Truth, post-truth, fake news, media, epistemology, pseudoscience, bullshit ... a prelude
I've been up to my eyeballs in a bunch of bits the past month or two, trying to put my own head together about numerous factors which seem to have come to a head in the past year or so. Not that they haven't been brewing for decades, or that they aren't ancient problems.
I'm disappointed by most treatments I've seen which simply don't appear aware of the philosophical, psychological, communications & media, or historical backgrounds. So I aim to fix that.
As I'm wont to do, this is mostly me emptying a shotgun in divers and random directions than a coherent whole, but spilling some of this in some form of virtual ink seems appropriate, and Ello seems capable of absorbing the damage.
Pick this to pieces -- what needs shoring up, isn't clear, is bullshit, etc.?
I've a few hundred references I'm sorting through on this as well as copious notes. There've been a few bits posted earlier (one of my more recent longer posts probably wants revisiting). It's still gelling.
Truth and epistemology
There's a long and deep study of this. Including various theories of truth. Much of value.
Upshot: this isn't a greenfield, there are authorities to consult, much wisdom, some bullshit. Recent times have seen additions to theory, some useful, some not.
Theories of truth
I recommend particularly the coherence, correspondence, and pragmatic theories, with consistency as another element. Good Wikipedia articles an all of these.
None of these are guaranteed to get you to The Truth, of course, but each will generally get you closer to it, or start highlighting problems in the facts or narrative.
Authority, a property conveyed rather than asserted, is another useful tool, and is highly underutilised. Also internal consistency, as at least a first pass.
I'm partial to the Pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey.
False facts vs. false narrative
There's been much focus on the concept of fact-checking as a means of addressing the "fake news" epidemic (variously: bullshit, propaganda, hoaxes, and bunkum). This has some merits, but runs afoul some greater issues.
The first of these is when a narrative is false, even where many or all the facts are individually true. This is a favourite tactic of conspiracy theorists and bullshit purveyors. I've seen instances which contain a great deal of truth, but which are ultimately bogus on account largely of narrative. Particularly of drawing false connections between elements. I've noted in the past "It's All a Rich Man's Game", which ties everything from Nazism, WWII, the JFK assassination, 9/11, and the 2007-8 financial meltdown into a single narrative ... of complete bullshit. Though it took me about 20 minutes of this 3 hour 40 minute (yes, I've ~watched~ wasted my time with the whole damned thing) copralitic epic to find the first clear bogosity -- a very popular misrepresentation of JFK's "Secret Society" speech (it's about the USSR, not some Skull and Bones conspiracy).
You're not entitled to your own facts or to hang the people who prove you wrong: blog post concerning some pseudolegal bullshit. In particular, the post notes the near-universal tactic of virtually all bullshiters: to simply ignore inconvenient contradictory evidence. See especially the exposition at the bottom of the post.
Psychology and Sociology of Bullshit
TL;DR: Few True Believers will ever be convinced that their beliefs are in fact false. Thomas Kuhn observed that even among scientists, death was the best persuasive method about, and most false believers are even less principled. Fortunately there are a great many Loose Believers, who may eventually yield to consistent messaging. And often the challenge is one of rallying those who actually do value truth.
There's also a value to working with children -- early experiences and exposure matter hugely.
Answering "Who are you to judge?"
Who the fuck are you to say I cannot? Fuck off.
Media, and especially, media as an agent of change
A huge area and one much underappreciated by the public (though the communications, media, propaganda, and government worlds seem to have a sharp awareness). Elizabeth Eisenstein's written a book on the topic, and there's a fair amount of literature in sociology, communications, media studies, and some related fields. I'm getting up to speed.
Printing, mass media, and advertising
See above. More particularly, these three concepts, as well as the industrial age, factory system, and mass production are very, very tighly interconnected. See Hamilton Holt's book, below.
Information is nonrivalrous, but attention is not
Information access wants to be free. Attention cannot be.
We've only so many hours in a day, and there are tremendous amounts of bullshit to sift thorugh. Diderot wrote on the problem of information overload ... in 1755. Noting among other things that if books kept piling up at the rate they were, or even hundreds or thousands of times faster (the rate today is millionsfold), you'd be better off consulting reality than trying to track down information. I'm inclined to think the man had a point.
Clay Shirky has noted that the founders of online media communities keep rediscovering, and publishing as Freshly Delivered Revelation, the same depressingly consistent sets of observations on group behaviour as group size progresses. Hrm... Something I highly recommend for @chelsea @dcdoran and @cacheflowe as well as the rest of the Ello crew. If I can find the damned book (look up his "Here Comes Everyone" where the point is hammered home in various links / blogs).
An hour-long news program might cover ten stories. A daily newspaper has maybe 20 or so real news items in a day. A set of major papers (Washington Post, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal) publishes between 150 and 250 items in a day, few of those real news. Only a handful or two really make daily consciousness.
The Scope of the Fake News problem
A frequent objection is that tackling fake news is intractable -- the problem is too big, determining truth too hard, etc., etc.
The fact is that much of this is bullshit. What's being asked is for today's media giants -- Facebook, Google, Twitter, Wordpress, and others -- to grow up, own up, and take responsibility, something none of them want to do.
As noted above, the real scope of the daily news cycle is small, and the concern rapidly reduces to:
- Wide-spread, widely-read stories.
- Of significant impact.
- With little or no factual basis.
In particular, holding those accountable for the production, dissemination, and sponsorship of such items should help tremendously in triaging the problem. Declaring specific reporters or publishers to be non grata on repeat failure to validate sources, ad networks being penalised for sponsorship of bogus material, libel suits against reporters, publishers, and advertisers, for real harms done, should help. Some of this breaks to dangerous ground regards free speech, but there are strong grounds for arguing these points.
Fake news and advertising
Simply put, much of this stuff exists because it pays. Google, Facebook, other ads agencies, and the advertisers themselves are directly and specifically culpable for having created this mess, and should be held to account.
The cost is not only trust in media, but the future viability of liberal democracy itself.
Populism and its concerns
Especially courts. Most especially courts.
A.H.M. Jones, Augustus, a biography of the first emperor of Rome, lists the concerns of the obigates, the oligarchical elite, and the populares, the populists. They're stunningly similar to the concerns of today's conservative vs. left-liberal parties. Compare as well to the French Revolution (and why Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite was an indivisible trio of principles) (1792?), the British Chartist movement (1830s & 40s), and the Revolutions of 1848 throughout Europe. Representation, enfranchisement, and fair trials by peers were consistent demands.
It's all about Power
Economics is politics. Politics is war. War is economics. All are about the channelling of power, the interplay of power, wealth, governance, press, morality (and how each achieves power over the others), and their use in distributing economic benefits.
Demagoguery and Locusts
Both are behavioural modes, not characteristics of specific individuals. Push a group population hard enough and it will engage in demagogic (or radicalised) behaviours.
Shit I still need to read.
And which you might profit by as well. Something of a bibliography.
- James Gleick, The Information.
- Marshal McLuhan. Various.
- MacKay, Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
- Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everyone
- Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.
- Jeremy Norman, The History of Information. A simply amazing website I've just stumbled across. The past 2.8 million years of information and media. Some 4,000+ articles, and 92 themes.
- Bernays, Propaganda and Public Relations
- Popper, The Great Transformation and others.
- J.S. Mill, several.
- Charles Perrow, Ordinary Accidents and Making America (I think).
- Arnold Toynbee, Lectures on the Industrial Revolution.
This list should be far longer.
Shit I've read
- Hamilton Holt, Commercialism and Journalism (1909). A pithy but fact-filled short (115 small pages) book based on an address to the University of California. Holt was a magazine publisher (The Independent) and was writing of the previous 60 years of US publishing history, with the growth of, variously, mass media (publishing -- newspapers and magazines especially), advertising, and the mass-manufacturing which fed that. The book is a poignant record of the situation at the start of the present mess.
- Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. A scathing critique of the telly and its aspects, including advertising. Of which Mander, as an ad executive (he ran his own firm) knows much.
- Niel Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly. Cautious tales on media and technology. Postman was a student of McLuhan.
Image credit: Gellinger / Pixabay.