February 06, 2017

Horse 2223 - Fact Checking Is Like Nailing Down A Blancmange

At the weekend, I was given a project to fact check the claims being made by a video which someone had posted on Facebook. The video in question. centered around the travel ban which has now been imposed on seven Muslim majority countries and various aspects of the protests surrounding said ban. Apart from the use of a framing device of a theoretical 'other', which was very much a straw man that had been set up, the problem with the video was that of all the things I fact checked (which usually came at the end of a paragraph of speech), 5 of 13 things were absolutely true, 6 of 13 things were dubious or doubtful and 2 of the 13 things were outright lies that were easily proven by finding direct quotes.

A lot has been made of so-called 'fake news' over the past couple of weeks and months, and the inadvertent coining of the term 'alternative facts' which is a brilliant piece of doublespeak for lies that someone wants you to believe, merely serves to prove that the algorithms which now act as the gatekeepers of what we're more likely to see, are reinforcement filters for what we already believe.

One of the results of the democratisation of the internet is that the entry costs to publishing something are far lower than they used to be. Apart from the annoyance of advertising which now accompanies Facebook and Twitter, the end cost to the user to publish their opinions is negligible. The entry costs which are the costs of the equipment are minimal; a video camera and computer cost far less than the traditional media infrastructure assets which were/are broadcast towers and licences in the case of television and radio, and massive printing presses and paper costs for print media. Also, the cost of news collection is something which traditional media did and still does bear; which someone working at home on their computer does not. I for instance pay $0 to publish this very blog and the only cost which I bear is the thinking time on the train (which is otherwise worthless).
With entry costs to publishing so low and the tools to publish so prevalent, it has meant that many new players have entered the marketplace of ideas. The problem is that, it is exceptionally easy to produce something which people will accept as newsworthy. It  doesn't take a lot to find graphic designers, to build a website of similar style to the traditional media outlets.

In consequence to all of this, what people will accept as fact, or believable, is now far more open to a lot of different sources than it otherwise might have been. The flip side is that people's willingness to properly scrutinise what they are being told, hasn't changed at all. In conjunction with the algorithms that reinforce what we already believe to be true, this has led to phenomena such as the video which I was asked to fact check. That video contained 5 pieces of truth, 6 pieces of things that are dubious but which might very well be believable if they agree with what you already believe and 2 things which were false but which might be acceptable as something to be believed if it agrees with what you already believe and which most people won't bother to fact check because people are lazy. If someone does bother to fact check something like this, then the news cycle has already  moved on and there will be other things which need to be fact checked and the game moves on forever.

Like it or not, the aggregation of people's beliefs is ultimately what determines the shape, colour and even the rules of society. As little as thirty years ago, because there were so few sources of news information, an untruth in the media would be spotted far more quickly because there were far more eyeballs looking at exactly the same thing. That doesn't happen as much any more.
Don't get me wrong here, I don't view the past as some intelligent utopia of truthiness. People are just as lazy as they always were. It's just that with fewer sources for news, there was a greater awareness that those sources might be biased and a greater idea of what those biases were. Today, it is much harder to work out what those biases are and if the source already agrees with what you already believe, then the desire to question them doesn't exist.
I'm also just as guilty as everyone else in this respect. As someone who rejects various premises from both of the two broad camps of what generally coalesces into the left and the right, I find myself questioning all sorts of things but even I will accept some things to be true and they can and should be questioned.

I think that one of the reasons why a video like the one I was asked to fact check works so well, is that the person who has made the video genuinely believes what they are saying. Even the existence of proof that there are untruths contained in what the chap said, he'd more than likely dismiss those things and move on, with no explanation offered. Part of the art of constructing a believable lie is to build it out of other truths. If you do bother to point out to someone where all the lies are, they'll question your sanity because it follows that if there is some truth in there then surely it can't be designed to deceive, can it? Besides which, in the meantime there's already been another fifteen other things that need fact checking and they all must be true if they're saying similar things too, right?

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