The discourse around fake news often focuses on the ones disseminating it. Organised troll factories, chatbots, media houses with questionable integrity, elected leaders who like to play fast and loose with facts: the list is endless. But it is equally important to look at individuals, the targets and consumers of fake news, and ask what they should do when bombarded by inaccurate information.
This was the subject of a short essay titled The Ethics of Belief, written in 1877 by the mathematician and philosopher William K. Clifford. He sets a very high standard for people to follow, as is evident from the following line:
…it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
Clifford justifies the need for such an ethical duty for three reasons. One, and the simplest of them all, a wrongful belief can dictate wrongful action. Second, it can foster a bad habit where individuals become credulous believers, their sense of discernment dulled by a tendency to accept whatever is presented to them. And three, the larger social reason of human actions and thoughts being a form of common property, and thus to be considered both a privilege and a responsibility.
Regardless of how convincing one finds Clifford’s reasons, what makes his position relevant for the current age is its flipping of the discourse. By presenting the questioning of beliefs as an ethical duty, the essay gives primacy to individuals. It remains to be seen if this framing can be used to arrive at a public policy solution to the problem of fake news.