Is World War III just around the corner? Will nukes fly if America doesn’t vote for Trump? Is Fox News’ host Megan Kelly a traitor?
Is US President Obama bringing on the apocalypse by establishing a world religion? Is the UN a conspiracy driven by the Pope to enact world government and global communism?
It’s sorely tempting to leave the rest of this column empty, just to demonstrate how much discussion these crazy ideas deserve. Sadly, that’s not an option. A disturbingly large number of people are showing themselves to be susceptible to information sources that don’t even keep a passing acquaintance with the truth.
And the problem is getting worse, not better.
Some weeks ago, Facebook was roundly criticised for bias when editors of the Trending feature were accused of showing bias in their selection of trending topics. According to a Gizmodo story, editors working on Facebook’s ‘Trending’ section were routinely told by management to use an ‘injection tool’ to promote stories even though the stories were not actually receiving a significant amount of attention.
Other stories and sources were blacklisted. One former editor claimed that the reason for these selective insertions and deletions was political bias among senior management. “We could not fully exclude the possibility of isolated improper actions or unintentional bias in the implementation of our guidelines or policies,” wrote Facebook’s counsel, when questioned by the US Congress about the issue.
In a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, Facebook subsequently fired all 15 editors working on the Trending module and replaced them with a computer algorithm. That worked about as well as you’d imagine. Last week, the Washington Post published a story titled, “Facebook has repeatedly trended fake news since firing its human editors”.
The paper cited a number of examples of false stories being promoted across the social media site.
Founder Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook is not a media company. He’s deluding himself. Hundreds of millions of people use social media—primarily Facebook—as their primary source of news.
But un-curated news feeds, or information sources dressed up to look like news feeds, often print material that is not just wildly wrong.
It’s often deliberately deceptive. It’s no secret that Russia has been running a disinformation campaign to discredit the United States’ involvement in Syria and the Middle East. There’s significant evidence that they’ve been meddling in the presidential election campaign as well.
Certain churches and individuals have long indulged themselves in apocalyptic prophecy. That’s hardly new. The world has been ending since Roman times. But these days the message is reaching a wider audience than ever before, thanks to the almost frictionless flow of information over the internet.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if the only result was a few people looking silly by repeating outlandish tales in public. But it’s far worse than that.
Much of the anti-refugee resentment that we see manifesting itself in nations around the world is driven by ignorance, and the willingness of others to prey on people’s fears. It’s basic human instinct to mistrust outsiders, a holdover from our prehistoric, pre-civilisation period. But a large—and rising—number of populist politicians and power brokers are preying on this predisposition to advance their own agenda.
An analysis of over 87,000 interviews conducted by Gallup, the polling service, with supporters of US presidential candidate Donald Trump found that the strongest unifying factor was the respondents’ isolation. The most fervent Trump supporters lived in fairly well-to-do and isolated suburbs, often gated to keep strangers out.
In a nutshell, the less contact you have with people different from yourself, the more fearful you tend to be, and the more Trump’s (or le Pen’s, or Farrage’s) xenophobic, racist rhetoric tends to resonate.
Using Facebook as your primary interface to the outside world makes things worse. It is at best a distorted lens. The most compelling evidence of this is the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Blue Feed, Red Feed’ app, which allows the reader to see a number of hot-button issues through the warped mirror of a typical conservative voter’s news feed, or that of a typical liberal voter.
The disparity is stark and appalling.
The dearth of actual reporting, as opposed to spin, on my Facebook feed has led to me to resort to desperate measures. I still pop open the social media app on my mobile each morning over coffee. But once I’m done checking on who’s had a birthday, who’s angry with the way the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Sherlock has turned out… I read the news.
This may come as a shock, but actual news services still exist. There is an app for that, too. The Reuters news app is particularly useful. It features a section aptly named The Wire, which consists effectively of what we journalists see coming across the newswire at any given moment in time.
It’s one thing to talk about where to find reliable sources of information. But there’s another critical part of the equation that remains a challenge for everyone—even your daily newspaper. That’s figuring out what to do when you realise you’re wrong.
Last May, the Daily Post published a photograph of a burning church. The image accompanied a story that covered a recent rampage by Indonesian military forces in the West Papuan village of Wamena.
The incident was reported in a number of reputable places, among them the Jakarta Post, Radio New Zealand and the Scoop New Zealand. The photograph was obtained from West Papuan activist sources.
It transpired that the photo was actually of a church in the southern United States. But computer algorithms don’t fact-check. If you google ‘Wamena church burning’, the fallacious image is still the top result.
As cyclone Winston ripped through the Fiji Islands, one particularly graphic image began to pop up all over social media. It showed downtown Yangon, Burma in the throes of a massive typhoon. It was posted by a Facebook group admin in Fiji to encourage people to share their own cyclone photos. Within hours, it transmuted. People just assumed it was a photo taken in Suva. Even reputable news sources began to use it as an illustration.
I tried to point error out to one media group and was angrily rejected for my pains. In the end, I had to show them image search results dating back five years before anyone would listen.
Human curation of the news is essential to maintain any kind of consistency and reputability. But, as the saying goes, to err is human. That is where algorithms can come in handy. To be able to use an image search engine such as tineye.com or Google Image search makes the job of verification vastly easier than it used to be.
The moral: Don’t believe everything you read. Verify it. Google is your friend. So is Snopes. (If you don’t know what Snopes is, Google it. See how that works?)
And please, don’t treat Facebook as your newspaper.