Combating Disinformation with Humility.

This post managed to hit the front page of the Hacker News and generated meaningful discussions. You can see the comment thread here.

For as long as media has existed, certain actors have always tried to manipulate it in order to win favor from the people (increased revenue, cultivating a good image of self, disavowing rivals, inter-alia). However, this practice has now become significantly pronounced due to the ubiquity of the Internet. Corporates, Business Rivals, Nation-States, and Criminal Organizations alike want to influence their target crowd in one way or another to achieve a diverse set of strategic objectives. And they absolutely do not hesitate to employ the means of Disinformation. Be it the denigration of Covid vaccines or promotion of a particular election candidate, we have seen the usage of Disinformation time and time again, and it is unlikely that this practice would stop without an effective intervention from the corresponding governments.

Speaking of intervention, many policies are actively being developed to reduce (if not curb) the effects of Disinformation by teaching their citizens how to spot such lies and signs of manipulation. However, do they work? Or more specifically, do they work to the extent that we think they do? A curious fact about Disinformation is that Influencers, more often than not, employ a rather direct method of influence i.e. they openly spread Fake News and false narratives, rarely resorting to a more sophisticated packaging. But the target audiences still fall victim to such directness. Even people who possess a good education have shown a tendency to fall into this trap and perpetuate misinformed rhetorics. (I assume that this is because any contentious subject has multiple contesting studies and a well-informed individual can just choose to believe what he already does.)

I would not go as far as to say that Education and Awareness are futile, but I certainly believe that they are incomplete without an additional trait: Humility. To be concise, Humility is the quality of being Humble. However, this deceptive definition would not help us understand how it helps in combating Disinformation. However, before defining it in a more complete way, let us first explore the root causes of the unusual effectiveness of Disinformation according to psychology and cognitive science.

It is now well understood that people construct a mental model of their reality to make better sense of it. They then use these models to argue about what/who is good or bad, what is beautiful and what is not, and also, what makes sense and what does not. As is with any model, it is impossible to incorporate every aspect of reality in detail (as models are made to reduce complexities, not to increase them). I won’t delve much into the nature of these models except to state a fact that I believe is fundamental:

The most central entity in an individual’s model of reality is the individual himself.

Other entities in this model exist solely due to the fact that they are connected to the individual in one way or another. For example, you’d know of hamburgers because you have seen, read, eaten, or heard of them. But I doubt that Avexori, a vibrant color that I now just invent, ever exists or existed in not just yours but anyone’s model.

If the individual himself is the central portion of his world, then does that not mean that he is the foundation of it all? That is to say, the most infallible entity of his model? Because, if he himself were to be invalidated then his entire construction would fall apart (see Ontological Security). He must be good. He must be true. He must be the ideal person in the entire world… or at the very least, in his own construction of reality.

And this is the most important point that is leveraged by Influencers: the need for an individual to be infallible. All other observed tactics of Influence originate from this single fundamental fact. Echo-Chambers, a common means of influence, only works because of the individual’s need to feel validated. Similarly, Confirmation Bias originates because of an individual’s tendency to select only those ideas that ultimately resonate with his own.

Having said that, we are now ready to define what Humility really is:

Humility is the ability of an individual to acknowledge that he is not infallible, even in his own construction of reality.

It is as simple as that. If a person recognizes that he could be wrong, that it’s possible for his beliefs, ideologies, and observations to be false, then he truly is a humble person. In fact, I want to go further than that and proclaim that a humble person recognizes that he must be central to his reality, but is not central to the reality. (Existing literature state that humility is when a person recognizes that he is non-central to the world but does not make a distinction between the constructed world and the true world.)

Those who are not humble have a compulsive need to attach themselves to and protect their ideals and beliefs. However, in doing so, they are ultimately protecting themselves. Once their beliefs are challenged, they mistake it as an attack upon themselves. Their ideas are tightly coupled with their self and its infallibility. Therefore, they become aggressive whenever a fact that runs counter to their beliefs is presented.

However, Humility enables an individual to detach himself from his ideals. Once that is accomplished, the individual would never have qualms about subjecting his beliefs or observations to open scrutiny and even discard it entirely in case enough facts and evidence are presented in its disfavor. Furthermore, and this is most important, Humility empowers an individual by providing him the willingness to cultivate critical thinking i.e. a method to discover whether an idea is wrong.

Because, if an individual is not Humble, he’d have no use of a method that has the potential to prove him wrong!

It, thus, does not come off as surprising that Socrates, the inventor of Critical Thinking, also famously stated, I know nothing.

Nations can educate their citizens, but they can never force them to embrace that education. As an example, Education may tell a person what an echo chamber is, but only Humility enables him to not seek it (because he has no need for validation). How then, could States teach their citizens humility? This is an important question that I have no easy answer to. But compassion, empathy, and humility are all attitudes that empower inquisitiveness, a trait that is central to our development as a species and I think that a proper scientific inquiry is needed on the methods to cultivate them.

Ultimately, in regards to the role of Humility and Disinformation, I think nothing summarizes it as aptly as this quote does:

It is easy to wake up a person who is sleeping but it’s hard to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.

3 comments

  1. My favourite epistemology is virtue epistemology, and of course humility is an epistemic virtue. People must act with courage, honesty, humility in order to find the truth. It’s not about a particular method that they should be taught.

    Thank you for your essay !

Leave a Reply to Dinesh Roy Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.