Tag Archives: fake news

The Science of Social Media is a False Dilemma


Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.

And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.

The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.

We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.

Why?

It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.

The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.


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It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.

Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.

The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.

Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.

What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.

Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)

Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.

War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.

It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.

Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)

Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.

To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.

But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?

None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.

At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.

Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.

In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.

The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.

It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.

Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”

The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.

Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.

If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.

In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.

If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”

“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.

Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.

In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.

As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.

The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.

The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.

header photo credit: iStock.com/mediaphotos

You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com


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Certainty: Poison Arrows & Weasel News

Author Gary Moreau

My two daughters, a freshman and junior in high school, spent some time with me over the July 4th holiday. Among many other activities we spent a day at the Detroit Zoo, where we sat down to a basket of chicken fingers in the shadow of the Polar Bear exhibit. (The Polar bears, unfortunately, were all asleep in their caves and nowhere to be seen.)

We were reminiscing about the house we had lived in at the time of their birth and, quite randomly, the conversation turned to feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing our physical surroundings with the invisible forces of qi that many Eastern cultures believe binds the universe and everything in it.

Feng shui is closely related to Taoism and has millions of followers worldwide, including the US, where you can hire feng shui consultants to help you choose and decorate a new home in places like California and New York. I am not a disciple. After living on this earth for more than six decades, however, one of them among the Chinese, there are few belief systems I dismiss out of hand.

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I noted, as a result, with no intention of defending the idea, that our previous family home had very bad feng shui because it was located at the tip of a poison arrow—it sat atop a “T” in the road it fronted. While feng shui had little to do with our choices in landscaping the property, I playfully joked that we had planted a large tree in front of our front door to dissipate the negative energy before it could enter the house.

While I thought the conversation was all in good fun, however, my daughters immediately jumped to judgment. “How can you believe in such nonsense?” my eldest daughter asked with obvious incredulity. “The blood of a tree is sap, which is water filled with nutrients and minerals, not some mystical force that can’t even be seen with a microscope.”

Fair enough. But I am a card-carrying contrarian and my own sap is filled with curiosity. I was intrigued and decided to pursue the conversation. “Why,” I asked, “do you dismiss something simply because you can’t see it or touch it? Wouldn’t science itself suggest neutrality? The existence of qi, after all, has not been disproved, and there is no logical reason that nutrients and qi can’t co-exist.”

You’ve already heard the rest of the conversation I’m sure. This proved to be just one of many discussions in which my daughters—already my oratorical equals—took exception with my reservations about one-dimensional notions of cause and effect. The best I could hope for in any of these debates was an exasperated draw. I seldom moved the needle into the zone of doubt, much less acceptance of alternative interpretations of commonly held Western beliefs.

In the end, to be honest, I actually agreed with most of the positions they took. I am a bona fide Westerner. I was quite unnerved, however, by the certainty with which they took them.

Many of my readers will quickly dismiss all of this as merely another example of the challenge of living with teenagers who are constantly testing the boundaries of their knowledge and identity. If not a false parenting rationalization, however, it is a dangerous one. When we start stifling curiosity and fortifying the mind against healthy doubt, we sow the seeds of social and personal stagnation, if not destruction.

But isn’t that what we—the adults of the world—are currently doing? Are we teaching our children anything quite as consistently and fervently as we are teaching them by our example to be certain in their beliefs?

As I write this world leaders are wrapping up the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. And despite my earnest attempts to stay abreast of developments at this very important gathering, I know virtually nothing about what really transpired. Nearly all of the “reporting” I read from both sides of the political divide could easily have been written well in advance.

The problem with certainty, of course, is the problem with any myopia. You may be right or you may be wrong. Certainty, however, makes it certain that you will never know. Understanding, like knowledge itself, is a continuum, not a destination.

Certainty is a noun. And it is self-fulfilling. Once we believe something with certainty everything we observe tends to reinforce that certainty because we inevitably filter all observation and thought in the interest of efficiency. We see and hear, in the most literal sense, exactly what we expect to. Our certainty, as a result, fossilizes.

Certainty, in fact, is the breeding ground of the contemporary notion of “fake news” that is so hotly debated in the US political arena these days. Fake news may or may not be factual in any literal or narrowly defined sense. It is inevitably misleading, however. It’s weasel news.

“Weasel words” is a term coined by author Steward Chaplin in 1900, and popularized by Theodore Roosevelt. They are the words and phrases that suck the meaning out of claims, much like the weasel sucks out the meat of the egg while leaving the shell intact. By compromising the context within which a claim is made, they provide cover for those who wish to mislead or misinform without being blatant about it.

In the context of news, words like “many”, “few”, “might”, and “suggest”, are typical weasel words; suggestive but not dimensional. “Many experts,” for example, is somewhere between a handful and a boat full.

Politicians and the news media use weasel words all the time to make things that aren’t supported by fact sound like they are. In the narrowest sense, the words are factual. The intent, however, is far from neutral.

Weasel news typically employs weasel words but is slightly broader in context. Typically honest words can become dishonest when used in a certain order that may not violate the formal rules of language but compromises clarity and camouflages subjective innuendo.

When reporters noted that violent protestors greeted Trump’s first G20 meeting, you might assume that the protestors were there because of their anger toward the US President alone. That, of course, may or may not have been the case in any verifiable scientific sense. If challenged on the implication, however, the newscaster can claim that the observable violent protests took place at a meeting that was, indeed, Trump’s first.

Confidence, of course, can be a good thing. Every parent wants to build confidence in his or her children. Confidence gives us the strength to do the right thing in the face of choice. And it contributes to the efficiency of our actions and behaviors, allowing us to do the right thing more often.

Life is a dichotomy, however, and the state of certainty is no exception. Certainty is also an essential element of hate, racism, and ignorance. It is a medium, used consciously or not, for disinformation since we all know from experience that the presence of certainty itself enhances our willingness to fall for undocumented innuendo.

Both the members of the G20 (Referred to as the G19 by one news outlet, in yet another example of “fake” but technically defensible reporting.) and my daughters are all back home now. And while I have no opinion about what progress may or may not have been made at the G20, I am saddened that my daughters do not greet me in the morning, at least until their next visit.

Whether or not my daughters ever accept the existence of poison arrows, I love them dearly. Of that I am certain. And flipping the dichotomy of certainty once again, genuine love is the best kind of news there is.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@glassmakerinchina.com

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So, while it is true that a company must actively manage its employees in the interest of performance, it is equally true that dehumanizing employees to the extent that relationships and connections are inhibited is counterproductive. Some balance between the recognition of our individual humanity and the need for collective performance must be struck.