Telling Lies #11: Fake News

Fake News

Once upon a time journalists were seen as heroes of the people.  They fought against “the man”.  They exposed the elaborate cover-up by dint of hard work, hours of laborious investigations in dark libraries (the libraries were always dark), cultivating whistleblowers by having meetings in car parks at night.  They were threatened by the powers that be with jail time but they would not give up their sources.  You could trust a journalist.  A journalist was solid, brave, loyal, resourceful, basically a boyscout.

Good journalists were given Pulitzer prizes for their investigations.  They were given international awards for exposing corruption, white collar crime, tax avoidance, all that stuff the top 2% hate you to hear about.

So then “The Man” took over the news organs.  The “independent press” became a mouthpiece for the interests of the Global 2%, the Davos set, the Bilderberg crowd.  You could not trust the headlines, or the stories.  Investigative journalism was fine if it exposed low-lifes, organised crime or benefit cheats.  But God Forbid it should look into the tax affairs of Billionaires.  In 1983, 90% of US media was controlled by 50 companies; in 2012, 90% was controlled by just 6 companies.  This pattern is reapeated worldwide.

Then along came the internet and the 5th Estate.  On Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Quora etc we get the truth, straight from the horses mouth.  You can talk to the person at the source.

The Media Moguls who now owned the 4th Estate needed to disrupt the 5th Estate.  The tool they use is called “Fake News”.  If you flood the media with sensational fake news you can create so many side conversations that it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the lies.

The age of the investigative journalist was over.  Success in journalism today resides in the ability to write good clickbait.  The headlines that go viral are the Pulitzer prizes of today.  Nobody cares about the actual article.  So these days as a Journalist you may write an excellent and insightful article which is published widely, only to find that it is topped with a clickbait headline you did not write.  The headline may not even bear any resemblance to the article itself.

In a world where every politically charged news item is presented with wildly contradictory “facts” the average Joe just retreats from the war for airtime.

Karl Marx famously commented on how the oppressed retreated into Religion as an anodyne to the realities of a hard life, something to distract the attention of the worker from his or her own exploitation, a promise of something better in the next world.  In the modern social-media world religion has been replaced by “Reality TV”.  Keeping up with the Kardashians, Love Island, America’s Got Talent, Who wants to be a Millionaire, Big Brother, Survivor, The Bachelor, America’s Top Model, Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, Storage Wars and so on.  All of these shows are examples of Hyperreal simulacra.  They represent an idealised life that does not exist – Disneyland for adults who find themselves out of touch with the cold hard realities of the modern world.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” Karl Marx

 

Telling Lies #1: Correlation

parisexplosion

 

I am starting a series of posts about how to tell lies, especially in politics and the media.  The Guardian is a newspaper I generally respect but in the headlines above they are lying.

Lies are usually pretty subtle.  People who tell overt lies are caught out, and have to retract the lie.  But a good liar will put information in front of you and let you add 1 + 1 to make 3.

The news article is about a Paris bakery explosion.  This was an accident.  Bakeries are dangerous places.  Flour dust suspended in the air is highly combustible.  If you are ever on the docks when wheat is being offloaded from ships you will see warning flags telling you of the explosion risk.

Add gas to the mix, and a naked flame and the Bakery is even more dangerous.  So, in Paris there was an accident in a Bakery and the explosion killed three people.  Sad story, but not the stuff of headlines, not the stuff likely to win a Pulitzer prize.

But what if you could add a bit of spice to the story?  Is there another angle.  As it turns out there is a Gilet Jaunes protest in Paris every Weekend this year.  So this explosion happened on the same day as yellow vested protesters were gathering in Paris.

So what we have here is a correlation.  A correlation is when two events occur together.  Kids get fat in a period of ten years.  You find that ten years ago a fast food outlet opened beside the school.  So obesity in children correlates to the presence of a fast food outlet.  But did the fast food cause the obesity.

Good science tries to avoid jumping to conclusions.  You will hear scientists say “correlation is not causation.”  Just because two things happened at the same time does not mean that one causes the other.  You may research the fast food outlet and find that none of the obese kids are actually eating there.  Scientists need to eliminate all the other possibilities, changes to transport, changes to school meals policy, changes to family incomes in the past 10 years, etc etc.

But a Journalist, especially a bad journalist, has no such scruples.  In the article above, in the second headline, the explosion is correlated with the Gilet Jaunes protest, and it is held out as a juicy possibility for another story.  Could protesters have blown up the Bakery?  Is there a conspiracy?

Populist politicians make widespread use of the correlation lie, and the greatest perpetrators in modern society are anti-vaxxers who maintain causative relationships exist when administration of any vacceine correlates with an outbreak of any condition in the recipient.

Correlation is NOT causation.  It takes work, but do the science.  Verify, verify, verify.