Fake News in the Post Truth era

I’m not sure how to start this one, so I think I’ll take some advice from the “wise” king in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

The subject of today’s post is the truth.  First, to define terms, the OED reads:

Truth (N): The quality or state of being true.  That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

I don’t see the first definition as particularly useful, but the second gets us somewhere.  In order to have truth, you have to assume or believe that there is a reality.  That may seem odd to say, but from what I’ve read there seems to be some debate about that point.  Debate that I find fascinating, but not very useful.  So for the purposes of this post let’s assume that reality exists.  In addition let’s assume that we are able to take in some of tha reality through our senses which we use to perceive reality and form true ideas or concepts.  Let’s also assume we are able to construct models that we can use to predict other truths.  That is, there are truths that we may not directly observe but rather predict based on our mental models of how the world works (this is one cornerstone of the scientific method – model and hypothesis formation).  Lastly, let’s assume that no one can know the whole truth of the entire universe (much less multiverse).  We are all blind men grasping at different parts of the elephant.  I know that’s a lot of assumptions, but I was hoping to make this a practical post about how to discover the truth rather than a philosophical one about the existence of reality, objective truth or our ability to correctly perceive even a part of either.

This post is motivated by a few stories that piqued my interest this past week.  The first came out on Wednesday, naming the “word of the year” selected by Oxford Dictionaries: Post-Truth (evidently adulting nor coulrophobia received enough votes):

An adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The article linked to above goes into the first use, history and usage trends of the term.  While not mentioned in the article, the selection of the prefix seems to be an attempt to relate the idea expressed by the entire word to post-modernism, which rejects the idea of objective reality and absolute truth and is the foundation for slippery slopes like moral relativism.  The selection of this terms seems to confirm some of what Cassier predicted in The Myth of the State, specifically about the purpose of language shifting from meaning to emotion.

The second story came out yesterday via Twitter moments, bemoaning the challenge that the traditional media will face reporting on Trump based on his active use of Twitter to distribute “fake news”.  The “tweet storm” collected in the moment provides a narrative about how the stories about Ford deciding to keep a plant in Kentucky came to be.  I encourage you to read through the moment, but the short version is this: Trump sent out a tweet and a few seemingly respectable news outlets picked it up without checking any other sources, no doubt driven by the need for speed to get the clicks.

The final story that prompted this post comes from the New York Times, but there were similar articles from a variety of source this past week.  The article is focused on how internet titans (in this case Google and Facebook) are trying to cut down on “fake news”.  It seems that fake news has been named as one of the scapegoats of the left for the election results a few weeks ago and theses companies are under pressure to do something.  In related news, Twitter suspended accounts of various alt-right members and personalities this past week.

What’s interesting to me about all of these stories is how they frame the debate.  The first one sets the stage by normalizing the idea of being persuaded by appeals to emotion; the idea that truth is of little value. With the truth conveniently disposed of, the second two article setup the battle between the President Elect and the traditional news media as the ultimate arbiters of post-truth.  Trump’s tweets are certainly post-truth, intended to bypass rationality and make you feel something.

The stories about clamping down on “fake news” mean that the traditional and emerging media don’t like the competition for access to your limbic system.  They have been in the feelings game for year.  There are countless examples of them creating fake news as recently as just this past week.  In some odd way, you have to give Trump some credit for at least not claiming that what he tweets is true.  By labeling what Trump and others do as “fake news”, the traditional and emerging media are ignoring that the purpose of “news” has shifted.  The news is no longer about reporting the truth, but rather about manipulating emotions and reinforcing existing beliefs.  This is not a debate about who is telling the truth, it’s a debate about who’s post-truth you should trust.  It’s about who you should tune in for your daily dose of emotional manipulation.

As part of becoming a better thinker, I choose to avoid the manipulation and seek the truth.  And there are a few tools I am trying to develop to strengthen my truth discerning muscles.

First, I am taking a look at where I collect my news.  One part of this endeavor is actively trying to break down the filter bubbles that have seeped into my life through the use of Google, Facebook and Twitter.  In the quest to deliver more relevant content and thus capture more attention, they have created algorithms that filter what I see to give me more of what I like.  It’s these filtering algorithms that build up the bubble and create the conditions for post-truth.

I still use all of these as well as other services, but I use them conscious of the fact that I am not getting the whole story.  To break down the filter bubble, I try to follow or click on as many links that I disagree with as I agree with.  Anytime I find an article I agree with, I search for the counter point.  I also am one of the few people I still know that use a RSS feed reader (I use feedly since Google Reader closed down a few years ago).  RSS readers allow you to control what you see.  There is no algorithm filtering the content or the order in which you see things.  It’s still up to you to populate your reader with a diversity of sources and to constantly refine your sources if the post-truth to truth ratio gets too high, but at least you are in control instead of an algorithm that has as its only goal getting you to scroll and click more.

Next, I am trying to become more mindful of my biases.  I accept the fact that I can never remove them completely, but that doesn’t mean I can’t eliminate them.  Bias is like a smudge (or in some cases a scratch) on the lens through which we perceive reality.  By first becoming aware of all of the different sorts of bias and then trying to notice when they become active, I can polish that lens and perceive reality more clearly.  Meditation and journaling have certainly helped with the noticing of bias, and this catalog (and cool poster) of cognitive bias have given me a vocabulary to label bias as I notice it.

With better sources more clearly perceived, the last part of my effort to become a better thinker is to get better at the actual thinking part.  I first heard of the Trivium method a few years ago and it immediately captured my attention.  I am by no means an expert practitioner, but the I do use the basic framework of grammar, logic and rhetoric for most serious discussions and it is becoming more of an always-on in the background process.  I recently picked up a copy of this book on critical thinking  (which has to have one the best titles I’ve picked up in a while) and hope that it will further my critical thinking tool set.

Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), most people can admit that the bible has some eternal truths in it.  One of those is John 8:32:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

If truth sets you free, what does post-truth do?  I doubt it makes you “free-er”.

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