Select Page

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INFORMATION DISORDER

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INFORMATION DISORDER

Allan Maynard – January 17 2021

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Historian Timothy Snyder in his 2017 book, On Tyranny. 

“If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that ‘two and two are five’—well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs …” George Orwell – the essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (1943)

There has been a proliferation of publications on false news over the past 4 years – books, articles in journals and of course the media. Both of these were published in 2017.

On January 6, 2021, the world watched in disbelief as the US Capitol Building was stormed by an angry mob of Trump supporters.  Many were armed, some chanted ‘Hang Pence’, some carried confederate flags, and some carried ‘Jesus Saves’ signs. These despicable events marked the culmination of 4 years of an administration steeped in misinformation and disinformation (see definitions below). That the president lied on a daily basis never seemed to bother his supporters or members of his own party. In fact – 126 Republicans joined a frivolous Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the results of the election in four states. It’s little wonder that most  (or all?) in that angry mob truly believed the great lie that the November presidential election was rigged. 

Being a strong adherent to evidence-based decision-making, I have, for the past 4 years, been dismayed at the appalling degree of acute dishonesty of the Trump administration. The consequences of such dishonesty and denialisim became ever so clear as we witnessed the epic and totally tragic failures of the administration’s response to the CoVid pandemic (see my April blog – in references). Recommended viewing on this matter – “Totally Under Control” now available in Prime. 

And then came January 6 – with an assault on American democracy. 

How did it come to this? Why is lying tolerated? Why does it seem to work politically? Why are some of the wackiest of conspiracy theories so widely believed? We know lying and obfuscation are prevalent in countries without a free press. But it should not be so pervasive in democratic nations. 

I understand that millions feel left behind in the new global economy. This can lead to bitterness about people’s prospects and even lead to ‘tribes’ pitted against each other. Perhaps many are grasping for any kind of messaging that may provide simple solutions to highly complex problems that are so very difficult to fully grasp.  Lies just might fill that need. 

I am not a historian, a political scientist or a psychologist, but I have certainly been curious about how information disorder can be used as a political tool. It’s amazing how much information is available on this topic and how it has proliferated since 2016. I have done my best to summarize what I have learned. 

THE NOMENCLATURE OF DISHONESTY

We all grow up with many harmless untruths – from tooth fairy to common myths such as believing we could drown if we go in swimming less than one hour after eating. To help understand the current information disorder it is helpful to identify certain terms.

Common misconceptions (longstanding myths) – these are common myths that can be promulgated over and over without any kind of danger – examples – humans only use 10% of their brains/shaving makes hair grow back faster and thicker/we need to drink 8 glasses of water each day to stay hydrated/bulls get angry when they see red. Reference below.

Urban myths (or urban legends) – can be told with conviction — such as the disappearing hitchhiker / theHookman, a mass murderer with a hook in place of a hand. 

Categorizing lies – white / blue / black. Some psychologists  (Scientific American – How the Science of Blue Lies May Explain Trump’s Support) categorize lies as ‘white lies’ that are generous (I like your shirt even if you don’t),  ‘blue lies’—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen bonds among the members of that group, and ‘black lies’ which are selfish and only benefit the lying individual.  The researchers suggest that politicians enabling Trump did not call out his lies because they saw those lies as useful weapons in a tribal us-against-them competition. 

Misinformation vs. disinformation – The most common way of categorizing untruths is well presented in a paper by Clare Wardle in Scientific American entitled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder” The following schematic is from this article.

Denialism – is defined as the psychology of human behaviour to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. When someone is told they have cancer, the initial response can be denial. That can be dangerous for that individual if treatment is delayed. It is much more serious for society if denial is on a grander scale as was the deadly and tragic case for many countries in responding to the CoVid pandemic. Also dangerous is when denial is weaponized such as the cases of industry spending vast sums to combat scientific findings that affect their economic futures. Well-documented examples of organized and well-funded denial — the health risks from smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change.

Cherry picking – is suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of using incomplete data to falsely confirm a particular position, while at the same time ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. This approach of only using selected data is widely used by those attempting to deny inconvenient science such as climate change. This is well covered in the book “Merchants of Doubt” – see references.  

Conspiracy theories – are dangerous. In fact some of the most horrific events in history  (the Holocaust, The Rwanda massacre to name only two) were grounded on conspiracy theories. The dictionary definition – ‘a conspiracy is a secret plot or agreement between two or more parties for an illegal or dishonest purpose’. Many conspiracy theories are eye rolling and generally ignored or easily disproved.  An example was the claim that the current pandemic is really caused by the rollout of 5G (high speed -5th Generation Cellular) networks around the world.  More dangerous is the rhetoric linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Trump is fighting a secret war against a powerful network of elite pedophiles. Even more dangerous is the anti-vaccination movement based on a fundamentally flawed study that claimed vaccines cause autism.  And – it would take a full text-book to describe the myriad of conspiracy theories about the CoVid pandemic.  See – My Blog – May 2018 – in references.

DOES SCIENCE HELP UNDERSTAND LYING?

There are many studies within academia that can help us understand more about lying – why it’s done and how it can be successful politically. Below is a summary of only a few of these studies. 

1. A 2016 study published in the journal ‘Nature Neuroscience’, showed how dishonesty alters people’s brains, making it easier to tell lies in the future. Not only that, but when people faced no consequences for the dishonesty or, even better, are rewarded somehow, their falsehoods tended to get more sensational. The conclusion – the more people lie and get away with it – the more they will continue to lie.

2. Fake news spreads 7 times more widely (and faster) than true news, according to a study examining 126,000 news items circulated among 3 million twitter users. Untrue ‘news’ is as old as gossip, but its proliferation has become particularly troubling in the era of social media. False stories are amplified on Facebook and Twitter. The false post that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US presidency was shared over 1 million times. 

3. The Big Lie – Joseph Goebbels – minister of propaganda for the Nazi German government of the Third Reich, understood the power of repeating falsehoods. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This phenomenon, pervasive in contemporary politics, advertising, and social media, is known in cognitive psychology as the “illusory truth effect” Studies have confirmed that lies repeated over and over will eventually be believed. The facts don’t actually matter. In my view – this is how Donald Trump managed to convince millions of voters that the election was stolen. 

SOCIAL MEDIA  – FALSEHOODS SPREAD RAPIDLY 

Computer processing power has increased a staggering 1 trillion times between the early 80s and now. The companies at the core of the social media revolution — Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like — have used the vast amounts of data they harvest about our preferences and behaviours to create an emotional environment that tends to pull us apart and make us dumber. These companies get more eyeballs on their sites and clicks on their links — and so generate more revenue — by creating an addictive information environment of constant cognitive and emotional stimulus, and among the emotions that work best are outrage and (social) anxiety. With powerful algorithms, the social media platforms can totally control what we see – and also what we will not see based on users’ profiles. Our attention is mined like an extractable resource. Democracy is now for sale.

To obtain a clear understanding of the universe of the proliferation of false information, I highly recommend the Netflix show – “Social Dilemma”. 

Bots, which are automated programs that masquerade as people, tend to be particularly good for spreading massive numbers of highly emotional messages with little informational content. Think here of a message with the image of Hillary Clinton behind bars and the words “Lock Her Up!” That kind of message will spread rapidly within the echo chambers populated by those who already agree with the basic sentiment. Bots have considerable power to inflame people who are already like-minded, though they can be easier to detect and block than trolls. The US Justice Department concluded that bots were widely employed by Russia during the 2016 election campaign. (see link to report in References).

By contrast, trolls are typically real people who spread provocative stories and memes. Trolls can be better at persuading people who are less convinced and want more information. Troll information can nonetheless spread just as widely as bots.

In both cases – social media has become a reliable tool of persuasion. This can be good thing when used, for example, to persuade people to do their part in controlling a pandemic. It can be a bad thing when millions are lead to believe the 2020 election was rigged. 

WE NEED A SHARED VISION OF REALITY

It is clear to me that the current state of information disorder is a significant threat to science, progress and to democracy itself. Some strong, bipartisan measures are needed to start rectifying this. 

Firstly – Social Media companies must step up their game and get better at flagging misinformation and disinformation. It would seem this is starting to occur but more needs to be done. Social media companies have the technology, but granted it’s a tightrope initiative in that free speech also needs to be protected. 

Secondly, politicians need to lead and call out lies and not fear how their so-called base (left or right leaning) would react. Voters need to hear the truth even if it’s not favourable to their ideologies and world-views. 

Thirdly – young people, who are the biggest users of social media, need to receive more education on the dangers of false information, how to assess fact from fiction and how to recognize proper journalism. 

Finally – we need to become more responsible in what we decide to read and especially share via email, Facebook, twitter and other ways of communicating. We need to refuse to let Facebook, Google and other platforms be in charge of our newsfeed. With the Internet there are many options that each reader can explore to get world news and a variety of opinions.  It is not difficult to venture away from news bubbles. Good journalism is more vital than ever. See reference below –“What is good journalism?”

Fact checking sites are useful. Of course it is fair to question the reliability of fact check articles. I find however, that these articles contain sources and references with links to official sites – such as NOAA. Also – fact check sites must be truthful to maintain their integrity. In the references section there are 2 articles on fact checking sites – including MBFC (Media Bias Fact Check) – a site that reports on the bias of fact-checking websites like Snopes and PolitiFact and also publishes a daily source bias check. Factors that they consider include sourcing, biased wording, story choices, and political affiliation.

Society is facing many highly complex issues and even existential threats. Millions feel let down or even totally neglected within the global economy. These problems can only be tackled by cooperation and a fact based starting point but also acknowledging differences in worldview visions. Wilful ignorance is not an option. We need to start from a shared vision of reality. 

REFERENCES – I have provided some links if people are interested. I can’t guarantee they will take readers directly to the article. It may require a Google search using the title. 

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – By Timothy Snyder, 2017

DENIAL DELAY DEADLY

The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19 –

New York Times – March 2020

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/10/totally-under-control-essential-pandemic-documentary/616729/ – this is a review of the documentary called “Totally Under Control” comparing the US and South Korea response to the corona virus.

https://bestlifeonline.com/common-myths/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_urban_legends

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_the_science_of_lying_explain_trumps_support

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/how-the-science-of-blue-lies-may-explain-trumps-support/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/misinformation-has-created-a-new-world-disorder/

COVID 19 – MYTHS LIES AND PROFOUND BULLSHIT

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02934-x

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/dont-believe-lies-just-people-repeat/

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/i-heard-it-before-so-it-must-be-true/

Here is a link to the US Justice Dept report on Russian interference.

https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf
https://guides.lib.berkeley.edu/c.php?g=620677&p=4333407

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-fact-checking1/

https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/true-5-factchecking-websites/

Also worth watching – a CBC documentary about the anti-vaccination movement. It shows how impervious people can be to evidence.

https://www.cbc.ca/passionateeye/episodes/vaccine-wars

https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/

“ Merchants of Doubt “ – N. Oreskes and E Conway – Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

WHEN SCIENCE BECOMES INCONVENIENT

By Allan Maynard, MSc.                                  

December 2019

In April of 2019, scientists accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible, capturing an image of a black hole’s silhouette – a black hole that was thousands of light years from planet Earth. It was a stunning discovery that most people could not even comprehend. Yet it was generally accepted. Often however, science will reveal a truth that causes humanity great discomfort. What do we do when discoveries go beyond a ‘wow’ moment and force us to reexamine what we have become used to or even the way we live?

The benefits of science have become so ubiquitous that we can fall prey to taking these amazing advances for granted. Globally, life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Communication is now almost instantaneous. Many killer diseases, such as smallpox, which killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone, have been eradicated. We can identify sub-atomic particles and simultaneously understand vastness; that our planet revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy that is one of a hundred billion galaxies in the universe.  

Even within our day-to-day routines we benefit constantly from the advances of science – our morning hot coffee, our transportation to and from work, our ability to communicate and be entertained at concerts or watching live streamed movies in our living rooms.  Our lives are convenient and improving because of advances in science. 

Despite the obvious advantages science is providing, there can be selective skepticism and even distain of some scientific discoveries.  For example, fluoride is not added to most water supplies in Canada despite overwhelming evidence as to its safety and obvious benefits for dental health. Referendums have been carried out in many cities, with plans to fluoridate defeated by wide margins. The voters simply did not believe what the science concluded. Why?

In recent years a more dangerous skepticism has emerged – an unwarranted fear of vaccinations. Social media sites and web pages are rife with vaccine myths and conspiracy theories designed to mislead parents and scare them away from vaccinating their children. This, in spite of the fact that few scientific advances have had as much impact on public health as vaccines. Before widespread vaccination, diseases like polio, smallpox, diphtheria and whooping cough killed thousands of people a year. Those who survived were sometimes left with lifelong disabilities. The most recent myth is that the vaccine for measles and mumps causes autism. This fear originated from a now widely discredited research paper published in 1998. The paper was based on a weak study of only 12 subjects. However, over the next two decades, multiple studies looking at hundreds of thousands of cases show vaccines do not increase a child’s risk of autism even when the child is at an increased risk of autism already. And yet, despite such overwhelming evidence, vaccination rates are down and measles cases are on the rise. How can this be rationalized? 

There’s no doubt that we live in a bewildering world and we have to decide what to believe and what not to believe. And that does not come naturally to us. Consider the case of Galileo in the early 17th century when he proclaimed that the earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun. This was heresy. He was rejecting the doctrine of the church but also asking people of the day to believe something they could not see. A person standing on the famous bridge in Florence (Ponte Vecchio) could observe the sun seemingly moving around the earth. Moreover, that is precisely what he or she would have been told by the church leaders. Galileo’s findings were abhorrent to the church and he was put on trial and forced to recant. His students though, had the last word. After his death, Galileo’s finger was removed and pickled for eternity. Today the middle finger sits in a small glass egg among lodestones and telescopes, the only human fragment in a museum devoted entirely to scientific instruments. The middle finger points upwards to the sky, eternally defiant to the church that condemned him.

With the case of Galileo – and indeed Charles Darwin who followed centuries later, the science was very inconvenient. It upended the beliefs of the day. In the last number of decades, science information is upending more that just beliefs – it is upending many of the pillars of our economy. The tobacco industry is a multi-billion dollar (over 600 billion) global enterprise. It is thus not at all surprising that the industry would fight hard against the scientific evidence that linked cigarette smoking to health issues such as lung cancer and heart disease. Confronted by compelling peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry, beginning in the 1950s, used sophisticated public relations approaches to undermine and distort the emerging science. The industry campaign worked to create the appearance of a scientific controversy. The main thrust was to create doubt by countering the science with junk science that seemed, at least to the general public, to be plausible.  The public relations firms hired by the industry did not have to prove that smoking was harmless nor disprove the peer-reviewed science about the health risks. They only had to create doubt. And it worked for almost 2 decades. This strategy of producing scientific uncertainty undercut public health efforts and regulatory interventions designed to reduce the harms of smoking. 

In her book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes coined the term “The Tobacco Strategy”, referencing the strategy employed by the tobacco industry aimed at stopping or at least delaying any regulation on sales or consumption of cigarettes. The “Tobacco Strategy” is for “maintaining the controversy” and “keeping the debate alive”. It doesn’t matter if there really is an argument going on or not. All that matters is for people to have that impression.

This strategy has been adopted in many other situations when scientific evidence becomes inconvenient and upends multi-billion dollar industries. It is not convenient for the National Football League to accept the link between head injuries and the incidence to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It is not convenient for ‘Big Sugar’ to accept the link between diabetes to the over consumption of sugar.  It has not been convenient to the marine industry to be forced to face the truth about industrial fishing methods depleting fish stocks worldwide. In these and other cases, the status quo was in jeopardy and denial strategies were put in place. 

For the fossil fuel industry, climate change denial is a multi-million dollar endeavour. After all, trillions of dollars of assets will have to be left in the ground as the world moves towards renewable energy and away from energy based on fossil fuels. It is well documented that the public relations firms used to undermine climate change science are the same kinds of companies (along with their so-called ‘scientists’) that were hired to deny the truth linking lung cancer to cigarettes, industrial discharge to acid rain and CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) to ozone depletion.  In these cases they have been soundly proven wrong and they are in the process of being proven wrong about climate change.  They fight science with junk-science but their message sticks. The denial reports, even though wrong, become the salvation for politicians who lack the courage to confront the global warming threat, or even worse must bow to the wishes of mega-donors. This seems to especially be the case now in the United States where climate change denial is higher than any in any other developed country. No wonder the president was able to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord with barely a whimper (along with some alarming praise) from members of the Republican Party. 

The well-funded obfuscation of science represents a unique challenge for communicating scientific consensus that upends important economic engines. Scientists are not uniquely trained in this way; the signature practices include detailed research, double-blind studies when needed, peer review and publication. Most are not prepared to have to fight against well-funded think tanks or have to convince politicians who simply don’t want, or even worse are not able to deal with, the truth. 

“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced and yet agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in science communication. His and other groups have been increasingly studying science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. Language and how the topic is framed can make a big difference. It is also important to understand the audience and ensure that people’s values are not unduly attacked. Certainly it is important to use all available communication tools – especially social media to influence knowledge and belief. Moreover – emphasis away from the negative aspects and towards the positive is vital. For instance, studies show that, in tackling climate change, co-benefits such as reducing deaths from air pollution and boosting technological innovation may lower the net costs of climate action to zero or even lead to a net economic benefit rather than a cost, studies show.

In looking back at many of the issues now being resolved – especially with success stories such as the fight to save the ozone layer, it is clear that the truth does and will win out in the end. It takes time and the need to develop effective strategies to communicate inconvenient science.