Tackling threats to informed decision-making in democratic societies: promoting epistemic security in a technologically-advanced world

Elizabeth Seger*, Shahar Avin, Gavin Pearson, Mark Briers, Seán Ó Heigeartaigh, Helena Bacon, Henry Ajder (Contributor), Claire Alderson (Contributor), Fergus Anderson (Contributor), Joseph Baddeley (Contributor), Craig Bakker (Contributor), Carla Zoe Cremer (Contributor), Eric Drexler (Contributor), James Eaton-Lee (Contributor), Daniel Edwards (Contributor), Philip Gibson (Contributor), Robert (Bob) Hobbs (Contributor), Sophia Ignatidou (Contributor), Peter Johnson (Contributor), De Kai (Contributor)Dinos A. Kerigan-Kyrou (Contributor), Colin Roberts (Contributor), Darren Rockett (Contributor), Mark Round (Contributor), Samuel Scott (Contributor), Paul Stanley (Contributor), Alex Stevens (Contributor), Paul Strong (Contributor), Ann Stow (Contributor), Neil Verrall (Contributor), Adrian Weller (Contributor)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportOther report

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Abstract

Access to reliable information is crucial to the ability of a democratic society to coordinate effective collective action, especially when responding to crises such as global pandemics, and complex challenges such as climate change. We define an epistemically secure society as one that reliably averts threats to the processes by which reliable information is produced, distributed, acquired and assessed within the society.

Citizens of contemporary, technologically rich societies have greater access to information than at any point in history. However, while new technologies make information more widely accessible, information abundance and other changes brought about by new technologies highlight a different set of threats and vulnerabilities in our systems of information production and exchange. We identify the following themes:

1. Adversaries and blunderers can more readily interfere with decision-making processes, through [dis/mis]information or other harmful actions than in the past.
2. Information abundance means the attention of information recipients is spread thin, making it harder to ensure essential information reaches all important parties. This leads to an attention economy in which tradeoffs are made between the truthorientation of information and attention-grabbing strategies.
3. Insular communities that reject information that challenges their accepted views quickly emerge and persist. Strong in-group identity leads to greater polarisation between groups.
4. Information mediating and producing technologies make it more difficult to evaluate the trustworthiness of individual information sources.

Through a series of workshops we developed and analysed a set of hypothetical yet plausible crisis scenarios to explore how external threats and internal vulnerabilities to epistemic security can be mitigated in order to facilitate timely decision-making and collective action in democratic societies. Overall we observed that preserving a democratic society’s epistemic security is a complex effort that sits at the interface of many knowledge domains, theoretical perspectives, value systems, and institutional responsibilities.

Consequently, challenges to epistemic security cannot be addressed as a laundry list of threats with narrowly targeted fixes. To do so may cause more harm than good because societies can suffer from multiple interconnected threats and vulnerabilities, and proposed solutions to each can have unintended first-, second-, and higher-order consequences. Epistemic threats are
therefore best considered via a holistic and interdisciplinary approach that takes into account the broader socio-technological contexts in which the threats have emerged. We developed the following recommendations to highlight areas where additional research and resources will likely have a significant impact on epistemic security in democratic societies:

1. Develop technological and institutional methods to increase the cost for adversaries and blunderers in spreading unsupported, fabricated, or false information.
2. Develop methods of helping information consumers more easily identify trustworthy information sources.
3. Explore technological and institutional methods to "signal boost" reliable decision relevant information in an asymmetric manner. Recognize that evaluations of what constitutes reliable and decision-relevant information will most often benefit from the input of diverse communities and interest groups.
4. Develop technological and institutional methods to monitor changes in epistemic systems and to rapidly detect adversarial epistemic action during times of tension or crises.
5. Build capacity for and engage in holistic systems-mapping procedures (constructing an integrated view of social epistemic systems) and red-teaming strategies (deliberately exploring a scenario from an adversary's perspective) to help identify and analyse epistemic threats.
6. Establish working relationships with a diverse array of experts who are experienced in identifying and analysing epistemic threats and who could serve as epistemic security advisors before and during crises.
7. Invest in building and curating diverse and multidisciplinary epistemic security research groups and expert networks.

We provide a more extensive discussion of recommendation 5 in the final section of the report. We describe how holistic systems-mapping and red-teaming strategies might be implemented
to better understand complex social epistemic systems and to help identify and analyze epistemic threats using examples from our workshop proceedings to illustrate.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherThe Alan Turing Institute
Number of pages112
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2020
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Epistemic security
  • Epistemic threat
  • Information technology
  • Misinformation
  • Disinformation
  • Epistemic infrastructure

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