Tag Archives: Disinformation

Donald Trump and the Truth Bubble, Part 1 – The Misinformed

“Wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” — Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789

Thomas Jefferson’s support of a free press and education for the common people — including entry to the highest levels of instruction (i.e. a college or university) — was based on the belief that a knowledgeable, well-educated citizenry was necessary for the preservation of democracy. One of his greatest fears was that the people would cede power to the government through sheer ignorance and lack of understanding.

So what happens when the process of educating and informing American citizens starts to break down? Can the checks and balances put in place by the Founding Fathers hold up in the face of a full blown idiocratic meltdown?

These types of questions were pretty far from my mind last summer when I started tracking the progress of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates using data from Politifact. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if there was a way to use this data to better understand the path to a successful nomination.

As a refresher, the 2016 Presidential campaign officially began in March of 2015 when Ted Cruz announced his intention to run for office. He was eventually joined by sixteen other Republicans, six Democrats and a miscellany of Libertarians, Socialists and Green Party candidates – the largest presidential primary field in American history. At the time, Hillary Clinton was considered the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination but there was no clear frontrunner on the Republican side. Pundits couldn’t decide if the large Republican field reflected that party’s depth of talent or its lack of cohesiveness.

With the participants off and running, I was interested in seeing whether or not a politician’s truthfulness would be reflected in their strength as a candidate or whether there were other factors involved. My first analysis consisted of looking at Poliifact’s “truth-o-meter” and seeing if I could tease out any meaningful differences between candidates. The following chart shows each candidate’s average rating (where 5 = True, 4 = Mostly True, 3 = Half True, 2 = Mostly False, 1 = False, 0 = “Pants on Fire”) and their “skewness”, which was my attempt at getting at the asymmetry (lean more true, lean more false) of their responses. Size represents the number of times Politifact checked statements by the candidates. I included a few outside sources of information (Facebook, emails, blogs) and politicians (Biden, Obama) for reference. (Responses as of September 18, 2015.)

politifact-candidate-ratings-v1

Here’s the same chart (same time period) with just the two current candidates:

politifact-candidate-ratings-v2

I had two takeaways from this exercise. The first was that candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson had about as much credibility as a chain letter from your cranky uncle. The second was that — based purely on my evaluations of truthfulness and believability – the most likely pick for the Republican nomination was probably going to be someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush … two Republican candidates with relatively high levels of positive (true) Politifact ratings.

As we now know, pretty much everybody got this wrong. How did this happen? Throughout the campaign commentator after commentator expressed their concern with Trump’s rather dubious relationship with the truth. New York Times columnist David Brooks stated that Trump “is perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes” while political writer David Frum said that Trump’s mendacity is “qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee.” Politico awarded Trump’s campaign misstatements their 2015 Lie of the Year and, in May of this year, Politico reporters analyzed a full week of his speeches and found that the orange one made nearly one false or misleading statement every five minutes.

Summarized from the Atlantic:

“PolitiFact recently calculated that only 2 percent of the claims made by Trump are true, 7 percent are mostly true, 15 percent are half true, 15 percent are mostly false, 42 percent are false, and 18 percent are “pants on fire.” Adding up the last three numbers (from mostly false to flagrantly so), Trump scores 75 percent. The corresponding figures for Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, respectively, are 66, 32, 31, and 29 percent.”

Far from hurting him in the polls, however, Trump’s dishonesty is viewed as a positive feature by his supporters. An NBC, Telemundo, and Marist College poll taken last December suggests that more than seven in ten Republicans believe Trump “tells it like it is.” Since “telling it like it is” seems to be synonymous with lying out of one’s ass, many have speculated that the underlying cause of Trump’s success springs from his ability to give voice to the concerns of the typical conservative voter.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps there is just a large swath of the American electorate who can no longer tell the difference between fact and fairytale.

Among Trump supporters …

Of course, the left has its own set of conspiracy theories and American’s penchant for kooky ideas doesn’t seem to conform to any political boundaries. However, the statements above continue to be voiced by the candidate himself and that is unusual.

I get it. People are angry and frustrated and Trump gives them a voice. But instead of speaking with or compromising with their fellow citizens they are willing to throw bombs in the hopes that the country that rises out of the rubble is more suited to their tastes. Is that really what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers wanted for their republic? Mob rule?

Certainly, some people would say it is. In a letter to William Stephens Smith after Shay’s Rebellion in the 1780s, Jefferson famously stated that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Many people on the far right like to toss out this quote whenever they feel that American society needs a kick in the pants.

However, it should be noted that this particular quote is frequently taken out of context. Earlier in that same letter, Jefferson wrote that:

“the people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part [of the population] which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.”

Notice Jefferson’s use of the phrase “well-informed” in this situation (also used in the opening quote for this article). He is describing something that is absent from the discontented participants of the rebellion. They are not well-informed and their misconceptions have fueled their anger — leading them down the path to revolt. He’s not surprised by the fighting because a free people are passionate about their liberty and will fight to maintain it (thus the “blood of patriots” line). But he is also saying that their actions spring from a place of ignorance.

This sounds eerily familiar to our current situation. Ignorance is no longer seen as a negative, but a sincere sign of authenticity. Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters seem unable to process basic information, preferring conspiracy theories and “satisfying stories” to expertise and careful deliberation. No wonder people are angry … they are both blind and deaf to the truth.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times puts it succinctly:

“A know-nothing tide is upon us. Tribal politics, anchored in tribal media, has made knowing nothing a badge of honor. Ignorance, loudly declaimed, is an attribute, especially if allied to celebrity. Facts are dispensable baggage. To display knowledge, the acquisition of which takes time, is tantamount to showing too much respect for the opposition tribe, who know nothing anyway.”

It would seem a simple thing to set these people straight. In fact, if we look at the full paragraph of Jefferson’s “blood of patriots and tyrants” quote, we see that he outlines a solution plainly (highlighted):

“The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty … What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Jefferson obviously felt that having a well-informed citizenry (via education and the free press) would eliminate or at least reduce the majority of these types of conflicts. But the path to enlightenment isn’t always so easy. A 2000 study by political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uninformed.

“The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion … the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans. These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become ‘indistinguishable from hard data.'”

In other words, you can’t simply “set them right as to the facts” because they already have fake facts embedded in their heads. To make matters worse, another study found that attempts to correct people’s misconceptions often caused them to hold on to their opinions more tightly. This defensive processing (the “backfire effect”) allows politicians like Trump to fill people’s heads with nonsense while keeping them fully engaged and politically active. He is their friend and savior … the only person willing to tell them the truth.

Writing in FiveThirtyEight, Anne Pluta states breaks down the incentive to deceive people:

“For most politicians, it doesn’t make sense to use precious resources to try to move or dissuade people from their incorrect positions — especially if this misinformation supports the political actor’s policy positions or legislative goals (as it does in Trump’s case).”

So if some politicians are actively working against the establishment of a well-informed citizenry, how can we apply Jefferson’s remedy? We will explore this remedy – and why it is struggling during this election — in the next sections.

Part 1 – The Misinformed
Part 2 – The Captive Press
Part 3 – The Politicization of Education
Part 4 – The Information Virus

Jon Stewart on Misinformation

I just finished watching Jon Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show and I was glad see that his parting speech addressed the topic of misinformation (aka: bullshit) and how to recognize it. The following is a rough transcript:

TRANSCRIPT: Jon Stewart delivers speech on “Bulls–t” during his final episode hosting “The Daily Show” Wednesday night on Comedy Central

Welcome back! Anyway, about the debate. I don’t have anything for you.

We’ve seen the correspondents. We’ve met everyone who works here. And now I feel like I should probably say something. So maybe one last time, maybe a little — if you want to — maybe a little camera three.

Bullshit is everywhere.

Are the kids still here? We’ll deal with that later.

Bullshit is everywhere. There is very little you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit — not all of it bad. General day-to-day free range is often necessary, or at least innocuous: “Oh, what a beautiful baby. I’m sure he’ll grow into that head.” That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social-contract fertilizer and keeps people from make each other cry all day. But then there’s the more pernicious bullshit, your premeditated institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshitacracy.

It comes in three basic flavors.

One, making bad things sound like good things. “Organic, all-natural cupcakes” … because factory made sugar oatmeal balls doesn’t sell. “Patriot Act” … because “Are You Scared Enough to Let Me Look at All Your Phone Records Act” doesn’t sell. Whenever something is titled freedom, fairness, family, health, and America, take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facilitate that may contain traces of bullshit.

Number two, the second way, hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit. Complexity — you know, I would love to download Drizzy’s latest Meek Mill diss. (Everyone promised me that that made sense.) But I’m not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy’s iTunes agreement, so I’ll just click “agree” even if it grants Apple prima noctae with my spouse. Here’s another one — simply put, banks shouldn’t be able to bet your pension money on red. Bullshitly put, it’s — hey, this. Dodd-Frank. Hey, a handful of billionaires can’t buy our elections, right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited anonymous cash into a 501(c)4 other wise they’d have to 501(c)6 it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super PAC … “I think they’re asleep now. We can sneak out.”

And finally — finally, it’s the Bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshitters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. We can’t do anything because we don’t yet know everything. We cannot take action on climate change until everyone in the world agrees gay marriage vaccines won’t cause our children to marry goats who are going to come for our guns. Until then, I say teach the controversy.

Now, the good news is this– bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is a pleasant way to pass the time like an “I Spy” of bullshit. I say to you tonight friends the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Stewart. We couldn’t have made it through these last 16 years without you.

Is Lying to the Public OK?

In a recent post, Lane Wallace discusses the pros and cons of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Broadcasting Act of 1986 which would allow broadcasters more leeway to broadcast false or misleading news. As you might imagine, that has generated some controversy, with free speech advocates saying the current law is too restrictive while others were concerned that the modifications would lead to a more toxic (and perhaps less accurate) American-style news environment.

Basically, the issue boiled down to whether or not people felt that TV and radio broadcasters had the same right to free speech as individuals. Because of their access to the public airwaves and the incredible power associated with holding a broadcast license, the CRTC (the equivalent to America’s FCC) determined that licence holders must be held to different standards and withdrew the proposed amendment,

Ms. Wallace wonders why we don’t have something similar in the U.S.:

Is it unacceptable censorship to require someone to be basically honest in what they broadcast as “news” — and which we are more likely to accept as truth, because it comes from a serious and authoritative-sounding news anchor?

Adding:

We prohibit people from lying in court, because the consequences of those lies are serious. That’s a form of censorship of free speech, but one we accept quite willingly. And while the consequences of what we hear on television and radio are not as instantly severe as in a court case, one could argue that the damage widely-disseminated false information does to the goal of a well-informed public and a working, thriving democracy is significant, as well.

One could counter that it is up to the individual to pick and choose their own news sources (something I have also discussed in the past) but she points out that:

In theory, we could all fact-check everything we hear on the TV or radio, of course. But few people have the time to do that, even if they had the contacts or resources.

Regulating U.S. broadcasters in such a manner would no doubt raise cries against  the “nanny state” from many circles but I suspect that these same folks are the ones that have raised obfuscation to a high art. In the long run, failing to hold news agencies responsible for their content does more harm to our society than good.

Propaganda vs. Disinformation vs. News

In his book Warriors of Disinformation, Alvin Snyder notes that, back in the 1980s, new developments in broadcast technology were making it difficult for Soviet and Warsaw Pact authorities to control the flow of information into their respective countries:

“The increasing accessibility of images, ideas, and information, facilitated by the rapid development and deployment of communications technology, presented closed societies with a Fustian bargain. On one hand, the new technology provided totalitarian governments with a new tool with which to control and manipulate public opinion, on an unprecedented scale. On the other, using the new technology meant those same governments would be subjected to greater domestic and international scrutiny, reducing their ability to control what their citizens saw and heard.”

These leaders knew that information coming from the outside world would clash with their own version of events and they were worried that the government-controlled media would lose its credibility if citizens were allowed to see and hear other opinions. They made it illegal to own things like satellite dishes and they jammed communication signals coming from across their borders. Meanwhile, the U.S. Government expanded its programs through the U.S. Information Agency’s Voice of America (VOA) and WORLDNET Television network and built ever more powerful radio and TV stations to broadcast American propaganda throughout the region. It was an arms race of sorts, only with the deployment of lies and exaggerated versions of the truth instead of tanks and missiles.

Although the Cold War is over, propaganda – officially defined as ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause – is still big business. BP tripled its advertising budget during this summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to minimize the damage to its reputation. Estimated spending on advertising during the U.S. mid-terms topped $3 Billion as politicians fought to determine the outcome of the election. Lobbyists, non-profits, think tanks, and grassroots organizations all try to use propaganda to influence public opinion on any manner of topics — from tavern legislation to global warming.

In fact, propaganda is so pervasive in today’s culture that most people now assume that there is some level of bias behind almost every statement … even the straight presentation of facts. This loss of credibilty has been particularly damaging to traditional sources of information because they must now compete for attention with alternative media sources that are not bound by journalistic standards. In a world where accuracy of reporting must be balanced with speed of dissemination, the introduction of the Internet and modern social networks makes it much easier for false statements to spread unchecked.

The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics sums up the issue facing journalists as follows:

“One of the greatest benefits of online journalism is its ability to reach millions of people almost instantaneously. But the pressure to keep news current — online within minutes of an event’s occurrence — can jeopardize the accurate reportingof even the most ethically-conscious journalist. Furthermore, the proliferation of news outlets — bloggers by the millions, of course, but also cable television, satellite television, web sites, and web broadcasts — has resulted in a multi-media race to get ‘the’ story 24 hours a day. As the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners.”

A prime example of this occurred recently when an unsubstantiated rumor about the cost of President Obama’s trip to Asia took hold in the blogosphere and then migrated to the talk show circuit and, finally, politicians eager to score some points with their constituents. It took an unusual stand by CNN’s Anderson Cooper to actually trace the rumor back to its source and call the whole charade into question. This neglect of basic fact-checking by pundits and major media outlets skirts dangerously close to disinformation — the deliberate spread of false information in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

Thomas Freidman responded:

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

I think it’s refreshing that Freidman places the onus of determining the validity of these rumors on the people receiving the information. Think of how futile it would be for any authority to try and block these sources. It would be similar to the Soviet government’s attempts to insulate its citizens during the Cold War. The challenge for our society than becomes: how do people prepare themselves to handle this influx of facts, opinions and outright fabrications?

The American Historical Association has published a great series of G.I. pamphlets that were originally prepared under the direction of the Army’s Division of Information and Education to help increase the effectiveness of American soldiers during and after World War II. One pamphlet deals directly with propaganda and tackles the concepts of “good” and “bad” propaganda as well as the difference between propaganda and news. This document also lays out the division of responsibility for interpreting information:

“The journalist of today has a responsibility to report facts as accurately, objectively, and disinterestedly as is humanly possible. The newspaperman who respects himself and his work — the average newspaperman — accepts this responsibility. The honest, self-disciplined, well-trained reporter seeks to be a propagandist for nothing but the truth.

“Of course propaganda does bet into the press. Sometimes it is presented in the guise of impartial fact because the newspaperman is not sufficiently trained — or smart enough — to recognize it for what it is. Sometimes the newspaper is a conscious propagandist — in news and headlines both. And sometimes propaganda is so obviously news, and so obviously a matter of importance to the newspaper’s readers, that the paper presents it knowing that the readers themselves will recognize it for what it is and evaluate it for themselves.

“All this imposes a responsibility upon the newspaper reader, and it is with him that the responsibility of judgment ultimately should and does lie. The good newspaperman does his best to confirm the news, to weed out propaganda that isn’t news, and to present whatever propaganda the citizenry ought to know about. Having done that, he leaves it up to the reader for evaluation and criticism. He knows that the critical reader — one decently supplied with facts and having some knowledge of propaganda methods and purposes — can do his own job of separating the wheat from the straw, the important from the unimportant. That is the citizen’s responsibility and his privilege in a democratic society.”

In other words, you are your own filter and you need to develop the skills and skeptical attitude that can help you cut through the BS. The GI pamphlet suggests a few simple questions that the “thinking citizen” can ask themselves when they see or hear a piece of information:

  1. Is it really propaganda? Is some individual or group consciously trying to influence opinion and action? Who? For what purpose?
  2. Is it true? Does a comparison of independent reports show that the facts are accurate? Does such a comparison show that the suggestions made are soundly based?
  3. Which fact or set of facts in a piece of promotion are really important and relevant? Which are irrelevant?
  4. If some individual or group is trying to influence opinion and action, is the effort selfish or is it unselfish? Will action resulting from the propaganda benefit the individual or group responsible for it? Or will it benefit those who act upon the suggestion given in the propaganda? Or will it benefit both?
  5. What is likely to be the effect of the action or of the opinion that the propaganda is trying to set in motion?

They also added:

All these points boil down to some very simple questions: What is the source of the propaganda? What is its authority? What purposes prompted it? Whom will it benefit? What does it really say?

This is timeless advice … maybe we should develop an advertising campaign to support the development of this skill.

Further Reading: