What is Truth?*

On a Facebook conversation recently l pointed out a factually incorrect claim, and posted a reputable link pointing out the error. OK, you don’t expect applause when you correct such things, but I was interested in this response:

"You believe what you want to, just as I do."

This was my exasperated reply:

"Believe what you want to?
I trained as a scientist. I believe where facts lead me.
And l seem to spend half my life fact checking with so much bogus information circulating. It's exhausting.
Welcome to the post truth world."

I’ve had another intelligent friend sending me links lately with completely false information. I’ve kept replying in statements like this:

“That’s from Brietbart News, famous for promoting blatantly fake stories such as ‘Hillary runs a paedophile ring’. It’s not a reputable source. No, that one is from Joseph Farah, who keeps claiming Obama was born in Kenya when this has been proven false. No that one is from RT, Russia Today, a propaganda arm of the Kremlin… FOR PITY’S SAKE WILL YOU START GOOGLING THE SOURCE BEFORE YOU SHARE AN ARTICLE?????"

Why is such certifiable nonsense popping up in the top of our Facebook feeds, and on the Google page of our phones? This question set me off on a frenzy of Googling…

And the answer, my friends, is money, money, money.

What does this money actually do? And who supplies it?

The biggest political site on Facebook and on Twitter is the far right Brietbart news, funded by the billionaire Robert Mercer. Mercer has also funded CNSnews.com via the Media research centre, the climate change denying Heartland Centre, and has a huge stake in Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis company. Cambrige Analytica worked for the Trump campaign, which targeted Facebook advertising / articles in line with user profiles.

The Koch brothers in the United States have used staggering sums of money to manipulate opinion, with their network spending $889 million dollars on the 2016 US election alone. See this link to understand their long-term strategy for reshaping the political landscape.

Astroturfing is a technique to make a message falsely appear to be a grass roots movement, when it is actually funded by a sponsor. Apparently innocent comments on articles can be paid for by vested interests.

Some trends on Twitter or Facebook are not even set in motion by human beings at all, but by “bots”. As noted in this article:

"Russia announced the formation of a new branch of the military: 'information warfare troops'. Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated 'bots' – accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump – many of them Russian."

It has been suggested that Russia believed a Brexit would weaken the EU. But why would Russia support Trump over Clinton? Theories abound, although one obvious motive is the dependency of the Russian economy on oil, gas and coal.

And speaking of fossil fuels… let’s discuss the murky world of climate change denial. Billions of dollars are poured into shaping public opinion, casting doubt on reputable science to protect the interests of business. To quote George Monbiot here: “The fury and loathing directed at climate scientists and campaigners seemed incomprehensible until I realised they were fake: the hatred had been paid for. The bloggers and institutes whipping up this anger were funded by oil and coal companies…. Genuine campaigners, working in their free time, simply cannot match a professional network staffed by thousands of well-paid, unscrupulous people.”

The war on truth is even allegedly touching what should be sacrosanct: published scientific data is being eradicated via government orders. This is precious intellectual property. In my mind it is akin to burning works of art: published research is part of our cultural heritage.+

But climate change denial is only one area where attempts are made to "discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt." Tobacco companies largely perfected the dark art of deliberately casting doubt on scientific research, while large sums of money are funnelled to the NRA by the gun industry to keep up political pressure against gun control.

Reading from a wide variety of perspectives was sage advice when the print media operated under accepted journalistic standards and legal requirements. In the bold new world of fake news, astroturfing, bots, and propaganda targeted to your personality profile, it is a practice fraught with danger.

So what to do?

* Please… Google the name of the publisher of an article. If it’s not from a reliable source, don’t read it!
* Note that established newspapers operate under journalistic standards and the law. That does not mean that they are right 100% of the time, but they are vastly more reliable than the new media funded by billionaires and corrupt governments.
* When in doubt, check Snopes for facts. The ABC Fact Check is also helpful in Australian politics.
* Don’t share material on Facebook unless you’ve done the above!
* Know you’re not immune from malicious influence; keep learning as much as you can about the forces trying to shape your views.

When the super-wealthy, and the huge financial resources of governments conspire to mislead, complacency is not an option. A war on truth can only leave humanity as the loser.

So what have you discovered about fake news, data collection, internet algorithms, bots, and the like? I'm happy to stand corrected on any of these claims and links... I think it's vital we keep learning from one another!

*Pontius Pilate, probably around 27 AD.

+ I am reminded of RR Wilson's comment to the US congress in 1969 when asked if a participle accelerator would help defence: "Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to help make it worth defending."


Jan said…
Very useful article - information and advice Janet

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