Thursday, 8 March 2018

Gimme some truth(iness).

"I'm sick and tired of hearing things from uptight short sighted narrow minded hypocrites. All I want is the truth, just give me some truth. I've had enough of reading things by neurotic psychotic pig-headed politicians. All I want is the truth, just give me some truth".

When John Lennon released the song 'Gimme Some Truth' back in 1971, Donald Trump was a 25 year old real estate dealer in New York and Cincinnati (it was two years before Trump and his father would be investigated by the Justice Department for discriminating against African-Americans and a full forty-five before the man who's been responsible for bankrupting six different businesses would become the 45th president of America) and Boris Johnson was just a seven year old school boy being raised by au pairs and blooded into the fox hunting circuit.

So, lying (or bullshitting) is not a new thing by any stretch of the mark. What is 'propaganda' if not just a semantic diversion to cover up untruth? The euphemisms for lying these days are as legion as they are legendary. 'Post-truth', 'fake news', 'alternative facts', we've heard them all regularly and that's not stopping any time soon. The Oxford English Dictionary made post-truth its word of the year for 2016 and a brace was secured when OED followed it up, in 2017, by announcing that fake news (surely two words?) had secured the same distinction.

A comprehensive study of the world's periodicals and newspapers show, unsurprisingly, that the popularity, and use of words like post-fact and post-truth has exploded since 2016. What's happened to cause that? Should we be more, or less, concerned than we are? What can we do to counter it? These were the themes of Professor Stephan Lewandowsky's Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub talk, 'Beyond misinformation: Parallel universes in a post-truth world' and if the premise sounded a little dry, possibly even a case of going over ground already covered elsewhere more than once it proved anything but.

Lewandowsky was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker, he took time out to listen and debate when people had questions, and he managed, somehow, to find a new way of framing an investigation into what seems, at times, to be an utterly inescapable flood of bullshit coming at us from all directions. He even had a couple of suggestions as to what we can do about it that I'd not heard before and seemed potentially workable. Potentially!

In an impartial analysis of statements and claims made in the US presidential race of 2016 (the talk was very heavy on American politics, Lewandowsky is Australian himself, and now a British citizen, but the fact that the US is such a 'data rich' society made it the most obvious place to do the research) it was found that Hillary Clinton (below, just about to lead off in the Dolly Parton role of Islands in the Stream) spoke the full truth just over 50% of the time - and if you allow for half-truths that rises to 67%. That sounds pretty terrible when, for as long as I can remember, you factor in that people, and not just John Lennon, have been demanding truth from politicians.

That starts to look like a very different number, and a much higher percentage, when you factor in that under the same guidelines the researchers found that, of all Donald Trump's announcements in the campaign, just 3% were true. Half-truths bring that figure up just shy of 30% so it could be proven, beyond any doubt, that 70% of the things Donald Trump said were out and out lies. Not different opinions. Big fat orange faced lies.

He's not stopped during his presidency either. Independent observers have noted that, on average, he tells five demonstrable lies in an official capacity each day,  meaning that so far the number of lies he's told as POTUS has gone beyond one thousand and continue to rise by somewhere between one hundred and two hundred a week.

These lies have, of course, neither seen him lose his job nor have they so much as dented his approval ratings among Republican voters, specifically his 'base'. When Trump supporters were shown a study that corrected Trump's lies and affirmed his rare truthful statements, many of them were prepared to admit that they accepted he'd been lying even if in a week's time most of them had decided that, nah, it was probably true anyway. If he was lying or not that made no difference whatsoever to people's voting intentions. He may be a liar, the Republicans seemed to be saying, but he's our liar.

Confirmation bias works on both sides (I've heard blinkered Jeremy Corbyn fans refuse to face uncomfortable truths) and this has contributed in no little way to creating the polarised societies many of us in the West now live in. But it's worth bearing in mind that this is an asymmetrical polarisation. Studies show that the Democrat position on most issues has barely budged in decades whilst the Republicans have shifted further and further to the right to the point where, at the moment, some of their beliefs are utterly terrifying.

Conservative political commentator, and textbook 'shock jock', Rush Limbaugh talks about the 'four corners of deceit' (something he handily demonstrates using that famous four cornered shape, the circle) which are, to him and his followers,:-





This pernicious influence has seeped into American discourse to the point that in recent polling Republican voters have, by a two-to-one margin, expressed a belief that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Like the rise of 'post-truth' and 'fake news' this is something that's happened in the last two years, the Trump years.

The right wing press have called protesting students at the school massacres in Parkland (where seventeen people were murdered on Valentine's Day this year) 'crisis actors', as they did in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 (28 dead in that one). The idea is that the shooting didn't happen and it's a ploy by gun control supporters to hoodwink the general public into supporting them. The 'actors' are stooges in the pay of some shady, ill defined, organisation that seeks to prevent American people from having the right to blow each other's brains out when and if they fancy it. In some of the most extreme cases (as if this whole shit isn't extreme enough) it's been suggested that the supposed victims are being hidden on a Martian colony operated by Barack Obama. That's a genuine thing that some Americans believe.

So we're not just dealing in 'alternative facts' but 'alternative realities'. With the rise of the Internet and the dominance of the tech giants of Facebook, Twitter, and Google presidential candidates in the US (and parliamentary candidates here and elsewhere) have realised there's no longer any point in trying to sway a floating voter when you can sure up your base, energise some people from the lunatic fringe who'd perhaps not voted before because they thought all governments were the same, and win. Remember Essex Man and Mondeo Man in the nineties? Those average guys, the squeezed middle, the people who lived in the constituencies that the 'big beasts' of government would travel to in the run up to elections to try and gain their vote. You don't hear about them anymore, do you? They've gone. They don't matter. Politicians now play to the extremes to the extent, in the case of the Conservative party at the moment, of taking on the disastrous, unthought through policies of a bunch of far right nutjobs like UKIP.

How did we come to live in a world where Kellyanne Conway's 'alternative facts' and Katie Hopkins' belief that there is no such thing as an objective reality (when her assertion that a car crash was a terrorist incident was proved false, she continued with it) are given equal, more, air time than cold hard, rational analysis?

Distrust of politicians is a big one. From George W Bush and Tony Blair's WMDs (which was a lie) to Obama lying about being born in the USA (Barack Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961 but Trump couldn't believe that a black man with the middle name Hussein could possibly be a 'real' American) via expenses scandals, affairs, and cash for questions. People had long had enough of politicians or the 'elite' as lazy populists chose to call them.

It didn't matter that 20% of Republicans still chose to believe that Saddam Hussein's regime had WMDs (or that they'd even been found in Iraq) even after the US government admitted that they didn't. The damage had been done. The cat was out of the bag. The government was lying and once the tools provided by the Internet were in place to attack the government that's what happened. Except it wasn't a bottom up revolution led by the marginalised but a top down one led by the extreme fringes of those already holding the reins of power. We replaced the liars we already had with even bigger bullshitters.

Lewandowsky and his peers have broken up these purveyors of untruths into four groups of varying degrees of nefariousness. The first, most innocent, group they've called 'truthiness'. This consists of the likes of right wing talk show hosts like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. These guys are committed to a reality that isn't real. They're not intentionally deceitful. They believe what they say but they don't really bother to fact check, they're too sure they're right. There are plenty of these on the left too.

Systemic liars, the WMD believers and the climate change deniers, are working towards, or in the service of, a carefully curated deception with a clear agenda. Normally to change government policy. Again, you can find these on the left - but less so. The right really comes in to its own in the third and fourth groups though.

Infowars and Breitbart News don't give a shit about the truth and don't even pretend to. They don't just spread lies that are already out there in good faith but actively make them up afresh before putting them into heavy circulation. Often, almost always, with the aim of destroying somebody or something. They're not nice people.

But right at the top of the bullshit tree, crapping on everyone below, are the 'shock and chaos' merchants. Trump is on the fringes of this group but his good friend Vladimir Putin and his army of Twitterbots are right at the very heart of it. Their aim is to cause as much destabilisation as possible to unsettle Western powers (presumably so the path for the coming age of Russian power can be smoothed over). There is nothing too low for Putin and his cronies. They can interfere in foreign elections and they can murder and poison people at will in foreign countries. Nobody looks likely to stop them. Britain doesn't have the power, Europe won't help Britain, and the US has got enough of its own (mostly self-made) Russian problems right now.

So it does sound like we're fucked. It sounds pretty grim. People can't be bothered to check even the most basic facts, they're susceptible to confirmation bias, and the micro-marketing practiced by the tech giants has led us into a land of uncertainties and untruths where, remarkably, the strong populist nationalist leader (the arsonist dressed as a fireman) seems to offer solutions. Solutions to problems they may have created themselves all along. Snake oil's available everywhere these days.

There are so many stats, so much information, that many people won't bother, or won't have the time, to check the veracity of the data or even the source of it (how many times have you read people commenting on features they clearly haven't read or even retweeting/sharing them?) so the idea, suggested in the Q&A, of a fact check button on social media seems a non-starter.

But one great idea that's being trialled in Norway is this:- before commenting online on an article you have to take a quiz to prove you've read the actual feature. This, hopefully, rules out bots as well as many trolls who either simply won't take the time to read things in their entirety (I know one who doesn't even read the full headline) or will have, maybe, cooled their boots by the time they've taken the quiz and decide to comment in a more reflective, rather than aggressive, way.

It's a small thing, a minor adjustment, but it's a step in the right direction and right now we seem to be heading rapidly in the wrong direction. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not everyone is entitled to their own fact and it's a false, and more importantly dangerous, equivalent to say that they are. At least that's what a very reliable Russian Twitterbot told me when I was visiting Barack Obama's Martian colony of crisis actors.

Thanks to Greenwich Skeptics (again) and Professor Lewandowsky for an englightening and fascinating evening.

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