Philosophy Class Tackles Question of Fake News

August 8, 2023 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Philosophers ask questions to seek the truth. C.J. Oswald wants to find the truth about fake news.

Oswald, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Virginia, taught an undergraduate course in fake news and philosophy during the summer session. Philosophy is about trying to get an understanding of what they are discussing, he told his students as he led them through an exercise contrasting and comparing definitions of “fake news.”

With fake news, Oswald is wading in relatively fresh waters. Academic literature on philosophy and fake news extends back just a few years.

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“Only in 2021 do we get the first full, edited volume on fake news from philosophers,” he said. “Over the last 20 years or so, philosophers have become increasingly occupied with applied questions, especially in social and political space.”

At one point, Oswald divided his nine students into two groups to discuss how philosophers justify definitions of “fake news.”  Afterward, they presented their thoughts on how concrete cases of fake news inform how philosophers defend their proposed definitions. After extensive investigations into how scholars’ definitions differ, Oswald sensed his students’ frustration.

“This is how philosophy works,” he said. “It is annoying to some, but this is how it works.”

Oswald has been involved with academic philosophy for about 10 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Alma College in Michigan and earned a masters’ degree from Western Michigan University.

“I knew that there were philosophers out there and that I was interested in exploring various questions and then asking questions about those questions in an effort to enhance my own understanding of the world and ourselves,” Oswald said. “As my education has progressed, it’s revealed more and more just how complicated and complex some of these issues are and how arriving at a single, definitive answer as to what social and political dynamics involve is a very significant challenge.”

Examining fake news is part of his dissertation and Oswald draws upon his interest in social and political philosophy, epistemology and philosophy of language.

Portrait of C.J. Oswald

C.J. Oswald, a doctoral student in philosophy, is examining fake news as part of his dissertation. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The topic of fake news has been of immense interest to me because it is a pressing worry for healthy democratic discourse and decision-making, which is already weakened in our current, highly polarized, social-political context,” Oswald said. “As for the class, I think it’s a valuable subject for students to engage with and hopefully appreciate how philosophy cab help clarify some of the main issues, even if we still struggle with arriving at definitive answers.”

Casey Chadwick of Charlotteville, a rising first-year student who wants to study foreign affairs with ambitions of becoming a diplomat, signed up for the course through “Hoos Getting Ready.” The program offers incoming first-year students an opportunity to earn up to six credits the summer before enrolling at UVA.

“I have a deep passion for politics,” he said. “My family is politically divided, but I enjoy political discussions.”

Chadwick said he learned that his critical thinking skills were better than he thought.

“I thoroughly enjoy the class,” he said. “There has not been one dull day and it has exceeded my expectations.”

Vicky Salazar, another rising first-year from Elizabeth, New Jersey, plans to study political science and is concerned about the implications of fake news. She said the class has motivated her to the point of discussing the issues from the course with her family and friends.

“I have learned that I had preconceived notions of fake news,” she said. “I have changed my mentality on the world entirely from what I thought two weeks ago.”

Candid of C.J. Oswald teaching
C.J. Oswald challenges the students in his summer session course on fake news and philosophy about how philosophers define the topics they discuss. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications]

Oswald said analytic philosophers, dominant in the Western world, focus on definitions and what words mean, how the concepts expressed by words relate to one another – along with how they are distinct from one another – and how these concepts can be further clarified or made more precise.

“With respect to fake news, there’s a central question of what exactly is fake news? How can we identify it?” Oswald said. “And how does it relate to other mass communicative phenomena, such as propaganda or conspiracy theories? And does that aid us in combating what we take to be the fake news crisis?"

During a recent class, a question arose among the students about how to defend fake news, leading to a debate about whether doing so requires a kind of censorship that infringes on freedom of speech. Oswald said he was trying to introduce his students to philosophical thinking in general. He starts out with one example and slowly moves through a series of options to a very different place.

“They’re responsive to some of the things that we’re talking about,” he said of his students. “And they’re hopefully beginning to realize that it is really hard to define these terms that seem to play a central part in how we relate to one another.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications