Epistemic Warfare

Lying and censorship are both adversarial games: they are applied by some for an advantage over others.

All else being equal, one is harmful because it spreads disinformation, the other is harmful because it suppresses the spread of accurate information. When someone or a group justifies using either, it is normally in the context of achieving a greater benefit, or responding reciprocally to another. This mirrors war, in that war is inherently destructive as well, but can sometimes be used to accomplish good things and to punish or deter bad things.

Treating lying and censorship as war though highlights not just that civil discourse is in a constant state of war, but a constant state of war crime. Lying to the masses is a form of indiscriminate attack, while censorship operates like a blockade and locks away potential benefits from everyone. Lies and censorship have collateral damage, and should only be considered legitimate when considerations of proportionality and mitigating collateral damage are applied. It should not be tolerated when friends and political allies lie to you about political opponents to boost support, because they are treating you as an adversary or a useful idiot. The more acceptable it is to lie and censor for effect, unpaired from any consideration of proportionality or collateral damage, the more societal trust is destroyed and the harder it is to initiate mutually beneficial cooperation. When insincere and unserious discourse and analysis is accepted (from one’s own side), b.s. proliferates and simultaneously provides stronger justification for the powerful to censor arbitrarily and in a biased manner to favor themselves. To get to a state with less lying and censorship, I wonder if the history of the decline of war provides any lessons on a path to “epistemic peace.”

You can’t easily get to a cooperative equilibrium when there are many actors that can independently chose to cheat and defect for their own advantage. To negotiate with trust that something good will happen, you need fewer actors. While it was easy for societies and states to monopolize the use of force, prohibit murder, and set rules of war with each other, it is much more arbitrary to prohibit “lying” or to get large groups to agree on what is unacceptable beyond extremely legible and circumscribed instances such as fraud. In broader epistemic conflict over what is true, you need large coalitions that vet their own members, and throw out their “epistemic war criminals” rather than promoting liars and censors. In interpersonal conflict, you need communities that vet people and eject or punish the dishonest and censors. Basically you need a set of norms and rules for legitimate means to punish lying and censorship that scales into an equilibrium of lying and censorship being extremely rare.

There will still be asymmetries in the ability to lie and censor that can be abused, but with norms around lying and censorship being analogous to rules of war, otherwise honest people can cooperate to lie to abusers and wannabe authoritarians. Such lies directed at much narrower targets that intend harm are much more proportional than the largely indiscriminate methods that get spammed to larger audiences. Such narrower lies nevertheless can still become indiscriminate in their consequences (e.g. lying about quotas to appease an authoritarian, and causing economy wide shortages.)

It seems really critical to solve these problems quickly. Deep fakes along with other AI optimized deception will only make problems worse. With such high fidelity deception, even people that actually try to figure out what is true will increasingly be unable to find evidence they can trust. Dark times are ahead, it is time to start building collaborative truth-seeking systems that can scale.

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