Monday, 16 July 2018

Notes from "Post-Truth - How Bullshit conquered the world" by James Ball

A post with 14 things learnt from reading “Post Truth - How Bullshit conquered the World" by James Ball”, a book on media misinformtion, whose tag line is “This is the story of bullshit: what’s being spread, who’s spreading it, why it works - and what we can do to tackle it”. Some very important stuff below, hope it is of value....

Post Truth, by James Ball 
1) Fact Checking sometimes only amplifies the bullshit.
2) Partisan media use bullshit as a base for more extreme claims
3) How Politicians create news from thin air.
4) Boris Johnson stoked anti EU feeling with bullshit stories right from the beginning
5) Autocrats want the public to distrust institutions and the media
6) How media outlets use bullshit to get hits.
7) Fake Media is a real thing and often used for financial, not political, reasons.
8) Social Media Filter Bubbles are powerful
9) People share based on the headline alone
10) You should know about the Wason Selection Test
11) People are wrong on many issues and bad at assessing risk
12) The public has a role in stopping Bullshit.
13) Media and government have a role in stopping Bullshit
14) A warning from John Major

1) Fact Checking sometimes only amplifies the bullshit.
Ball looks at the Brexit claim that “We send the EU £350 million a week - lets’ fund the NHS instead” and comments that using £350million - the largest defensible figure - led to media outlets talking about how it was misleading; pointing out the effect of the rebate etc.

But the end effect was simply to leave people thinking that whether it was £350million a week or £175million a week, it was stilll a lot of money going to the EU that could, according to Vote Leave, be used within the UK after leaving the EU.

Worth reading the thoughts of Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave’s campaign director in this Spectator article

2) Partisan media use bullshit as a base for more extreme claims
On the other prong of Leave’s campaign - immigration, Ball describes how the campaign used a poster that simply said “TURKEY (population 76 million) is joining the EU”. This was true in the sense that Turkey was one of a number of countries in the process of trying to become members of the EU, but membership was many years away (if granted at all), and Turkey had met only one of the 35 requirements for membership; and any EU country could veto Turkey’s accession.

The Vote Leave poster opened up the way for more extreme claims. Defence Minister Penny Mordaunt stated in interviews that “I don’t think that the UK will be able to stop Turkey joining.”

Ball then comments on how “the Eurosceptic media then served to amplify the effect of these political claims in ways the campaign would have been unlikely to wish to be directly associated with”, including “12M TURKS SAY THEY’LL COME TO THE UK” in the Express; “WE’RE FROM EUROPE - LET US IN” from the Mail and “BREAKING POINT - the EU has failed us all” from UKIP

The end result, according to Ball, was to place the idea in peoples heads that Turkish immigration was an issue and then to inflate it out of all proportion and propose the referendum as the last chance to stop it, adding that “The Leave Campaign worked very effectively as a sales pitch...Leave had few specific promises of its own that could be attacked and made sure that the attacks on the few specifics it did have would serve its interests.”

Ball points out that this should not have been a surprise to anyone, as Matthew Elliot, chief executive of VoteLeave, had also been a key part of the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum, in which Elliots No2AV campaign ran posters such as a crying baby with the caption “She needs a maternity unit NOT and alternative voting system. Our country can’t afford it”

The campaign focused on the (largely one-off) cost of the system, claiming it to be £250million and leaving any pro-AV supporter looking like they wanted to take this money from baby incubators or soldiers body armour.

The Vote Leave website, yesterday.

3) How Politicians create news from thin air.
Ball also comments on the way in which Trump creates headlines by promising disclosures or meetings “soon” and then delaying them repeatedly. This is, according to Ball, straight out of the playbook of 1950’s anti communist senator Joseph McCarthy, whose actions were described as “Pseudo Events” by Daniel Boorstin.

This is perhaps not surprising as the chief legal counsel to McCarthy was a lawyer named Roy Cohn. The same Roy Cohn, it turns out, that worked for Trump during the early part of his career.

Senator McCarthy (source)

4) Boris Johnson stoked anti EU feeling with bullshit stories right from the beginning
Ball describes how Johnson, then a journalist at the Daily Telegraph, began a trend for anti-EU stories back in the 1990, as described by Martin Fletcher in this article:

“[Johnson] revealed European Commission plans to introduce harmonised “Euro-coffins”, ban prawn cocktail crisps and establish a “banana police force”. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same” and “Threat to British pink sausages”. He reported that Eurocrats had outlawed Italian condoms because they were not precisely 16 centimetres long.”

The EU formed its own “myth-buster” website to challenge claims that the EU was trying to eliminate British sausages, force fishermen to wear hairnets and much else. But is was a hopeless task - the misleading stories were reaching millions whereas none of the mythbuster post got over 1000 hits.

Ball also mentions how Johnson would attempt to dismiss comments such as describing black people as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” as jokes. Ball comments that the risk of taking this route is that “eventually want some people to take you seriously, and no one is used to doing so”.

Boris Johnson, attempting to explain "Euro Coffins"(link)

5) Autocrats want the public to distrust institutions and the media
Ball comments that public confusion and uncertainty over what is true and what is false are tools of the autocrat and serve the agenda of the strongman. Ball quotes Andrew Puddephatt, chair of International Media Support, who wrote that, regarding the Russian media strategy in Ukraine :

“The core of the [Russian] Strategy is not to persuade people that the Kremlin’s view of events is correct...Instead the goal is to persuade people that there is no objective truth, that no media can be relied upon, that all news, including western news media, is simply propaganda”
Ball comments that :

"The post truth approach is the approach of the autocrat: by a campaign of attrition, trust in institutions such as the state, the judiciary and the media are undermined, until public discourse is simply a clash of competing narratives: a contest which can then be won by the side willing to make the boldest plays towards emotion and mass-appeal - often, history as taught us, through the demonisation of minority groups”

Joel Simon from the Committee to Protect Journalists, sees similar behavior in left wing Latin American leaders, noting how parts of the media have been described as “The No1 enemies” (by Evo Morales); “trash-talking” (by Rafael Correa); “children of Goebbels” (by Daniel Ortega). Simon adds that:

“Trump’s intent is clear. Through his relentless attacks, he seeks to create and environment in which critical media is marginalised and the truth is unknowable. The experience in Latin America - which, unlike Russia, has a democratic tradition, a robust civil society, and a history of independent media - shows that the strategy can work”
Ball notes, in addition, that “Russia did attempt to influence and interfere in the USA’s election… but the USA (and others) has regularly done the same in Eastern Europe and South America”

6) How media outlets use bullshit to get hits.
Ball describes a practice how online newspaper sites, desperate for page hits as ad revenue is hoovered up by Facebook and Google, , may run a conspiracy theory story for the spike in page visits and then, perhaps within a few hours amending the page to show a much more rational headline and explanation.

Examples given included the MailOnline article which ran with “Trump’s Secret Service bodyguards “wore prosthetic hands”” before changing it (with no note of the previous headline) to “Sorry folks, they WERE his real hands…”

Ball explains that news media act like this because they want to be first (to get a higher Google ranking) and they want to be shareable (because that gets more hits from Facebook) - but the price paid “is the audience’s trust: if newspapers don;t differentiate the stories that they have put time and reporting resources into from those they run from a single Tweet, why should readers give then any more credence than any other.

Adrienne LaFrance, who writes at the Atlantic, comments on the way Facebook was a threat to the viability of quality journalism, from its vacuuming up of ad revenue to the way it presented all sources equally, by saying:

“All of this is the news industry’s problem; not Zuckerberg’s. But it’s also a problem for anyone who believes in and relies on quality journalism to make sense of the world. Zuckerberg doesn’t want Facebook to kill journalism as we know it. He really, really doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean he won’t.”

7) Fake Media is a real thing and often used for financial, not political, reasons.
“Fake News” is taken by Ball to be articles that are wholly fictional and written for a variety of purposes and meant to deceive (we are not talking about The Onion here). Fake news is often written in the same style as mainstream media articles and may be hosted on websites that either mimic established sites “” or use plausible but fake site names “Boston Tribune, Valley Report, Baltimore Gazette”.

Examples of these wholly fabricated articles have headlines such as “Obama signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide” and “Trump Offering Free One Way Tickets to Africa and Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America”.

Remarkable, much of the fake news in 2016 was written by teenagers in a small town of Veles in Macedonia, who launched some 140 online fake websites in what Ball describes as a form of “on line gold rush”. Their motivation was not political, but simply to profit from the ad-revenue from highly shared post. Those in early could earn some $5,000 a month, although this inevitable reduced significantly as more players came on the scene.

Some of the stories reached huge audiences, an example being one that claimed Clinton had, in 2013, said that Trump should run for President - which was shared 400,000 times on Facebook.

Ball also comments on the Russian “troll factories” sayng that, whilst we should be aware of the danger they pose, pro-Trump content is being pushed by many players simply because it gets the highest audience.

Looking at the effect of these fake stories, a study by Craig Silverman, who has looked at Facebook data and noticed that fake stories gained a lot of traction in the last 4 months of the 2016 US election, with the top 20 real stories being shared 7.3 million times, while the top 20 fake stories were shared some 8.7 million times.

Other studies have come to different conclusions - it is worth noting that there is a lot more “real” news than “fake” news - with one suggesting that it would take 36 TV adverts to have the same impact as a fake news story.

But then again, much of this research ignores the effect of memes, photos and other “non article” social media content, and the fact that social media posts often come from people we trust such as friends and family.

Oddly, or not, it seems that outright fake news is much rarer in the UK than in the US, although the UK parliament has launched an inquiry into the question of fake news.

8) Social Media Filter Bubbles are powerful
Ball comments on “filter bubbles”, pointing out that people can become so divorced from reality that they ignore even the evidence of what is happening around them - so Brexit supporter can comment on a pro-leave story about supposed lower food prices post Brexit by saying that “Ha Ha.. where does this leave those idiotic toblerone makers who are reducing the size of British Toblerone bars due to Brexit increased costs”

Ball comments that “this is the power of bullshit: people become so ready to hear what they want to believe that a Facebook post is believed not only over experts but also over events which have already happened”

9) People share based on the headline alone
Ball comments that a lot of social media sharing happens based on the headline alone, many people do not even click through and read the article, the research refere Apart from anything else, this means that any rebuttal at the end of the article is simply not seen by many people.[See note below]

Greg Sargent from the Washington Post comments that if Trump claims to have saved jobs in a particular factory it may be in no-one’s interest to later flag the issue up later if the claim proves to be hollow “why would a company want to set the record straight, when doing so would incur the wrath of the new administration...The full story will be even harder to come by in these situations - making it more important that headline inform readers and viewers when Trump’s claim is unverified or suspect”

[Note : So far as I can tell, the research referred to ("Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?") does not actually say what proportion of viewed shares are clicked on, but it does talk about the majority of LINKS not being clicked on, which is a different thing. Suppose there are 10 links, four of which are shared a million times each and clicked on widely. Suppose the other 6 links are shared 5 times each and no-one clicks on them. One could then say that 60% of link are never clicked on, which would be true, but perhaps somewhat misleading]

10) You should know about the Wason Selection Test
Ball comments on how we are all more likely to accept information that supports our current beliefs, a phenomena known as “confirmation bias”, and mentions the “Wason Selection Task" research, first published in 1960

In the study, participants were shown the sequence of numbers 2,4, 6 and told that the numbers followed a rule (which will be revealed a bit later in this text). Participants were then asked to think of other number sequences that followed the same rule and the researchers would tell them whether their sequences did or did not follow the rule.

The participants were told that, once they were fairly sure, they could tell the researchers what they thought the rule was.

What the researchers found was that people would mentally choose a rule, select a sequence that fitted it and then decide that their mental rule was the correct one.

For example, they might offer 8 ,10, 12 (which follows the rule), then 14,16,18 (which also follows the rule) -and then say that the rule is “sequential even numbers”. Which it isn’t.

Or they might offer 1,3,5 (which follows the rule) and then 7,9,11 (which follows the rule) - and then say that the rule is “numbers that increase by 2”. Which it isn’t.

What participants needed to do to get to the correct rule was to offer contradicting sequences to test whether their guess was correct. For example, if, after submitting 8,10,12 and 14,16,18, the participant had offered 3,4,5 and been told that this too followed the rule, they would have learnt that their supposition that the rule was “sequential even numbers” could not be correct.

The actual rule, by the way is simply “three numbers in ascending order”.

11) People are wrong on many issues and bad at assessing risk
Ball mentions how the electorate is often wrong on many key issues, believing that 31% of the population are immigrants (actually it is 13%); 1 in 6 underage teenage girls become pregnant (actually is is 1 in 165); or that 24% of the population is Muslim (actually it is 5%).

Ball goes on to comment on how people are bad as assessing risk - and much of media is bad at presenting risk statistics. For example, a 100% increase in cancer risk sound scary- but could mean going from 1 in a million to 2 in a million, which puts the data in a very different perspective.

Also mentioned is Prof Michael Rothschild, who describes an imaginary scenario where terrorists hijack and destroy a plane every month in the US. In this world, someone who took four flights a month would face a 1 in 540,00 chance of being killed in a year, compared to the a 1 in 1,7000 chance of dying in a car accident, 1 in 600 chance of dying from cancer and a 1 in 400 chance of dying of heart disease.

Yet policy - and peoples fears - are overwhelmingly directed towards terrorist threats instead of towards preventing heart disease.

Another concern is the way people can be swayed by the views of their peer group and voice views that they may feel doubtful about but which fit in with those of the group. Author Margaret Huffernan comments on this saying:

“ We confirm to the consumption patterns we see around us as we all become bystanders, hoping someone else somewhere will intervene. Our governments and corporations grow too complex to communicate with or change and we are just left where we do not want to be”
Even worse is that when groups of people who have broadly similar political views are put together and asked to discuss topical issues, their views converge and the average view becomes more extreme, as shown by research by Schkade, Sunstein and Hastie in 2006.And this effect can happen in just a few minutes, so imaging what the effects of months or years in a social media filter bubble or echo chamber can cause.

As Ball comments “ We conform with our groups, we signal our belonging in our groups and we are polarised by our groups”.

Another issue that affects how we deal with media is our tendency to react to some types of information reflexively. For example we do not need perform any calculations to answer the question “what is 2x2?”- similarly, we may sometimes share information that fits in with our worldview in an automatic way, without factchecking it - in contrast to information that conflicts with our worldview, where we may take time evaluate it more critically. This is a phenomena that has been discussed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”

12) The public has a role in stopping Bullshit.
Ball refers to news researcher Claire Wardle who comments:

“ We all play a crucial part in this [news] ecosystem. Every time we passively accept information without double checking it, or share a post, image or video before we’ve verified it, we’re adding to the noise and pollution...This is about teaching people to second guess their instinctual reactions. If you find yourself incredibly angry at a piece of content or feeling smug (because your viewpoint has been reaffirmed), take another look”
To ordinary people (like you and me) interested in escaping the filter bubble, Ball advises following a couple of people (not the shoutiest ones) on the other side of the argument on Twitter or Facebook may be helpful, as well as reading articles from a different political perspective as well. This will help us to understand their perspective, rather that imagining them as the stereotype we have in our heads.

Also, checking articles before sharing - rather that forwarding instinctively because they fit our world view. Ask oneself a few questions like What is the source of this information? Is it a major news outlet? A politician? Someone Anonymous? Can we verify the claims made? If it is a screenshot, does it seem credible? - We should also try and apply the same critical thinking to articles that agree with our politics as to those that don’t.

Learning even just a little about statistics can help stop someone being fooled. For example, being told that benefit fraud is running at £1.3billion is not very helpful unless we are also told the total amount of government spending ( ~£780billion). Ball recommends “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff as a good place to start looking into this further.

13) Media and government have a role in stopping Bullshit
Bringing targeted ads into the public eye is suggested by Ball as a partial fix. He comments that “the ability of campaigns to send messages to some voters which are almost impossible for the media or the electorate at large to see and scrutinise could have numerous damaging effects. It opens the door to targeted messages aimed at discouraging supporters of a political rival to turn out, whether through outright deception (false polling days etc) or more subtle messages designed to put them off the candidate.”

Ball recommends that messages from political sources be registered with an official body who would immediately make them public.

To media organisations, Ball advises that if an article is reporting on a dubious claim, the article needs to say so in the headline - people often don’t read any further than this.

Also, media organisations could do a better job of the rules they work under regarding right of reply, phrasings, impartiality etc, so that the public have a better understanding of why stories are structured the way they are.

14) A warning from John Major
In Feb 2017 John Major gave a warning regarding the marginalisation of free speech, saying that:

“[Remainers] do not deserve to be told that, since the decision has been taken, they must keep quiet and toe the line. A popular triumph at the polls - even in a referendum - does not take away the right to disagree - nor the right to express that dissent. Freedom of speech is absolute in our country. It’s not “arrogant” or “brazen” or “elitist” or remotely “delusional” to express concern about our future after Brexit. Nor, by doing so, is this group undermining the will of the people: they are the people. Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all the traditions of tolerance.”

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