The Web of Fake News

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” –Sir Walter Scott1808.

The science of knowledge and justifiable beliefs is known as epistemology. I mention this because day to day, we largely and necessarily operate without deference to justifiable belief or knowledge in order to make quick decisions regarding choices we need to make to get through our lives. In psychology, this is known as Heuristics.

The problem is how we get information and how we process it. The vast majority of knowledge we collect is second, third or fourth hand, at the very best. There are four sources of knowledge. Senses, Authority, Reason and Intuition.

Here are the problems. We trust our senses, but they can be faulty. We can take information in incorrectly and we can interpret it poorly.  Authority is acceptance of information from others- people to institutions, who we believe (often without a second thought) have ‘authoritative knowledge’. All of this information is second hand at best.

All historical knowledge is basically hearsay that may or may not have been documented at some point. Reason is our ability to sort through data logically to test the veracity of an argument or problem. Reason, of course, requires the data being considered to be true.

Intuition is not mystical. It’s our brain’s ability to quickly decide based on past experience or inbuilt rules, such as distance, perspective, whether to trust someone or not or how to solve a simple math problem. (2+2) where the process of solving them has become subliminal requires no or little conscious thought and the answer seems to appear in the front of mind effortlessly.

That is, we have no direct experience of the event or subject ourselves and are relying on the source as to the veracity of that data. We accept information from ‘trusted’ sources around us. Parents, Friends, family, schools, churches, groups, work colleagues, TV, news sources and even the internet.

Many studies have shown we weigh information from people we know much more heavily than from other sources when it is the least likely source of reliable data.

The question is, where did those sources source their information, have we weighted and processed it correctly?

We all know the game we played as kids where a sentence is repeated down a line of friends and is repeated by each child. (Telephone or Chinese whispers) By the end of the line, the words and meaning are typically somewhere between slightly different and completely corrupted.

In addition, we filter information to confirm or deny a position we already hold (political, religious, personal, and so forth) which means their retelling will suit our views; either via omission or alteration. We hear what we like and repeat what we want others to hear. We forget that which we don’t want to know.

We’re also attracted more to shock, scandal and rumour, and far less likely to question the sources of those statements than those that are based in fact. Many people accept the (largely spurious) idea that factual statements are controlled by the government, big business or unscrupulous individuals. Paradoxically, those attempting to enter the discussion with facts – often experts such as scientists, specialists or the people/organisation in question- are often loudly discredited and even vilified, further compounding the propagation of false news and the noise in these online echo-chambers.

Recent research highlights how people are four times more likely to retweet fake news than real, fact-checked news. That’s because we enjoy shock and surprise. In addition, fake stories are more likely to come from unverified accounts, new websites and new unverified profiles.

What do you actually know as a result of first hand and direct experience? Like all of us, very little. And those things that you are sure about (your job, skills, certain events, special interests) you often find yourself in conflict with other people over, because they have “heard” something different-  from a less or ill-informed colleague, friend, relative and increasingly, the internet.

Social Media and corners of the web have become a bell-jar of half-truths, conspiracy, rumour and plain old falsehoods, with the odd verified fact thrown in just to keep us on our toes.  If each person publishing their opinions on the internet had to verify their information and sources first hand, it would be a very quiet place. Instead, content is king and search engine and social media companies intentionally or unintentionally rely on rumour, conspiracy and allegations to keep their businesses relevant. ‘Meme’s’ spread like viruses and even when the idea or value is good, the nuance diminished or erased by oversimplification.

It all works because it panders to what an what we want or need to believe. If it resonates with us, confirms our ideas, fears or suspicions, we’re more likely to click on it and pass it along to someone else.

The internet is also a place of low or no consequence.

These days, you can say what you like with little fear of consequence across the world or to the person down the road you have never met. Worse still, there are many websites that encourage people to trash individuals and companies that operate with the ethos that unimpeded free speech is good, even if what is being said is bad and completely wrong.

Some folks use the internet like some people use the road- with rage, cutting people off and racing.

Google, which is simply a behemoth website returning links to other websites with results you are looking for does not favour truth or fiction. As the number one website in the world, all roads from it.

Arguably, however, their search algorithm encourages a proliferation of useless content as people and companies fight to dominate its search results and to discourage negative commentary from competitors or customers.

Not everyone has honourable intentions and in a world driven by profit, content is about altering the perceptions of those looking for quick answers. Google republishes content from other websites in the form of ‘snippets’. It can’t control those snippets, but whether they are true or false, Google will fight at all costs “takedown notices’ from parties that are affected. The do-no-evil corporation believes in free speech at any cost, provided it is not theirs.

Facebook, which is (effectively) the number 2 website in the world, suffers from a similar problem, made worse by its like and sharing features. Facebook is the ultimate “telephone” game, with people sharing memes and stories from often questionable sources that are then filtered and reinterpreted a thousandfold.

We only share and click on what interests us. What interests us is what confirms our worldview. That is why it has been referred to disparagingly as an echo-chamber.

 

Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn,and she has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy… .    Thomas Francklin

 

The moral of this story is that while the internet is a powerful way for humans to share knowledge and ideas and it has made the world smaller and more accessible, there are perils.

You need to have your critical thinking fired up. You can’t unsee or unread something. Once we’ve taken in some information about someone or something, that flavours our perceptions no matter what the actual truth is and it can take a long time, or perhaps never, for the truth to be found.

Used wisely, the web is a marvellous tool. In the hands of fools, it is a web of deceits they find themselves caught in and consumed by.

 

 

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