Are we doomed to a dystopic future where lies swamp facts? (More)

“This significantly undermines the intelligence community’s credibility”

Yesterday Outhouse chief of staph John Kelly lied:

Kelly criticized Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson for claiming “she got the money” for the new [FBI] building during the 2015 ceremony while he and others in the audience were focused on the heroism of agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, killed during a 1986 shootout with bank robbers south of Miami.

Thursday night, Wilson said Kelly got the story flat-out wrong. In fact, she said Washington approved the money before she was even in Congress. The legislation she sponsored named the building after Grogan and Dove, a law enacted just days before the ceremony.

“He shouldn’t be able to just say that, that is terrible,” Wilson said of Kelly’s remarks in the White House briefing room, the latest volley in the controversy over Trump’s condolence call to a military widow from Miami Gardens, an area Wilson represents. “This has become totally personal.”

Meanwhile, the God-King was outraged that Rep. Wilson heard the condolence call:

But she wasn’t “SECRETLY” listening. She was consoling Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow when the God-King happened to call:

Wilson has deep roots in the South Florida community where Johnson grew up. Before entering Congress, she worked as a teacher, principal and school board member in the Miami-Dade area and served for more than a decade as a state legislator.

She also founded a program in 1993 called 5,000 Role Models of Excellence, which helps at-risk minority youths prepare for college, vocational school and the military. Her long career in public service and her work in the program have put her especially close to military families and victims of gun violence over the years. She does not shy away from grief.

Before Johnson was killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month, he graduated from the program. Wilson was consoling his wife, Myeshia Johnson, when, by her account, Trump called and said that La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for, but when it happens, it hurts.” The president has called the allegation “totally fabricated” and criticized Wilson.

And those weren’t the only lies to spew from the God-King’s administration yesterday:

CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election did not alter the outcome, a statement that distorted spy agency findings.

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said at a security conference in Washington.

That’s a lie, as the Washington Post’s Greg Miller explains at that link:

A report compiled by the CIA and other agencies described that Russian operation as unprecedented in its scale and concluded that Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and help elect Donald Trump.

But the report reached no conclusions about whether that interference had altered the outcome – an issue that U.S. intelligence officials made clear was considered beyond the scope of their inquiry.

You can read the report yourself and verify Miller’s claim. When confronted with that evidence, Pompeo’s office claimed he didn’t say what he clearly said:

A CIA spokesman denied that Pompeo intended to mislead the public with his remarks. “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” said the spokesman, Ryan Trapani, “and the director did not intend to suggest that it had.”

That’s a pile of political bullshit, as Miller reports:

“This is another example of Pompeo politicizing intelligence,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. Pompeo “is the most political CIA director since Bill Casey” during the Reagan administration, the former official said. “This significantly undermines the intelligence community’s credibility.”

It does indeed, and that may well be the point.

“People don’t want to be informed, they want to feel informed.”

That sentence is attributed to Fox News founder Roger Ailes, and it was key to his business model, as New York Magazine editor Gabriel Sherman explained to Marketplace reporter Kai Ryssdal:

RYSSDAL: Part of his business genius was that he put stuff on the air that was just flat cheaper, right? Opinion and commentary is cheaper than actual reported journalism.

SHERMAN: Without question. I mean, this was again one of Ailes’ unique insights. There was a famous saying inside Fox News when Ailes launched the network in 1996 – “People don’t want to be informed, they want to feel informed.” So, what Ailes did is he adopted all the trappings of a news network – the anchor desk, the sets, the studios. But he basically shed all the actual functions of journalism, which are bureaus, reporters out in the fields, expensive things like that. And so you have two people in the studio commenting on the news, and the audience at home doesn’t necessarily feel that they’re actually getting anything less. So that was one of his unique business insights. It was  just a cheaper product to make, and the profit margins on Fox are reflective of that. It generates more than a billion dollars a year for Twenty-First Century Fox, the parent company.

But Ailes’ insight goes deeper than merely newsroom budgets. If you want your audience to be informed, in any meaningful sense of that word, then you have to give them facts. Sometimes the facts will fit your audience’s shared beliefs, but often the facts won’t. Part of being informed is learning that some things you currently believe … are wrong.

But feeling informed is entirely different. The easiest way to make your audience feel informed is to tell them, again and again, that what they already believe is true. In this model, each day’s ‘news’ becomes simply another set of proofs for the audience’s preexisting beliefs. If a news story fits those beliefs, hammer it endlessly. If it doesn’t fit those beliefs, either ignore it or – if it’s too big to ignore – discredit and/or spin it until it does fit the audience’s preexisting beliefs.

Thus we get Fox News stories about how a gunman used a semi-automatic rifle to slaughter 23 children and teachers at an elementary school … because the school was a “gun-free zone.” Or maybe – and they’re just asking the question – the gunman was one of a team sent by gun-grabbing liberals as a “false flag” operation?

Such stories don’t help you be informed. Data show the “gun free zone” argument is bogus and there’s not a shred of evidence to support the “false flag” myths. But if those stories fit what you already believe, they help you feel informed … that you and your like-minded friends share the ‘real’ truth.

“Misinformation is a two-way street”

The explosive rise of news spreading through social media has put the “feel informed” model on steroids. Pew Research Center’s Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie conducted an in-depth survey of over a thousand “technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers and others” who study the modern flow of information, and their report on The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online is a sobering read:

Some 1,116 responded to this nonscientific canvassing: 51% chose the option that the information environment will not improve, and 49% said the information environment will improve. […] Participants were next asked to explain their answers. This report concentrates on these follow-up responses.
More specifically, the 51% of these experts who expect things will not improve generally cited two reasons:

The fake news ecosystem preys on some of our deepest human instincts: Respondents said humans’ primal quest for success and power – their “survival” instinct – will continue to degrade the online information environment in the next decade. They predicted that manipulative actors will use new digital tools to take advantage of humans’ inbred preference for comfort and convenience and their craving for the answers they find in reinforcing echo chambers.

Our brains are not wired to contend with the pace of technological change: These respondents said the rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet and emerging online applications will magnify these human tendencies and that technology-based solutions will not be able to overcome them. They predicted a future information landscape in which fake information crowds out reliable information. Some even foresaw a world in which widespread information scams and mass manipulation cause broad swathes of public to simply give up on being informed participants in civic life.

The optimistic 49% also had two general themes:

Technology can help fix these problems: These more hopeful experts said the rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet, apps and platforms can be harnessed to rein in fake news and misinformation campaigns. Some predicted better methods will arise to create and promote trusted, fact-based news sources.

It is also human nature to come together and fix problems: The hopeful experts in this canvassing took the view that people have always adapted to change and that this current wave of challenges will also be overcome. They noted that misinformation and bad actors have always existed but have eventually been marginalized by smart people and processes. They expect well-meaning actors will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment. They also believe better information literacy among citizens will enable people to judge the veracity of material content and eventually raise the tone of discourse.

Many in both groups agreed on a fifth theme:

There was common agreement among many respondents – whether they said they expect to see improvements in the information environment in the next decade or not – that the problem of misinformation requires significant attention. A share of these respondents urged action in two areas: A bolstering of the public-serving press and an expansive, comprehensive, ongoing information literacy education effort for people of all ages.

I urge you to read that entire report. It’s not too long, and both the pessimists and optimists present some good arguments.

On the whole, I think the pessimists have the stronger case. The optimists’ argument relies on people seeing a clear advantage to being informed: having better access to more reliable information that enables better decisions. And I’m sure some people will. But few of us actually make news-driven decisions, apart from voting, and the causal chains are rarely determinative.

A well-informed, well-reasoned policy can be spoiled by unforeseen events. It can also can be sabotaged, as the God-King and Republicans seem hell-bent on proving. And even if the policy succeeds, its results can be cherry-picked and presented to look like failure.

Conversely, an ill-informed, poorly-reasoned policy can seem succeed through sheer coincidence. It can also succeed by dogged determination to overcome obstacles that a better policy would not have met: the “pound of cure” that an “ounce of prevention” would have avoided. And again, even if the policy fails, its results can be cherry-picked and presented to look like success.

In short, the “be informed” model of better policy through better information cannot fully displace the “feel informed” model of confirmation bias. Add the fact that the “feel informed” model is much cheaper to produce, and it’s hard to see reliable solutions … as XEROX/PARC Chief Technical Officer Glenn Edens wrote in response to the survey:

Misinformation is a two-way street. Producers have an easy publishing platform to reach wide audiences and those audiences are flocking to the sources. The audiences typically are looking for information that fits their belief systems, so it is a really tough problem.

More and more, like the small but seemingly huge room in today’s image, we’re surrounded by informational mirrors that reflect and amplify what we already believe. In terms of raw data, the internet and social media are unimaginatively vast. But in terms of what we take in … far too often … we get only confirmation from like-minded sources.

To truly be informed, we must embrace the possibility that some of what we believe is wrong … and none of the survey respondents suggested how we might teach people to value that.


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