Philosophical Topics

Volume 50, Issue 2, Fall 2022

Social Minds in Digital Spaces

Kenneth Boyd
Pages 105-126

Testimonial Epistemic Rights in Online Spaces

According to many theories of testimony, acts of testimony confer certain epistemic rights upon recipients, e.g., the right for the recipient to complain or otherwise hold the testifier responsible should the content of that testimony turn out to be false, and the right to “pass the epistemic buck”, such that the recipient can redirect relevant challenges they may encounter back to the testifier. While these discussions do not explicitly exclude testimonial acts that occur online, they do not specifically address them, either. Here, then, I will ask the following questions: do the differences between communicating in online and offline spaces affect our testimonial epistemic rights, and if so, how? While there is no singular “online space”, here I will focus on such spaces in which users communicate with one another, and in which communicated information can be vetted by other users (for example, social media). I argue that the characteristics of online testimony should make us think about testimonial epistemic rights differently, in two ways. First, whereas such rights have traditionally been conceived of as existing between the recipient and testifier, in many different types of online communication these rights exist between the recipient and a community. This is a result of the fact that online testimony is mediated, and in some cases partially determined by, a community of users. As such, testimonial epistemic rights in online spaces may be widely extended: while the original testifier still bears the brunt of responsibility for challenges, and is the primary buck-passee, all other members of the relevant community will also bear some such responsibilities. Second, the grounds of testimonial epistemic rights may differ in online spaces. Existing theories tend to ground such rights either in assurances provided by the testifier, or else norms that govern speech acts. I argue that testimony in online spaces should cause us to look to a third option, what I call norms of information sharing. The idea is that, given the highly social nature of online communication, a recipient acquires testimonial epistemic rights in virtue of having a reasonable expectation that information that is shared and vetted by the community meets certain standards. The grounds of online testimonial epistemic rights, then, is not primarily interpersonal or norms-based, but social.