There are potentially two broad sources of fake or false news. The first is propaganda, a deliberate targeted piece of information. The second is poor quality analysis with sloppy thinking and although this is frequently false and dangerous it tends to be at the level of an ill informed opinion rather than directed falsehood. The ‘anti-vaccination’ epidemic started out as a particular doctor’s opinion citing false research into the causes of autism. It has grown into an anti-science denialism cult with lots of ‘copy cat’ attention seekers!
With Propaganda you would have to include the entire industry of marketing as a prominent sub-group. Both marketing and propaganda involve deliberate fashioning of messages to elicit a particular response. There are general standards for marketing in many western societies which can involve penalties to those who step outside the guidelines. The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK is an independent regulator for advertising across all media. They apply the advertising codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP). In the USA a similar role is undertaken by the Federal Trade Commission. To that end ‘marketing’ is the lesser evil with a modicum of legislation and policing. Propaganda is the ‘dark web’ version of marketing.
Propaganda is defined as “information, especially of a biased, misleading or untruthful nature, and is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument, denigrating the alternative arguments, or both”. In warfare it is considered an important weapon of the state. In the modern electronic world it is now pretty much a permanent state of affairs between countries, corporations, political parties, and media outlets. To my knowledge there is no code of practice or legal framework by which the ordinary citizen has redress to items of “propaganda”.
Newspapers were traditionally part of the way the population received their ‘view of the world’ from the 19th century on, and the rise of newspaper moguls influencing substantial elements of society became a key factor of political campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic. The next major technological influencer was the Radio. All the European dictatorships of the 1930’s appreciated it’s power. A single source of national information (good or bad) was so much better than newspapers which had competing stories with no clear national message. The BBC as the State Broadcaster became an extension of the Ministry of Propaganda during the second World War. Given the nature of the enemy that was probably a good thing, but the temptation is always there for a national broadcaster to reflect the views of the government. Television was seen as a much better persuader than Radio, but ultimately, like newspapers the competing stories were not what the State really wanted. In all these forms the laws policing what the Media could publish were very weak, unless governments could cite ‘national security’ as a reason for banning information.
Now we have the Internet. Initially seen as a massive force for ‘democratisation’ and finally providing the common man with equivalence in publishing his opinion, the truth was that people still largely wanted to be ’consumers’ of information not ‘contributors”.
Then there was the growth of my second category of ‘false’ information – poor quality analysis with sloppy thinking, ill researched and with masses of personal bias. Slowly to start with, but eventually the previous ‘information providers’, newspapers and TV, became dominant again. One thing by and large in their favour was their professional staff knew how to research their subjects, so there was a period during which bias was at least no worse than it had been prior to the advent of the internet. Two developments were to totally change the landscape. Firstly the unstoppable nature of the Internet to reach more and more people across the planet with more and more services those people found engaging and personally useful, and secondly the massive sums of money to be made by corporations exploiting this phenomenon. Amazon, E-bay, Alibaba as ’superstores’, Google for information retrieval and marketing, Facebook, Twitter, and a host of platforms monetising ‘people to people’ communication networks. All without any governmental or legal restraints. They claimed, and still claim “we are only platforms or publishers” so are not subject to any legal restrictions!
Enter Artificial Intelligence . AI is still not the “Terminator” and probably not likely to be in the near future! It is the marriage of very fast computers and very clever use of statistical mechanisms. In a lab or university – no problem. What AI really needs is data and masses of it. Interrogation of this data by a suite of ‘applications’ or ‘programs’ (generically referred to as algorithms) gives it the power to drive cars, know what you want to type or say next, recognise your face wherever it ‘sees’ it, and so much more! These large behemoths of world spanning internet corporations have data on every aspect of our lives, and through social media we actually give it to them free of charge. So if a political party or country or special interest group wants to influence us it only needs to pay enough money. “Cambridge Analytica” was the tip of the Iceberg and merely exposed the fact that Facebook already had the data and the capability to manipulate its users.
This has taken “Fake News / False News / Propaganda” to an entirely different level. It has legalised lying. It has enabled societal “date rape” without any recourse for the victims. Despite escalating pressure ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Facebook recently reaffirmed its policy on political ads saying it won’t ban them, won’t fact-check them, and won’t limit how they can be targeted to specific groups of people.
Simple is strong and hatred is power
Why do simple messages containing gross distortions, inaccurate information, racial, sexual or gender hatred get leverage? There are lots of reasons, but I am going to mention four I feel really stand out as behaviours which partly explain our problem :-
- An “in-group” is a social group where you emotionally identify as being a member. By contrast, an “out-group” is a social group with which you do not identify, and can actively dislike its members. We all exhibit these characteristics, but propaganda and political manipulation can intensify and amplify these feelings to an extraordinary and violent extent. Politicians, leaders, newspapers are frequently guilty of this. From Julius Caesar’s ethnic cleansing of a million French Celts in his rise to power, to Nazi Germany’s killing of 6 million Jews, to Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 people from the Tutsi ethnic group were slaughtered in 100 days. These are the moves from disliking “out-groups” to Ethnic cleansing. If you want to know more about this phenomena look up “Jane Elliot” and her Blue Eyes & Brown Eyes Exercise
- The second is “Confirmation Bias” which is the tendency to search for and remember information that confirms or strengthens one’s personal beliefs. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues or deeply-entrenched beliefs.
- “Denialism” , closely related to “Confirmation Bias”, is a choice to deny reality in a way to avoid any uncomfortable truth that does not match with your beliefs. It withholds validation of historical events or scientific evidence when someone refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.
- And finally the “Dunning-Kruger” effect where one’s incompetence in a particular area renders you incapable of detecting your own incompetence, resulting in a false sense of rightness. In many areas of life, incompetent people do not or cannot see just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon known as the “Dunning-Kruger” effect.
So what if we could compare the sources for news?
Actually a lot of these facilities already exist as web sites dedicated to providing a range of news compilations. MSN is Microsoft’s customisable version , and there is a large US based offering provided by NewsCompare. There are RSS feeds also available which offer similar features. Although I like this idea I have some reservations on their ability to help us all assess bias and false news. There is the practical issue of finding the time to read alternatives and the intellectual effort to compare them. The “elephant in the room” however is ourselves, and the cognitive bias we universally possess. I suggest you try the following test. It certainly shocked me. Choose MSN for instance. Which media sources are you choosing to compare? In a very short time you will have identified your own “cognitive biases” but you will not have been better informed! Perhaps it would work better if the selection was on a ’story by story’ basis, or on a ‘topic basis’ where the origin of the article was ‘blinded” and your prejudices were not immediately switched on.
I now quote from the “Joint Research Centre’s Digital Economy Working Paper 2018 ” which is the EU’s report specifically on the digital transformation of news media and the rise of disinformation and fake news.
“A defining feature of these online news platforms is the separation of roles of news production (the editor) and distribution (the curator). Editors retain control over the content of articles but lose control over the curation or selection of articles that effectively reach potential readers. Algorithm-driven platforms mix articles from different publishers and rank them according to popularity criteria, often with a view to maximise traffic and advertising revenue. What readers see does not only depend on their preferred news sources but also on the preferences of close friends in social networks and many others. These spill-over effects help readers to get out of their “echo chambers” and widen their news horizon. On the other hand, it may confront them with news content that they dislike or distrust. Online algorithmic distribution blurs the branding efforts of newspaper editors and weakens their trusted intermediary relationship with readers. False news producers may deliberately game the network features of social media and ranking algorithms in order to reach unsuspecting consumers. They may also use targeted advertising mechanisms to propagate their messages. It is not so much the shift from offline to online distribution that has led to quality concerns in news but rather the shift from direct access to newspapers to indirect algorithm-driven distribution of news.”
Without reading it all here are some of the recommendations:
- News media need to differentiate more from information that has not gone through professional checking and do a better job in separating facts from opinion
- Media should be more representative – in terms of age, politics, economic outlook, and gender – rather than only looking after the interests of the establishment.
- Media platforms should consider signalling the quality and origin of content, improving the branding of trusted brands, and taking steps to reduce the speed with which extreme or disputed content can spread through the network.
Honesty is complicated
I have a series of questions for which I don’t have simple answers, so I will have to leave them hanging for further discussion. That discussion has to be across all of society, social groups and families.
- Do we think ‘political parties’ will ever vote for laws to restrict the power they can wield through the use of such a marvellous tool? It is hard to see any of this being implemented without legislation or without a relatively liberal administration that does not itself benefit from an unregulated media.
- Do we have to define truth in order to recognise falsehood? Is this even possible?
- How do you convince anyone to follow a rational argument ?
The final point I want to make is a matter of trust. In our own day to day lives and from our own life experience we do determine who we trust and who we don’t, what we find acceptable and what we don’t. We do so by constantly talking to those we do trust and seeking advice on a wide range of issues. We also realise we don’t have to accept advice, but it is important that we have alternative points of view. Even if we have a problem with lack of knowledge we do in our own way seek to understand by finding a number of alternatives from which we arrive at a personal opinion.
I have come to the conclusion it is often the ‘branding’ of ideas – from newspapers, celebrities, the church, or longstanding institutions, which distorts our view of the world. Known as “Authority bias” it is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority organisation or figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion. This concept is considered a major collective cognitive bias.
Ultimately we must all educate ourselves to the defectiveness of our own biases, and how by acknowledging that deficit – our own perception of the world becomes clearer and more honest. So incessant education is key – as is honesty! The honesty to keep on calling out the perpetrators of lies and disinformation.