Do you know who your friends are?

By no means would I suggest that the epistemological implications of this story are its most noteworthy features. But it does have noteworthy epistemological implications.

Weirdly, the US Air Force is involved with the private security firm HBGary to deploy software that would create “fictitious personas” on social media sites, such as Facebook, presumably to manipulate public opinion — as if there weren’t enough of that already!

As the Raw Story reporter notes, this has at least two potentially troubling skeptical consequences. First, it (further) empowers shadowy elements of the military-industrial complex “to create the illusion of consensus,” thereby preventing us from knowing what the prevailing opinion is on current affairs. It also leaves us wondering whether we know that our “friends” are “even real people.” Obviously this latter worry wouldn’t prevent you from knowing that, say, your mom or colleagues are real. But it might apply to any “friend” you can’t put a face to.

All of this of course raises the question of whether a more appropriate name might be ‘Face(less)book’.


Do you know who your friends are? — 3 Comments

  1. I’d agree that social networking sites raise some interesting epistemic problems.

    One obvious one, to my lights, concerns the nature of trustworthiness in such environments. Even though you might be able to justify your belief that certain of your “friends” are who they claim to be, it seems very likely to be the case that the information conveyed through statuses, “likes” and so on–even by persons we know personally–has something of a debased value.

    In part this would be because of the presence of willful manipulations of information like the one to which you allude here. Another problem is that information spreads faster than it can be verified in online environments like Facebook and Twitter. This seems to be at least in part because the information spreads via the trust we have in the persons we know, and the trust we have in them comes to stand in for independent verification of the information being repeated. That it says P on John’s status this morning (say) comes to be my justification for accepting that (and repeating that) P, even though I know very little about P myself.

    The *really* interesting thing, however, is that we seem intuitively to be aware of the debased currency of information in social networking environments, because when P turns out to be false we seldom if ever blame the person from whom we copied or reposted or “liked” or whatever–as we *would* do in the good, old-fashioned analog world were someone to repeat a false rumor (which is more or less the analogous case). Somehow, in the short time it took for Facebook and its like to become widespread, we seem to have developed whole new sets of intuitions about how and to what degree to allocate trust that diverge in some ways from our traditional ones.

    On a more personal note, to be honest, things like this were one reason I left Facebook. It’s just creepy on there anymore.

  2. Fun Fact: you can pay companies to increase your number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, which has become especially important in brand promotion. This leads to some issues of whether or not someone can know if something REALLY is popular or just appears to be.

  3. I should add that what prompted me to think about trustworthiness was having the occasion (albeit in a different context) to go over this paper again: John Cantwell, “Resolving Conflicting Information”, Journal of Logic, Language, and Information 7: 191–220, 1998.

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