Jan 05 2017

The Misinformation Wars

As we collectively try to climb out of the smouldering rubble that was “the truth” in 2016 (by which I mean basic intellectual integrity), many people are speculating and trying to wrap their brain around what exactly is happening. Of course, the arbitrary transition to a new calendar year changes nothing. We are still living in the same world that produced the 2016 election.

Many writers have characterized what happened as the “weaponization” of bullshit or misinformation. This is not entirely new, but it did seem to reach new heights, or to cross over some fuzzy threshold to a new level or prominence. The “weaponized” meme is also mainstream; Donna Brazile, for example, is saying that the hacked DNC e-mails were “weaponized” against them.

The two other similar memes that emerged this past year were “post truth” and “fake news.” These were added to older notions of “echochambers” or the fact that many people are living in information bubbles (whether they know it or not).

I think all of these concepts are essentially correct. We are in the midst of a misinformation war (actually many wars on many fronts). Unfortunately, it seems that the side which includes the mainstream media, the experts that provide them with information and analysis, professional journalists and academics, is losing. They are losing primarily because they have not yet adapted to the new battleground – social media. They are like the British fighting in neat rows with their visible red uniforms, while the rebels fire at them concealed behind trees and stone walls.

I also reject the false equivalency that argues that all of this is nothing new, that all news is “fake”, that all politicians lie. The false equivalency argument was just one more bit of misinformation weaponized against the truth. It was used as a shield against proof of lying or spreading misinformation.

The mainstream media tried to counter the offensive with what they thought was their secret weapon – fact checkers. Like generals fighting the last war rather than the war they are in, they naively thought that facts still mattered. Don’t get me wrong, fact checking is critically important. It simply had no real effect in the misinformation wars. The armies of alternative reality just eliminated the fact checkers, arguing that they were just another manifestation of bias and information control.

In the same way, they just turned around the “fake news” moniker, and labeled any news outlet they disagreed with as “fake.” They instantly watered down the meaning of “fake news” until it was worthless.

This process is all-too-clear to experienced skeptics. This is the mindset of the conspiracy theorist. The central problem with conspiracy thinking is that it is self-contained, immune from external reality. Any information can be made to seem as if it supports the conspiracy. Any missing information is being suppressed by the conspiracy, and any evidence against the conspiracy was manufactured and is therefore proof of the conspiracy. If you disagree, you are a dupe, or you are part of the conspiracy.

This mental trap has always existed in the human mind, but now there is an actual infrastructure of information that caters to it, reinforces it, and solidifies it. It is not only the pathologically delusional that can fall into this trap. Now anyone who wanders even a little into the badlands can be consumed by it.

Heeding the call to “know thine enemy,” Simon van Zuylen-Wood decided to live a few weeks within the alt-right echochamber on Twitter. It’s an interesting read, which demonstrates how far the echochambers of fake news have gone. They are truly living in a fully constructed alternative reality. In that world the Clintons are part of a pedophile sex ring working out of a pizza shop in DC. Aleppo is now under the control of the rebels, and Vladimir Putin is a great guy, while there is a ring of ISIS training camps surrounding DC.

I have people in my personal life who are living in this world. It is truly frightening and depressing. They are operating from an entirely different set of facts, and there is no bridge between us. I always try to find common ground as a basis for discussion, but I struggle to find it here. We cannot even agree on basic facts, or how to determine what they are. Now any resource I offer to set the record straight is “fake news.” They have stolen the weapons of the enemy and turned them around.

Several times recently I have been asked what the solution is. What is the path forward? I honestly don’t know. Of course I will continue to plug away at the long term solution, education in critical thinking. We definitely need to prioritize the teaching of critical thinking, how to assess sources, how to avoid logical traps like conspiracy thinking, and how to survive in the wild west of social media.

Meanwhile there is no quick fix for the situation we are in. The mainstream media, frankly, seems feckless. Look how easily they were manipulated (and continue to be so) by a reality TV star.

The mainstream media can clean up their act, and that can help. They fueled the “false equivalency” narrative with their usual level of bias and lazy habit of following the pre-digested narrative of the day. The deficiencies of the media do not justify the onslaught of fake news, but it facilitated it. Higher standards of everyday journalism would help.

One problem, however, is that there is an inherent tactical advantage to not caring about the truth at all. The truth is constraining, and if you are free to make up whatever bullshit serves your narrative, this will make you more nimble in the misinformation wars. It is as if one side is using biological and chemical weapons while the other side is limiting itself to conventional weapons and the Geneva Convention.

This is the problem to which I cannot find a solution. The inherent problem is that it is critically important for society to be free and for the media and speech to be free. How do we simultaneously defend free speech while opposing the abuse of that speech to spread targeted misinformation? The usual answer is, to use your own free speech to spread accurate information. But that just gets us back to the fundamental asymmetry.

To quote Winston Churchill: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

There is also the principle that it takes an order of magnitude more time to correct a misconception than to create it.

I see no way around the fact that it will simply take a herculean effort on the part of those who care about things like intellectual integrity to counter the weaponized bullshit. I guess we need to dig in for a long war.


116 responses so far