Thursday, October 17, 2019

The humble citizen’s guide to fighting fake news

Countering fake news is a guerrilla war of words for the hearts and minds of “true believers.” It takes critical thinking and starts with being aware of our own motives, desires, and abilities.

The ignorance spawned and spread by fake news must be stopped. It has become the “knowledge” foundation for terrible policy decisions that affect our community and our nation. Fake news messages are insidiously tenacious because they hide behind a veil of one-liners and metaphors that resonate with the fears and concerns held by many. These noxious narratives are so compelling that they easily spread like a communicable disease to their audience, who further promote the messages without concern that they’re neither “news” nor tied to reality.

We have experienced yellow journalism in the past, but its dispersion was usually limited because of the level of effort needed to sustain the message via print and broadcast media. This is no longer the case.

Fighting fake news is yet one more community challenge. Because of its far-reaching, long-term consequences, it is every bit as important as making housing affordable, improving schools, and protecting the environment.

Fake news is a marketing campaign for lies, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. We only have a limited ability to challenge the process that creates and distributes the message; our real work needs to be focused at the grassroots (neighbors, friends, colleagues, and frenemies).

With no intention to be hyperbolic, countering fake news messaging is a guerrilla war of words for the hearts and minds of our citizens. Unfortunately, guerilla wars are never won by overwhelming firepower. That only serves to injure, offend, and potentially strengthen the resolve of true believers.

Guerilla engagements require patience, proper tactics, and a willingness to engage residents one-on-one. It is, at its core, a campaign; but, instead of promoting a candidate or a party, you are marketing reality.

From whence we came

Five uniquely American characteristics have allowed fake news to flourish:

•  An American love of exciting, larger-than-life narratives, which we perceive as descriptive of our national character and American exceptionalism.

•  The struggle between Christianity and science that began in the early 19th Century (when the Second Great Awakening overlapped with the Industrial Revolution), which led to a blurring of the definition of “truth” as part of a campaign to protect Christianity.

•  The social revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s that created a mistrust in large institutions— government, corporate, and scientific.

•  The 1987 elimination of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which sought “to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair.”

•  The internet, especially beginning in 1994 with the birth of the World Wide Web.

The first characteristic makes us gullible, and the second lets us maintain a flexible connection between reason and reality. The third gives us a unique ability to doubt many authorities (“elitist” in the current vernacular), and the last two provide the vehicle for widely proliferating untrue information. Looked at another way, Americans have a tenuous understanding of science and truth, are dubious about the motives of experts and institutions, and every lunatic can easily share his or her conspiracy theories with millions of like-minded cohorts because the barriers to do so are low.

Tangential but also related, Americans often conflate their personal beliefs with sincerely held religious ones. What’s more, many of the lies, hoaxes, and conspiracies are promoted within a framework of religious views of behavior (or threats to religion). Thus, the First Amendment plays double-duty here, because the fake news narrative is protected as free speech and religion. Fake news is not only beyond the realm of reality but also protected Constitutionally. Using deductive reasoning, if something is Constitutionally protected it must be important, and if it is important, it must also be true and accurate.

Defining the adversary

What exactly is fake news? It has never had a clear definition, but it now appears to encompass propaganda (biased or misleading information used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view) and yellow journalism (news based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration). However, the term “fake news” has been co-opted—almost exclusively by the political right—to include misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, satire, and facts with which one disagrees.

The treatment for fake news is to address its symptoms. We leave it to journalists and researchers to tackle the root causes, while we mitigate its adverse impacts on our community and become more effective at detecting and responding to it. The first will help us help others; the second will help us inoculate ourselves. Yes, you and I are susceptible to the lies.

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post recommends that we stop using the term “fake news.” She suggests that we “call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name.” Armed with this additional clarity, we can more successfully challenge both the threat and the ignorance it propagates. And from here on, I’m calling it what it is.

Say what?

Inoculating ourselves from today’s falsehoods requires self-awareness and critical thinking. It starts with being sufficiently aware of your own motives, desires, and abilities. You consider your own prejudices and recognize how they encourage you to readily accept ideas that support your life perspectives. Such acceptance, called confirmation bias, is extremely hard to avoid. Hearing others echo concepts you believe in is very validating. It feels good, makes you feel smart, and resonates with your soul—your gut tells you it’s right. However, unless you’re discussing a subject you have mastered, you have no reason to trust your gut. You must ignore it, accept the limits of your knowledge, question your positions, and actively seek countervailing views.

Critical thinking has little to do with intelligence. Consider all the smart people who believe ridiculous things such as the efficacy of supply side economics, the nonexistence of global warming, and the science of trauma.” (That last one is included to demonstrate progressives should not be smug; they believe silly things as well.)

As explained by The Critical Thinking Community, “A person improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”

Like physical exercise or any self-improvement technique, critical thinking is a skill that can only be developed through constant practice. And trust me, you and I need the practice.

Logic?! We don’t need no stinkin’ logic!

Our goal is to cure those in our community who suffer from christifideles huius falsum nuntium. (Yeah, I made that up.) What makes this effort especially challenging is that the sufferers are neither self-aware nor critical thinkers; they are even happy holding their beliefs. Consider the following quiz question:

Several acquaintances believe what you know to be a conspiracy theory, and you wish to correct their misperception. The best way to enlighten them is to explain the error in their thinking so that they understand:

a.  They are stupid.
b.  They are being duped.
c.  Their belief system is flawed.
d.  All of the above.
e.  None of the above.

While “e” is the obvious answer, many of us employ techniques that result in “d.” In a previous Beacon article, I discussed the importance of recognizing the moral framework of the person with whom you are communicating. Your message must align with their moral viewpoints to have any chance of success.

So let’s apply our critical thinking skills to this issue: did the person arrive at his or her belief in a false narrative via logic and reason? No? Then why would we expect our logic and reason to be an effective means of changing his or her belief? Such an approach, my friend, is the very definition of illogical.

Debunking alone does not work. As a matter of fact, detailed debunking of lies, hoaxes, and conspiracies sometimes causes the belief in them to become more solidified. Detailed debunking (objective fact) is necessary and useful, but it is not sufficient. It remains important for us to keep ourselves informed, but changing minds requires more than mere facts.

A 2011 PLOS paper by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky examined the development of conspiratorial thinking in economics. The authors found that people’s opinions are largely dictated by their political affiliations and that conspiracy theories “may serve important social and cultural functions such as making sense of ambiguous, threatening events.” If fighters of falsehoods only had to deal with countering conspiracies, the problem would be more tractable. But conspiracies are complicated and rely on selective interpretations of evidence. Thus, one could simply point out the theory’s weaknesses and fallacies: voilà, all fixed!

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are too difficult for the lay person. To retain their power of influence, creators of conspiracy theories (and sometimes lies and hoaxes) rely on metaphors. Metaphors are simple, instinctual; they resonate with the gut. Remember “death panels”? Thibodeau and Boroditsky explain “that using different metaphors can lead people to reason differently about notions.” In their report, they describe how viewing crime as a “war” or a “virus” profoundly changed how people felt the problem should be addressed.

So what is a humble citizen to do?

We don’t have the power to turn off the fallacies that forever spew forth. We cannot make those influenced by them think critically, and we must constantly be on the lookout for our own reasoning errors. So, let’s turn it around. How could some right- or left-wing “fanatic” change your mind? It couldn’t happen, you say? Fair enough. But could a friend change your mind? How about a good friend or someone you highly respect? That person would at least have a fighting chance. But why is that? Why would you be receptive to what he or she says? It’s simple: friends understand you, listen to you, and care about you. They understand your moral foundation, and you understand theirs. You’ve spent time together and developed a relationship of mutual trust and affection.

I know. The implications are horrible! But to correct beliefs in lies, hoaxes, and conspiracies, you must befriend the holders of the beliefs, look beyond their shortcomings, and empathize with them.

This is going to hurt, but the truth is we are not smarter, faster, or better looking than they are. We just see things differently. Also, think about what you’re asking of them. If they accept what you say, then they may have to contend with a very unpleasant personal condition. To paraphrase the immortal lyrics of Pink Floyd: one day they find ten years have got behind them. No one told them when to run, they missed the starting gun.

Fighting lies, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories requires us to employ guerrilla tactics. We must be patient yet diligent. We must learn the others’ language and understand their hopes and fears. We are trying to win the hearts and minds of our villagers. Yes, even if they’re the village idiots.