Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Red truth, blue truth

At the same time that social media has opened up possibilities for long-distance (and cross-cultural) contact, and allowed us to befriend people we've never met, it also has had the effect of creating nearly impermeable echo chambers that do nothing but reinforce confirmation bias about our own beliefs and the worst stereotypes about those who disagree.

This is being highlighted in a rather terrifying fashion by The Wall Street Journal in their feature "Blue Feed, Red Feed," which they describe as follows:
To demonstrate how reality may differ for different Facebook users, The Wall Street Journal created two feeds, one “blue” and the other “red.”  If a source appears in the red feed, a majority of the articles shared from the source were classified as “very conservatively aligned” in a large 2015 Facebook study.  For the blue feed, a majority of each source’s articles aligned “very liberal.”  These aren't intended to resemble actual individual news feeds.  Instead, they are rare side-by-side looks at real conversations from different perspectives.
It's worth taking a look.  Here's a small sampling of a "red feed" for the recent "alternative facts" interview with Kellyanne Conway:
AWFUL LIBERAL Hack Chuck Todd Attacks #Trump – Kellyanne Conway Rips Him Apart (VIDEO)
Jim Hoft Jan 22nd, 2017 10:39 am 273 Comments
The liberal media today is in the sewer.
More Americans believe in Sasquatch than the crap coming from the liberal media.
After eight years of slobbering all over failed President and liar Barack Obama the media has suddenly decided to take on this new administration.
Today Chuck Todd went after Donald Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on Meet the Press.
Kellyanne Conway ripped him a new one.
Notice how this condescending ass snickers as Kellyanne answers his question!

The Trump administration should boycott this horrible show immediately.
Contrast this with the "blue feed" on the same topic:
If you are puzzled by the bizarre "press conference" put on by the White House press secretary this evening (angrily claiming that Trump's inauguration had the largest audience in history, accusing them of faking photos and lying about attendance), let me help explain it. This spectacle served three purposes: 
1. Establishing a norm with the press: they will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. That way, they will be grateful if they get anything more at any press conference. This is the PR equivalent of "negging," the odious pick-up practice of a particular kind of horrible person (e.g., Donald Trump). 
2. Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong—that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong—they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here—likely to pay off—is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as "fake news" (because otherwise they'd be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.) 
3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population (which is a taking a page from the Kremlin, for whom this is their preferred disinformation tactic). A third of the population will say "clearly the White House is lying," a third will say "if Trump says it, it must be true," and the remaining third will say "gosh, I guess this is unknowable." The idea isn't to convince these people of untrue things, it's to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine. 
This is laying important groundwork for the months ahead. If Trump's White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as this, just imagine what else they'll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It's gonna get real bad.
It's not like they're looking at the same thing from two different angles; it's more like these people aren't living in the same universe.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Add into the mix a paper published this week in PNAS Online by Michela Del Vicario, Alessandro Bessi, Fabiana Zollo, Fabio Petroni, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, H. Eugene Stanley, and Walter Quattrociocchi of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science in Lucca, Italy.  The study, called "The Spreading of Misinformation Online," not only describes the dangers of the echo chamber effect apropos of social media, but the worse problem that it insulates us from correcting our own understanding  when we're in the wrong. The authors write:
Digital misinformation has become so pervasive in online social media that it has been listed by the WEF as one of the main threats to human society.  Whether a news item, either substantiated or not, is accepted as true by a user may be strongly affected by social norms or by how much it coheres with the user’s system of beliefs.  Many mechanisms cause false information to gain acceptance, which in turn generate false beliefs that, once adopted by an individual, are highly resistant to correction...  Our findings show that users mostly tend to select and share content related to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest.  In particular, we show that social homogeneity is the primary driver of content diffusion, and one frequent result is the formation of homogeneous, polarized clusters.  Most of the times the information is taken by a friend having the same profile (polarization)––i.e., belonging to the same echo chamber...  Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.  This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.
It would be easy to jump from there to the conclusion that there's no way to tell what the truth is, that we're all so insulated in our comfortable cocoons of self-approval that we'll never be able to see out.  That's unwarrantedly pessimistic, however.  There is a method for determining the truth; it involves using evidence (i.e. facts), logic, and an unrelenting determination to steer clear of partisan spin.  Giving up and saying "No one can know the truth" is exactly as unproductive as saying "my side is always right."

Still, all kind-hearted ecumenism aside, I'll end with a quote from the eminent Richard Dawkins: "When two opposing points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie somewhere in the middle.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

No comments:

Post a Comment