Facts, Fiction or Fantasy: Misinformation in the Digital Age

(or yearning for the days before Al Gore Invented the Internet)

    icon Nov 06, 2014
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Congratulations to all for surviving the most difficult of all seasons.  No, I am not talking about a Michigan winter or a buck-less hunting season, but Campaign Season.  It’s not like we don’t value our right to vote.  It’s just those darn ads.

As I don’t own a TV, I actually get to sit out a great deal of the pain of the season.  From discussions I have with others, their main issues with campaign ads – print, TV, whatever – are split between a) they are a constant and repetitive presence and b) much of what is in them is simply not true.

Politically campaigning isn’t about kissing babies anymore. It’s about the candidates making sure that you know their opponent hates your baby and they have pictures or court records to prove it.  Its all pure hogwash; misinformation, disinformation and the occasional lie for good measure. By the first Tuesday in November, you are pretty well sick of it.  The problem is, just like Christmas seems to be creeping toward a year round season, its always-open season for deceit in the digital age – no election required.

The genesis of this article actually lies in piece I wrote for the pre-Election issue of the Review on the race for the Michigan State Supreme court.  The story was relevant to this column for a couple of reasons:  a typo managed to get through the editing process that identified a candidate in this purportedly ‘non-partisan’ race, William Murphy, as a Republican when in fact he is a Democrat.

Once alerted to it we corrected the online version of the article, noted the correction on social media and, finally, printed this correction in the current edition.  While we strive for accuracy and try not to make this a habit, it happens.  And even though it was unintentional it still would fall under the umbrella called “misinformation.”

The second thing that made this article relevant is the process I went through to research the topic.  I hope you already believe this – but I really do make an effort to make sure that the articles I write are based on facts, or the reasoned opinions of experts that I track down.  This process is getting harder as it is more and more difficult to tell if something is a fact or if someone is, indeed, an expert.

When I sat down to research the subject of the Michigan Supreme Courts, this year’s candidates and the process, I did what many would do in my situation – I turned to a search engine.  And what did I find?

·     Very factual information from the government of the requirements to run for the Court, election dates and candidate lists
·     Some well written, but shallow articles in major online news outlets
·     The exact same shallow articles picked up by other smaller news outlets
·     Dueling articles – often both from “credible” sources – that came to completely different conclusions on things that require no opinion – like how much the candidates have raised and spent
·     Wonderfully written treatises about the court, its makeup and its decisions produced by people with no apparent credentials that would qualify them as an expert
·     People that would appear to qualify as experts, but don’t know how to make a point
·     Websites that would appear to be funded by someone with an agenda
·     And finally, if you will dig through 20 or 30 pages of search results, the occasional summary of a well-researched report that is based on reliable methods and that reaches conclusions that could withstand scrutiny.

Now, I don’t mind sifting through these things to write an article, but it does lead to a major problem insofar as it makes it very hard for a writer to make a point or prove a hypothesis if you can’t be sure that the facts you are trying to synthesize are real.

Misinformation, Disinformation, Omission and Spin

I likely don’t have to remind you that the Information Age and the unprecedented access to knowledge is actually a double-edged sword.  Similar to Thomas Friedman’s description of the removal of barriers to economic growth through globalization, the ability to develop and disseminate information has become very flat, meaning almost anyone can do it – legitimate source or not. 

In the same time that it takes you to read this article, you could set up a blog, a website or a social media presence that would allow you to present almost anything you want – true, untrue, insightful, vulgar or inspiring.  If video killed the radio star, the Internet is killing the professional journalist.  I am not saying that good journalism isn’t a necessary craft or that it is even that hard to find.  It is, however, sharing space with information posted by those that would prefer to keep us stupid or, at least riled up.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is a council of 1,500 members, which discuss and define the greatest issues facing the world.  Members come from industry, academia, government and international organizations.  At their 2014 meeting, the Forum listed the Top 10 issues facing the World today.  They were listed as follows:

1.   Rising societal tensions in the Middle East and Northern Africa
2.   Widening income disparities
3.   Persistent structural unemployment
4.   Intensifying cyber threats
5.   Inaction on climate change
6.   Diminishing confidence in economic policies
7.   Lack of values in leadership
8.   The expanding middle class in Asia
9.   The growing importance of mega-cities
10.  The rapid spread of misinformation online

So wait – A couple of clicks down from ISIS and beheadings, record numbers of unemployed and doubt about the basic morals of those who ask to lead us, we have photo-documentation trying to support or debunk the idea that Rene Zellweger got her eyelids done?  Yes, it does seem to have come down to that.

Misinformation, while hardly harmless, is often the result of a mistake or plain sloppiness.  A couple of high profile examples might be the national news media misidentifying a Facebook page as one that belonged to the Newtown shooter or images mistakenly identifying a missing student as a suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings being posted and shared all across social media. As we see in instances like those, misinformation can move fast.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is no mistake.  These are pseudo-facts, produced with the hope that people will believe them, share them, discuss them and – maybe – help them to become accepted as truth. 

If you scroll down any Facebook timeline, you will likely see any number of outrageous and inflammatory headlines – “The World Is Ending and It is That Other Guy’s Fault.”  If you click through these you will often find very well produced, very slick looking sites that are based on complete gibberish.  Unlike their distant cousin, The Onion, these sites don’t do this as satire.  They seem to be based completely on disinformation – things that simply aren’t true, but they publish and repeat them anyway.

Disinformation can sometimes move quite quickly, but it really doesn’t have to in order to be effective.  Idiots and agenda-driven zealots alike now apply the strategy employed during the rise of Nazi Germany of “say it often enough and it becomes true”.  If you don’t look very hard for your information, you could easily find “facts” that support everything from the Bush Administration’s role in the bombing of the Twin Towers to the existence of huge underground internment camps that are waiting to be stuffed full of civilly disobedient citizens.  Publish it, leave it out there and let it take hold.

Social media doesn’t help here, either.  Trust me – no matter how many times you see it – the President does not get $450,000 a year for life once he retires.  While gas prices were indeed around $2 per gallon when President Obama was elected, they had been over $4 a gallon five months before and shot back up the next spring.  (Believe it or not, there is not a lever on the President’s desk that allows him to raise or lower oil prices.)

Social media has one thing going for it in the fact that it can be somewhat self-policing.  Quite often a benevolent friend will let you know that you have posted some complete drivel.  The thing is almost everyone simply removes the post.  They don’t retract it or correct it (as that would be weird and self important.)  It, however, does not become unseen and that disinformation is now floating around in someone’s head as “something I saw on the Internet” the next time the subject comes up.

We all learn about “lies of omission” when we are kids - when you get in trouble not for something you said, but for something you didn’t say.

Most would agree that the media in the US, for all its flaws, is much better than it is in many corners of the world.  On the other hand, if you left it to the US media, you would probably never know those corners of the world even exist.  Granted, there was only so much you could get on a 30 minute news cast, but today it is 24 / 7 and online all the time.  There is absolutely space and time to cover just about anything – newsworthy or not.  The list of important topics that are omitted from the daily newscasts is dwarfed by superfluous stories that merely distract us from the real issues of our time. So, we get Jodi Arias 24/7 for a few months.  And we get alarmists shouting – because that is the biggest issue now, getting heard in an ocean of voices.

The need to be heard and to gain attention in a crowded space has created a new class of pundit who has perfected the art of spin.  The secret is to be outrageous.  Be unbalanced, biased and downright deceitful.  Take things out of context.  Misquote your adversaries.  Engage in hyperbole. Tell people the things they want to hear.  Remind them you are the only honest one left. If they believe it, then it’s the truth, right?

All media organizations took notice of the talk revolution.  Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and others have realized there are points to be scored, money to be made and viewers to be swayed by picking one side of the aisle and staying on it no matter who is marching down the other side.  Heck, Al Franken road his shtick all the way to a seat in the US Senate.

This type of “journalist” doesn’t investigate to get to the bottom of an issue or to find the truth, they start with a hypothesis they already believe and just start talking, with any fact or detail that comes their way minor inconvenience or a ready line to be twisted to prove their point.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famous for saying “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”  Now this might be a little funny to hear a politician basically offering up a quote on the truth, but it is a really relevant point.  You can form an opinion based off facts, but it’s impossible to form a fact based off of opinions.

Misinformation, disinformation, omission and spin.  They seem to be everywhere.  So, what do you do about it?  You don’t want to fact check everything you read - you just want to get through your day and be interesting at the water cooler.  You simply don’t want to be the reason your kids grow up stupid and you would just like to cast the occasional informed vote.  Is it that much to ask for our information sources to help us out?

Well, I don’t have great news for you, as this is a problem that is not going away.  Leaders like those at the World Economic Forum felt enough about the problem to make it one of the Top Ten issues of our day.

There are some things you can do to protect yourself.  First, don’t get your news from Facebook or Twitter.  Simply find a better source.  I like the Economist and would recommend it to anyone as a straight up news source, but I know it is too dry and, probably, too European for most people.  (It also only comes out once a week and who can possibly wait that long for their news?)
There are some things you can do.  The Web does help, to some degree.  While this list will certainly evolve, here are a few resources I have found to help:

  • One of my favorite sites in procon.org.  This site attempts to take some of the more compelling controversial matters and present information that lay on both sides of the argument – pro and con.  While it does not delve into every area that might deserve debate, it does a pretty good job of giving you a place to start on many topics of interest.
  • During the election season you most likely heard references to FactCheck.org, a political fact checker run out of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania.  It also makes a good effort of parsing out the truths, to the half-truths to the all-out lies that our politicians utter.
  • An interesting twist on the topic comes from Caitlyn Dewey, whose weekly Washington Post column “What Was Fake on the Internet This Week” is starting to be a must read – if such a thing even exists anymore.
  • And don’t forget about Snopes.  While it looks a little quaint it is probably still best to get to the bottom of arguments like “Were Mr. Rogers arms covered in tattoos?”  It does delve into many more weighty areas.  A scan down the current front page will show fact checking exercises ranging from Ebola to GMO’s to the politics of fried chicken.  It’s a simple site to use and actually aging quite nicely.

It is unfortunate that things are this complicated, isn’t it?  The suggestion is basically that you need to read an article and then you have to go fact check it to make sure it’s true.  Sounds like a lot of extra work and who needs that?  Don’t know about you, but it makes me yearn for the days before Al Gore invented the Internet.

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