On Credibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about credibility lately, especially with regards to this past year’s election cycle. It seems like a concept that everyone understands, but I think we oversimplify its usage in how we assign credibility to people and institutions, with the result that it is difficult to navigate our current media/information landscape.

Merriam-Webster defines credibility as "the quality or power of inspiring belief". Two things are important here:

  1. It is a quality of someone or something, a property that is intrinsic to a person or an institution. We may also speak of credibility by degrees (i.e. one source is more credible than another), so it is something we can gain more of, lose some of, and be rated against something else in terms of credibility.
  2. It inspires belief, not knowledge. This is a crucial difference. If we hear something from a source (or multiple sources) that we consider credible enough, we will treat that thing as something we know, but that "knowledge" is different from first-hand knowledge, in that there are many more ways in which a person trusting credible sources may be mistaken or misled in their beliefs about the world.

However, I think this definition misses a crucial subtlety: not all people will consider the same sources credible. The "power of inspiring belief" is not an intrinsic property of someone or something, but instead a set of one-way relationships between the person trying to inspire a belief and each person who is listening. Thus, if you and I differ on which sources we find credible, we may end up differing as well in terms of which set of beliefs we hold. And when we implicitly transfer these beliefs to the category of "knowledge", we end up as two people who cannot agree on the state of the world.

These forces have always been in play, but I believe that our media landscape since the rise of cable news and, later, internet news, has exacerbated/exploited them. It used to be the case that a goal of major news organizations was to build and maintain credibility with virtually the whole of this country. Doing so is difficult, however, and it's easy to see how news stories that turn out to be false would have a damaging effect on both the organization's credibility and their bottom line. However, over the past couple decades we have seen major news outlets begin to aim their coverage at smaller portions of the public with specific biases. In doing so, they increase their credibility with that audience, driving increased audience loyalty beyond what traditional news outlets could ever command, but they also suffer a simultaneous decrease in their credibility with everyone else. This new credibility dynamic has important consequences, as a biased news outlet's core audience is more resilient to the occasional misleading or even outright false news story, and there isn't as much credibility to lose with those outside the core audience. Market forces, which used to do a good job of keeping bad journalism in check, are not currently sufficient for that task.

More broadly, when enough media organizations aim their coverage at smaller, more loyal audiences, we experience a fracturing of our media landscape. Two people who don't already agree on their political outlook, for example, are now unlikely to be even listening to the same media sources. And given how we implicitly transfer credibility -> belief -> knowledge, we end up with a populace whose differing political views and media consumption have led them to a place where they cannot even agree on the basic facts of the world around them.

Following this to a logical conclusion, when a Trump surrogate claims that "there's no such thing as facts", she's not spouting nonsense. Rather, it's an incredibly cynical recognition of the fact that very few of us actually have first-hand knowledge of public affairs. Virtually everything is filtered through at least one level of mass media, and if you want to sway opinion or win an argument, having the best set of facts on your side doesn't cut it anymore. What matters is credibility, and if you can enhance your own credibility or impugn that of your opponent, you can win the day regardless of the underlying facts.

And for those of us who believe that the underlying truth should still matter, what can be done? Unfortunately, regarding the schism between credibility and the underlying facts, I think the cat is out of the bag. Now that we have knowledge of how to use credibility to our advantage, showing up to the debate with just a fistful of facts is foolish naïvité. We as a society need to find new ways to tie credibility to facts, and to detect and expunge bullshit wherever it threatens to encroach on the truth. Credibility has always and will always matter; it's just what it's based on that has become slightly unmoored, and tethering it once more is our task.

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