to achieve deception, and related epistemic vices such as lies, dupery, misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance – issues which have occupied much public discussion in recent times. When Peter Oborne wrote his book ‘The Rise of Political Lying’ back in 2005, he talked about the growth of political lying during the governments of John Major and Tony Blair, two former British Prime Ministers. Many at the time felt that things could not get any worse. But look at where we are now.
With the election of Trump in 2016, the Brexit referendum, and then in 2019 the arrival of Johnson at No. 10 Downing Street, there began a new and unprecedented epidemic of deceit, much of which was conducted through the discursive frameworks of online platforms and often with little critical intervention from the mainstream media. The Orwellian lie has, arguably, been superseded by the Trumpian lie, such is the blatant and contemptuous disregard for truth. In recent times how we – everyday users of digital technology – receive political messages, make sense of them, and how we integrate these messages into our sense of reality has been the subject of research and inquiry that spans geographic and disciplinary boundaries.
This became apparent when Alison MacKenzie and I guest edited a Special Issue for Postdigital Science & Education. At that point we decided to embark on another related project to examine online deceit in more detail: what it is, how it manifests, how it spreads, how people respond to it, and what its implications are. All of this comes under the ‘epistemology of deceit’ as explored in depth in the book. The extent of online deceit is, we have found, outpacing the empirical research on it and, therefore, our understandings and theory about it are always in deficit: We are playing catch up.
Why ‘deceit’? Why ‘dupery’? Well, there are lots of terms that could be used to describe the complexity of the phenomena of epistemic vices and information pollution which are prevalent on and fomented by social media. After focussing on ‘Lies, bullshit & fake news’ in the special issue, we felt that we need a wider discussion on the epistemology of deceit, one that has interdisciplinary import. We felt that we could better achieve this through an edited collection where we could craft the volume’s purpose and structure, which would have been more difficult to achieve within an academic journal.
Before climate change coalesced into the social and political movement it has now become, there were disparate groups of researchers focusing on things like the ice caps, the ozone layer, deforestation, and individual communities affected by climate change, etc., all of which merged to expand our understanding of the human-causal link. In the same way there is really interesting research taking place in different fields about online deceit and how it impacts the epistemologies of everyday users of technology, including media literacy, digital sociology, linguistics, education, psychology, law and philosophy – very separate areas of expertise. And I hope this edited volume takes us one step closer to achieving something similar, aided by a unifying postdigital theoretical framework that helps us to achieve this; a framework which holds that we are systematically embedded in digital infrastructures.
The role of higher education is critical within this context, as universities have traditionally been regarded as sites of epistemic authority where knowledge is created and disseminated through the work of academics and theoretically grounded systems of teaching. Recent trends have shown that universities market the idea that they will create ‘future-ready’, ‘globally-aware’ and ‘critically-thinking’ graduates, equipped with the relevant skills and knowledge to deal with issues facing our modern world, including public health crises, climate change, and conflict. We need, therefore, to ask: Have universities lived up to their role as centres of humane critique, or have they capitulated to the priorities of technocapitalism? Are they failing to prepare people for the onslaught, or are they just playing catch up?
This collection of essays is a theoretical step forward in understanding the current ecology of deceit in online environments. I hope that through it we have brought epistemological questions to bear on issues of lies, manipulation, the propagation of falsehoods, the weaponisation of information, and epistemic vices.