Syllabus: Intermediate Special Topics in Philosophy, Winter 2018

Syllabus: Intermediate Special Topics in Philosophy: Epistemology and Ethics in the Digital Age: Bullshit, Bots and Big Data, Winter Term 2018

  1. Course: PHIL 398.  Concordia University.  Credits: 3.
  2. Time & Place: Mon.  and Wed.  8:45 AM – 10:00 AM, Room H 520, Campus SGW
  3. Instructor: Ulf Hlobil, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Concordia University.
    Office phone:   (514) 848-2424 ext. 2536
    E-mail:   please use email only for administrative issues and solicited items; other substantive philosophical discussion should happen in person because email doesn't suit it:
    Office hours:   Monday 10:00–11:30, or by appointment, in S-M 309 (2145 Mackay).
  4. Notice: In the event of extraordinary circumstances beyond the university's control (e.g.  a strike), the course contents, evaluation scheme and other parts of this syllabus may be subject to change.

Table of Contents

Course Description and Overview

Course Description:    This course focuses on knowledge, public discourse, and power in the age of information technology. Questions include: Do information technologies require rethinking concepts of knowledge? Structuring knowledge in new ways? Does big data change concepts or kinds of knowledge? What are the implications for social and natural sciences? How do the speed, scope and nature of social media impact our relation to truth, or threaten us with falsehoods or bullshit (claims that don’t care about truth vs.  falsity at all)? How is power manifested through control and ownership of data, programs, ideas and infrastructure? Does the information age demand new ethical or epistemological virtues? Do bots, violations of net neutrality or neural-net AIs (that work in ways that we sometimes can’t analyze) threaten our moral and epistemological agency? What is the role of information technology in acquiring understanding—in contrast to knowledge? These questions will be approached from the perspective of philosophy, also looking at relevant research from psychology, sociology, artificial intelligence, and logic.
Expanded Course Description:    Computers and the internet are shaping our ways of experiencing and interacting with the world in fundamental ways. In this course, we will reflect on the implications of this fact for our knowledge of the world as well as ethical and political implications. The two central topics are, first, how digital technology changes our ability to acquire and use knowledge and, second, how digital technology may threaten our ability to act effectively and responsibly. With respect to the first, we will look at the internet’s potential to democratize knowledge and the potential of big data for the social sciences, but also at dangers resulting from phenomena like personalized search results and news feeds. The distinctions between knowledge and understanding and between lying and bullshitting will help us to make sense of our predicament. Regarding effective and responsible action, we will look at some of the things that happened online during the 2016 US election, such as fake news, trolls, and the use of bots by political campaigns. Starting from there, we will then broaden our perspective and think more generally about the use of power, new forms of communication, and surveillance technology in the digital age.
We will start by looking at a couple of recent events and phenomena related to the 2016 US election and to Wikipedia. We will identify core problems and potentials of digital technology with respect to knowledge acquisition and effective action by working through these examples on the basis of journalistic pieces and recent papers in philosophy and psychology. We then turn to some classic philosophical texts to help us understand what is going on, which will include Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, excerpts from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Then we will return to more recent philosophical papers on ethical and political implications of digital technology and related issues. We end by turning back to the issues of knowledge and understanding.
No prior knowledge of philosophy or digital technology is required. Thoughtful existence, an open mind, a questioning spirit, willingness to read challenging texts, and to talk together in rigorously critical way are all that is needed.
  1. Part Problems
  2. Unit 1: What’s Going On? Fake News, US 2016 Election, Wikipedia, and Google
    What are potential benefits and potential problems with a public life that is increasingly shaped by digital technology? What are examples of what can go wrong? What does psychology and sociology have to say about the issue?
  3. Unit 2: Classical Philosophical Perspectives
    What is bullshit? What is the role of emotions in mass communication? When (if at all) is it okay for society to prohibit or restrict the expression of one's opinion? When might mass surveillance be justified?
  4. Unit 3: Ethics in a Digital World
    What are ethical challenges and potentials of digital technology and big data? Should we restrict the freedom of expression in light of its abuse online? Should we give elites more or less power to shape social and digital reality?
  5. Unit 4: Epistemology in a Digital World
    In what respects can be internet make us smarter? What is the difference between knowledge and understanding? When can we trust online sources? Does digital technology require new concepts of knowledge, justification and understanding?

Objectives: What Should You Get Our of This Course

The goal of this course is that you learn to express and argue for your own considered opinion about knowledge, justification, free speech, political power and control in a world that is increasingly shaped by digital technology. After taking this course you’ll be able to better identify and analyze philosophical problems that arise from digital technology. The skills you will acquire in this course are twofold: first, skills that are specific to the content of the course and, second, general methodological skills. Thus, the class objectives can also be stated in the following way:
  1. Content-specific goals:
    1. knowledge of theories and concepts: Frankfurt's account of bullshit, Aristotle's treatment of emotions in rhetoric, problems for free speech on the internet, etc.
    2. historical knowledge: who presented which ideas when and in what context, who held which view for which reasons.
  2. General goals:
    1. the ability to understand philosophical texts and arguments,
    2. the ability to evaluate philosophical ideas and to arrive at your own considered view on a topic at hand,
    3. analytical writing skills, i.e., the ability to engage with the ideas of others and to present your own ideas in writing in a compelling, clear and structured way,
    4. discussion skills, i.e., the ability to discuss complicated and controversial topics in a productive and respectful way, the ability to think about difficult issues together.
You will be evaluated by testing whether you have these abilities through exams, online quizzes, classroom activities and writing assignments.

Lecture Schedule and Assignments

All required readings are available on Moodle. Notice that in order to access some of them you may have to follow a link or to use the link to the library reserve for the course that is on the Moodle page.
I recommend two general resources for when you have difficulties understanding the readings: Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 2 nd ed.) and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online at: If you are looking around for additional background readings, is a good place to start.

3.1 Unit 1: What's Going On? Fake News, US 2016 Election, Wikipedia, and Google

In this first unit, we will survey some issues and recent events related to the digital revolution. We want to get a sense of potential danger and threats that arise from the fact that our lives are increasingly shaped by digital technology, e.g., Google, social media, Wikipedia, etc. In particular, we will look at the phenomenon of fake news, the 2016 US election, Wikipedia and Google.
Introduction: Course, Syllabus, Topics
  1. Readings: Course Syllabus (and you should get a start on next class’s reading, listed immediately below)
Fake News
  1. Readings: Levy, Neil (2017). The Bad News About Fake News. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6(8): 20–36.
    Journalistic Pieces:
    Kiely, E. and L. Robertson (2016, Nov. 18). How to Spot Fake News. at:
    Donath, Judith (2016). Why fake news stories thrive online. Video from CNN Opinion at:
    Higgins, A.; M. McIntire and G. J. X. Dance (2016, Nov. 25). Inside a fake news sausage-factory: `It's all about income'. New York Times at:
    Chen, Adrian (2015, June 2). The Agency. New York Times Magazine at:
2016 US Elections
  1. Readings: Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper No. 23089.
    Journalistic Pieces:
    Ignatius, David (2016, Nov. 29). In today’s world, the truth is losing. The Washington Post at:
    Videos: The Power of Big Data and Psychographics (presentation at the 2016 Concordia Summit, Mr. Alexander Nix), at:
    Confessore, N. and Hakim, D. (2017, Mar. 6). Data Firm Says `Secret Sauce' Aided Trump; Many Scoff. in The New York Times, at:
2016 US Elections
  1. Discussion: No new readings.
  1. Readings: Mößner, Nicola & Kitcher, Philip (2017). Knowledge, Democracy, and the Internet. Minerva 55(1):1–24.
    de Laat, Paul B. (2015). The use of software tools and autonomous bots against vandalism: eroding Wikipedia’s moral order? Ethics and Information Technology 17(3): 175–188.
  1. Readings: Goldman, E. (2005). Search engine bias and the demise of search engine utopianism. Yale JL & Tech. 8, 188.
    Journalistic Pieces:
    Feldman, Brian (2017). Google's dangerous identity crisis. New York Magazine at:
    Sollenberger, Roger (2017, June 1). How the Trump-Russia Data Machine Games Google to Fool Americans. Paste at:

3.2 Unit 2: Classical Philosophical Perspectives

In this unit, we look at classical contributions of philosophy that may help us to understand potential dangers and threats of digital technology.
  1. Readings: Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.
  1. Readings: Cohen, G. A. (2002). Deeper into Bullshit. In Buss and Overton, eds., Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt (pp. 321–339). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Emotions and Rhetoric
  1. Readings: Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book II, excerpts.
    Serrano-Puche, Javier (2015). Emotions and Digital Technologies: Mapping the Field of Research in Media Studies. Media@LSE, London School of Economics and Political Science. London.
Virtue and Social Media
  1. Readings: Vallor, S. (2012). Flourishing on facebook: virtue friendship & new social media. Ethics and Information Technology 14(3): 185–199.
Free Speech
  1. Readings: Mill, J. S., On Liberty (excerpts from Chaps. 1–3).
    Langton, Rae (2016). Hate Speech and the Epistemology of Justice. Criminal Law and Philosophy 10(4):865–873.
    Optional: Listen to Lectures I and III of Rea Langton's Locke Lectures at: Looking at the handouts that are also available on the website while listening to the lectures is helpful.
Free Speech
  1. Discussion: No new readings.
Technology and Culture Industry
  1. Readings: Jonas, H. (1979). Toward a philosophy of technology. Hastings Center Report 9(1): 34–43. At:
    Benjamin, Walter (1935). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, at:
Technology and Culture Industry
  1. Discussion: No new readings.
Surveillance and Control
  1. Readings: Foucault, Michel (1977). “Means of Correct Training” and “Panopticism.” Part II, chap. 2 and 3 of his Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books.
    Journalistic Pieces:
    Rayner, Tim (2012). Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon. at:
    McMullan, Thomas (2015). What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance? The Guardian, at:
Surveillance and Control
  1. Discussion: No new readings.

3.3 Unit 3: Ethics in a Digital World

In this unit, we think about how we can and should act in a digital world. We think about power relations in the internet, freedom of speech in the time of social media,
Power in the digital world
  1. Readings: Moss, Jeremy (2002). Power and the digital divide. Ethics and Information Technology 4(2): 159–165.
    Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign affairs 90(1): 28–41.
    Journalistic Pieces:
    Simonite, Tom (2017, July 19). AI Could Revolutionize War as Much as Nukes. Wired at:
Ethics of Big Data
  1. Readings: Mittelstadt, Brent & Floridi, Luciano (2016). The Ethics of Big Data: Current and Foreseeable Issues in Biomedical Contexts. Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (2): 303–341.
Free speech
  1. Readings: Fricker, Miranda (2013). Epistemic justice as a condition of political freedom? Synthese 190(7): 1317–1332.
    Fredheim, Rolf; Moore, A. and Naughton, J. (2017). Anonymity and Online Commenting: The Broken Windows Effect and the End of Drive-by Commenting. Proceedings of the ACM Web Science Conference Article No. 11.
Free speech
  1. Discussion: No new readings.
Who creates the problem? How should we deal with it?
  1. Readings: Enoch, D. (2017). The masses and the elites: political philosophy for the age of Brexit, Trump and Netanyahu. Jurisprudence 8(1): 1–22.
Who creates the problem? How should we deal with it?
  1. Discussion: No new readings.

3.4 Unit 4: Epistemology in a Digital World

In this last unit, we think about knowledge and how it might change in a digital world.
  1. Readings: Hills, Alison (2015). Understanding Why. Noûs 49(2): 661–688.
Knowledge and justification in the digital age
  1. Readings: Miller, Boaz & Record, Isaac (2013). Justified Belief in a Digital Age: On the Epistemic Implications of Secret Internet Technologies. Episteme 10(02): 117–134.
    Simpson, Thomas W. (2012). Evaluating Google as an Epistemic Tool. Metaphilosophy 43 (4):426-445.
    Journalistic Piece:
    Optional: Carey, K. (2016, Dec. 29). A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia. The New York Times,
Trusting internet sources
  1. Readings: Frost-Arnold, Karen (2014). Trustworthiness and truth: The epistemic pitfalls of internet accountability. Episteme 11 (1): 63–81.
    Magnus, P. D. (2009). On Trusting Wikipedia. Episteme 6(1): 74–90.
Big data
  1. Readings: Lazer, D., & Radford, J. (2017). Data ex Machina: Introduction to Big Data. Annual Review of Sociology 43: 19–39.
    Journalistic Piece:
    Rennie, John (2017, May 24). Awash in Sea of Data, Ecologists Turn to Open Access Tools. Quanta Magazine at:

Class Requirements, Policies, and Grading

4.1 General Rules & Advice

Office hours: If you have any questions or difficulties with the material, I encourage you to see me in my office during office hours. During office hours I can discuss questions in more depth and I can give you detailed feedback on assignments.
Readings: In order to meet the class objectives it is essential that you read the assigned texts completely and carefully before each meeting and actively participate in classroom discussions. I will introduce material that is not in the readings during class, so attendance at each and every class is essential if you want to do well in the course.
Special Circumstances: If a special condition or circumstance in your life may or will affect your performance, please let me know about it as soon as possible. It will be treated with the strictest confidence. Please do not wait until the condition or circumstance is impending or has already happened before telling me about its impact on you. If something unanticipated occurs, bring it to my attention and we will work out a way of dealing with it.
Assignments: Start your writing assignments early. Writing a philosophy paper takes time. Please consult my “Reading and Writing Philosophy” before you start working on a paper. An excellent set of tips on how to write good philosophy texts is also provided by Prof. Jim Pryor on this webpage: You must keep a copy of all your work—your original submissions as well as graded copies I return to you. According to the calendar (, “students are responsible for the preservation of any material, in its entire and original form, which has been returned to them.” It hence is a good idea to regularly back up your data.
Laptops, phones, tablets, etc.: If you want to use a laptop, phone, tablet or other electronic device in the classroom, you have to sit the last row, so that there are no students behind or beside you who do not use a laptop or the like. New research shows that students who use laptops or phones or iPods and the like in class perform markedly more poorly than others and unfairly diminish the performance of others (see here and here).
Religious or Cultural Holidays: If you celebrate holidays that the university calendar does not accommodate and this creates any kind of conflict with this course, please see me about this at least one month prior to the holiday; I will consider such matters on a case-by-case basis.
Gender Neutral Language & Human Diversity: In addition to all the other reasons for using gender neutral language and language that attends to human diversity, there are philosophical reason for this too. Using gender neutral language in your writing and speaking reminds us that human beings are diverse in gender, that not all of them are “he.” There are different ways of approaching the task of keeping gender and other differences in mind, e.g., substituting “she” where “he” might have traditionally been expected, alternating systematically between the two, using “she/he,” and so on. No formal procedure is entirely adequate to the task, for the task is improving your thinking and that of our culture and future generations, and the form of thinking adequate to this cannot be set in advance. The American Philosophical Association has provided helpful “Guidelines for the Nonsexist Use of Language.” (online at
For other rights and responsibilities, see the Concordia Code of Rights and Responsibilities at:

4.2 Teams

Philosophy is all about arguments. Arguments are best explored in a setting with two opposing parties. To this end, you will work in teams. These teams will stay the same over the entire term.

4.3 Grading and Requirements

The weights of the grade components is as follows:
  1. 10% Moodle  quizzes: Each week after Week 2, there will be a brief Moodle quiz that you must fill out before class on Monday. It will be about the readings for the classes during the week in which it is due, and sometimes the readings of the previous week. The quizzes will go online each Friday. The grades on the quizzes will be available on Moodle.
  2. 10% Classroom activities: this will include, e.g., preparing and presenting arguments in class, presenting questions and comments you have regarding the readings to the class when asked to do so (see the section on teams above), etc.
  3. 25% First paper
  4. 30% Second paper
  5. 25% Final exam
Points can be converted into letter grades according to the following table:
Philosophy Department Grading Policies: In 200 & 300 level courses with over 30 students, it is normally expected that: the grade average will be in the C+ to B- range; there will be no more than 25% As.
Grading Criteria: I lay out my expectations regarding philosophy papers in the document “Reading and Writing Philosophy” that is available on the Moodle page of the course. In a nutshell, paper must be clearly written, well-structured, give illuminating and charitable interpretations and present compelling arguments for a main thesis. With respect to tests and exams, there is usually just one correct answer to questions on test and exams. You get the points for a question just in case you get the answer right. You will get a good grade on classroom activities if you attend each and every class and make thoughtful contributions to the debate that are informed by an appreciation for the details of the texts.
My feedback policies: I strive to grade submission within 2 weeks of submission. If you have not received your grade or feedback after 2 weeks and I haven't addressed this issue, please contact me.
Moodle: Routinely check the Moodle page for posted material and updates. You may also receive grades and feedback via Moodle.
Submission Rules: Assignments must be submitted via Moodle as files in pdf, doc, or dox formate. You can submit papers in English or French. However, it might take longer to grade papers in French, and I (or we) will comment on your paper in English. Concordia's Writing Assistance Program can help you improve your general writing as well as your English language skills.
Policies on late work and policies on early work: For paper assignments or other writing submissions: You lose two thirds of a letter grade each day an assignment is late. When paper assignments do not ask for submission of rough drafts, students sometimes ask me to read rough drafts of their paper anyway, before they submit the paper for grading. I am happy to look at these drafts, and typically will provide feedback on them verbally in a personal meeting in my office. However please keep in mind that I cannot provide thorough or comprehensive feedback on these drafts prior to official grading, because of the sense in which paper assignments are like tests.
Missing Tests and Exams: You will not have the chance to earn grades available on a test or exam if you miss the test or exam, unless you have exceptionally good reasons for missing the test (for example, you have a serious illness for which you consult a doctor), and have informed me of these in advance of the test if possible. If I judge that your reasons are exceptionally good, then the value of the missed test will be rolled into the value of the largest test or exam remaining in the course, where you can “make up the points”, so to speak, by having that test or exam weighted more heavily for you. (So under no circumstances can you write tests that you miss.) If there is a final exam in this class and you miss it, you will be subject to the associated policies in the school’s Academic Calendar.
General remark: I strive to be very clear in my expectations, because I think fairness requires this. Fairness to all people in class also requires that in ordinary circumstances (extraordinary cases are another matter) no one person can have a special extended deadline or write a test at an unusual time. If you foresee difficulty meeting a deadline or scheduled evaluation, please discuss this with me well in advance of the deadline or evaluation. I’m happy to make exceptions to grading policies, but only for what I judge to be exceptionally good reasons.

4.4 Academic Integrity and Plagiarism

The most common offense under the Academic Code of Conduct is plagiarism which the code defines as ”the presentation of the work of another person [an author of a book, a journal, a fellow student, etc.] as one’s own or without proper acknowledgment.”
This could be material copied word by word from books, journals, internet sites, professor's course notes, etc. It could be material that is paraphrased but closely resembles the original source. It could be the work of a fellow student, for example, an answer on a quiz, data for a lab report, a paper or assignment completed by another student. It might be a paper purchased through one of the many available sources. Plagiarism does not refer to words alone—it can also refer to copying images, graphs, tables, and ideas. “Presentation” is not limited to written work. It also includes oral presentations, computer assignments and artistic works. Finally, if you translate the work of another person and do not cite the source, this is also plagiarism. In simple words: Do not copy, paraphrase or translate anything for anywhere without saying from where you obtained it!
The Academic Code of Conduct can be found here: policies /Academic-Code-Conduct-2015.pdf
Please make sure that you comply with it. Help regarding how to cite your sources correctly can be found here:
Plagiarism and academic dishonesty are highly disruptive of the learning that we should be doing here. Should I detect any form of academic dishonesty, including plagiarizing from the internet, from books, journals, other students, etc., I will report it directly to the Vice-Dean of Academic Affairs. The penalties for plagiarism tend to be rather severe, and in any case undermine your learning process. So avoid it. In case of doubt as to what counts at plagiarism, ask me. Cite your sources and inspirations; this enriches your ideas by showing their roots in the thoughts of other people, and does not detract from your exposition, articulation, and development of ideas.

4.5 Special Needs

The Access Center for Students with Disabilities coordinates academic accommodations and services for all eligible students with disabilities. If you have a disability for which you wish to request accommodations and have not contacted the Access Center for Students with Disabilities, please do so as soon as possible. Information about their services can be found at Please contact me privately in regard to your needs in this course.

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