Online ‘truth decay’

Fake news is old news, but I came across a new phrase today — well, new to me, anyway.

You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die
Citron, along with her colleague Bobby Chesney, began working on a report outlining the extent of the potential danger. As well as considering the threat to privacy and national security, both scholars became increasingly concerned that the proliferation of deep fakes could catastrophically erode trust between different factions of society in an already polarized political climate.

In particular, they could foresee deep fakes being exploited by purveyors of “fake news”. Anyone with access to this technology – from state-sanctioned propagandists to trolls – would be able to skew information, manipulate beliefs, and in so doing, push ideologically opposed online communities deeper into their own subjective realities.

“The marketplace of ideas already suffers from truth decay as our networked information environment interacts in toxic ways with our cognitive biases,” the report reads. “Deep fakes will exacerbate this problem significantly.”

Maybe I need to stop reading about fake news, it’s not good for my blood pressure. Just a couple more, then I’ll stop.

After murder and violence, here’s how WhatsApp will fight fake news
WhatsApp has announced it is giving 20 different research groups $50,000 to help it understand the ways that rumours and fake news spread on its platform. The groups are based around the world and will be responsible for producing reports on how the messaging app has impacted certain regions.

The range of areas that are being studied highlight the scale of misinformation that WhatsApp faces. One set of researchers from the UK and US are set to see how misinformation can lead to disease outbreaks in elderly people, one will look at how information was shared on WhatsApp in the 2018 Brazilian elections and another is examining how posts can go viral on the messaging service.

Inside the British Army’s secret information warfare machine
This new warfare poses a problem that neither the 77th Brigade, the military, or any democratic state has come close to answering yet. It is easy to work out how to deceive foreign publics, but far, far harder to know how to protect our own. Whether it is Russia’s involvement in the US elections, over Brexit, during the novichok poisoning or the dozens of other instances that we already know about, the cases are piling up. In information warfare, offence beats defence almost by design. It’s far easier to put out lies than convince everyone that they’re lies. Disinformation is cheap; debunking it is expensive and difficult.

Even worse, this kind of warfare benefits authoritarian states more than liberal democratic ones. For states and militaries, manipulating the internet is trivially cheap and easy to do. The limiting factor isn’t technical, it’s legal. And whatever the overreaches of Western intelligence, they still do operate in legal environments that tend to more greatly constrain where, and how widely, information warfare can be deployed. China and Russia have no such legal hindrances.

Whose side is WordPress on?

I’ve never met a flat-Earther in my life. I don’t know any fans of David Icke or Alex Jones. Granted, I don’t have too many Facebook friends, but I’m pretty confident they are all quite normal.

In short, I’d have to go a long way to meet anyone who believes in any of those crazy conspiracy theories. But on the web, these people are just around the corner — in just a couple of clicks I can be in the thick of it. This ease of access makes it all feel much more widespread and conventional and mainstream than it really is.

And WordPress and other companies that are part of the internet infrastructure seemed quite relaxed about that.

This company keeps lies about Sandy Hook on the web
Mr. Pozner said he was tired of hearing technology companies say that they do not want to be “arbiters of truth,” an oft-repeated refrain, particularly as concerns around misinformation on social media grow.

“Technology platforms have had this misguided, futuristic vision of freedom of speech and everything was built around that, but it doesn’t really fit into the day-to-day use of it,” Mr. Pozner said. “By not taking action, they have made a choice. They are the arbiters of truth by doing nothing.”

Shortly after that New York Times article, WordPress tried to sort itself out.

New WordPress policy allows it to shut down blogs of Sandy Hook deniers
The update to WordPress’s policy follows a damning report from The NYT this week that explained on how the world’s largest blogging service has allowed Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists to remain online. […]

If the booted bloggers now move to their own self-hosted sites, the responsibility of shutting them down will fall on the web hosting companies. Of course, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

It beggars belief that we’ve got to this position.

Instead of all these privacy policy pop-ups and cookie notices, why isn’t there a pop-up on these websites that clearly labels them as “Obviously Ridiculous and Vexatious“?

(I think I need to re-read this post about facts and beliefs.)

Facts and beliefs

Have we always had this ‘post-truth’ menace in our societies? Whilst the name might be new, the concept isn’t. There have always been spurious beliefs and conspiracy theories, but they seem more prevalent now. Can’t think why.

The conspiracy theory that says Trump is a genius
From these clues, a sprawling community on message boards, YouTube videos and Twitter accounts has elaborated an enormous, ever-mutating fantasy narrative about the Trump presidency. In the QAnon reality, Trump only
pretended to collude with Russia in order to create a pretext for the hiring of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who is actually working with Trump to take down an inconceivably evil and powerful network of coup-plotters and child sex traffickers that includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros.

Diana Popescu at Aeon explains why we can’t always expect people to agree with us and share our beliefs just because we’ve explained some ‘facts’. As ever, it’s much more complicated than that.

What we talk about when we talk about post-truth
Objective facts and sound verification procedures are not what post-truth groups deplore but, specifically, what drives their dissent. What post-truth groups do deplore are established facts and agreed-upon truths. The issue is one of trust, not verification.

And as well as providing another explanation of how we ended up here, this post from Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull, offers some practical advice on how we might get out of this mess.

Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds
The simple answer is that facts and rational arguments really aren’t very good at altering people’s beliefs. That’s because our rational brains are fitted with not-so-evolved evolutionary hard wiring. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world and incredible ability to recognise patterns.

[…]

To make matters worse, presenting corrective information to a group with firmly held beliefs can actually strengthen their view, despite the new information undermining it. New evidence creates inconsistencies in our beliefs and an associated emotional discomfort. But instead of modifying our belief we tend to invoke self-justification and even stronger dislike of opposing theories, which can make us more entrenched in our views. This has become known as the as the “boomerang effect” – and it is a huge problem when trying to nudge people towards better behaviours.

It seems strange to think that we can’t rely on the facts of each case to get people to bin their conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, to avoid the backfire effect, ignore the myths. Don’t even mention or acknowledge them. Just make the key points: vaccines are safe and reduce the chances of getting flu by between 50% and 60%, full stop. Don’t mention the misconceptions, as they tend to be better remembered.

Also, don’t get the opponents gander up by challenging their worldview. Instead offer explanations that chime with their preexisting beliefs. For example, conservative climate-change deniers are much more likely to shift their views if they are also presented with the pro-environment business opportunities.

What a mad world we find ourselves in.