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Nothing but the truth?

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As a result of the recent Presidential election Americans have woken-up to the fact that they are surrounded by “fake news,” and the result would appear to be a high level of confusion over what is true and false.  The chart above labelled A uses data from a survey conducted by Pew Research Center at the beginning of December 2016.  Looking at the chart you can see that a clear majority of the Pew survey group said that fake news had caused them a great deal of muddle about the basic facts of current events. We must be cautious with the data, (there is a tendency to think that Pew’s survey represents all of America), but it was a telephone survey so it only really represents the 1,002 people who had a landline or cell phone and who answered it when a researcher rang.  You can understand the inherent bias against people who didn’t answer their phone, or indeed didn’t possess one.  Another niggle: the survey callers offered the respondents a sentence to complete: Completely made-up news has caused… but they were given only one of three options to fill in the missing blank: (a great deal of confusion/some confusion/not much or no confusion) about the basic facts of current events.  There is nothing wrong with this methodology for getting an idea of the extent of a problem.  It’s unusual not to own a telephone in the United States, although many people are likely to hang-up on a researcher who they consider a time-waster.  When the survey was taken “fake news” was a hot media topic so people’s views were probably not as carefully considered as they might have been.  Nevertheless, with these qualifications in mind, we can see that the concept of fake news is definitely creating a level of concern amongst Americans. And this concern seems justified: two of the biggest false news stories were 1) that Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and 2) that the Pope had endorsed Trump for the Presidency.  According to Buzzsumo, an analytics company which monitors Facebook data, the idea that Trump was being endorsed by the Pope generated 960,000 shares, reactions and comments, whilst the notion that Clinton sold weapons to ISIS generated 789,000.  Look at the other chart above labelled B showing the data compiled by Buzzfeed which did an analysis of the top 20 fake election news stories and compared them to the reaction on Facebook from stories generated by conventional news outlets.  The fake news stories generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook whilst the 20 best performing genuine election stories only managed to generate 7,367,000.  In the digital world fake electronic news evidently trumps real opinions or comments from old style press journalists.  And this reach and coverage extends into tangible world behaviour, not only in casting votes but in incidents like the one where a man who fired a rifle in a Washington pizzeria claimed to be self-investigating a fake news story about the restaurant being involved in sex abuse of children.       You may think that fake news is merely just another way of rephrasing words used by politicians, lobbyists and public relations companies - such as propaganda, spin, reframing, repositioning or reducing negative impact - and in a way you would be right.  Yet underlying the current concerns about truth and lies are the convergence of three much larger trends that in the future are going to make the recent fake news controversy during the American election seem relatively trivial and crude.  These trends are: 1/ We have moved from a position where the majority of news doesn’t come to us via gatekeepers like trained journalists on newspapers and TV channels but from anyone.  The Internet has enabled everyone to broadcast – indeed the original tag line that explained YouTube, now dropped, was: “broadcast yourself.”  Potentially anything can go viral and be viewed by millions of people.  You have no way of knowing if your cute cat video, or a fake news story you pass on will become the latest viral hit.  It didn’t help matters that in the long run-up to the American election, as well as all the fictitious and confusing stories, the established media were so out of touch with their readers and viewers, they dismissed Trump as a lunatic for whom nobody sane would vote.  This is probably the biggest example of wrong-headed “groupthink” in history. 2/ As you can see from chart B above, social media platforms have now become a more important source of news than established news outlets.  Many, many people, especially the young, are as likely to discover a news story from their friends and family as from any other source.  Trump understands this very well and he seems to Tweet authentic comments about his views which he can, of course, subsequently rescind when he’s had time to consider, or his aides have advised him that a more informed point of view would be prudent.  But when Trump changes his mind later, it only increases the apparent authenticity of the original Tweet, and we get the sense that the tweet was his gut reaction.  Interestingly, Trump’s change of mind isn’t usually tweeted.  Although it’s worth noting since Trump’s triumph, old style newspapers like the Wall Street Journal are on record as saying that they won’t call Trump’s fake news lies “lies.” 3/ A new breed of professional political communicators have realised that any negative factual story or comment can easily be undermined by using the amplifying effect of social media platforms to promote a different message.  As Trump knows very well.  He has skilfully used this as a key part of his communication strategy. Within the complexity of the merging of these three trends there is more than enough material to justify writing a book.  However, as many writers have already covered the death of traditional media and the rising power of social media, it is the third, less documented trend that I think deserves closer examination. At its core this is a very ancient problem.  After some debate the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016 was “Post-Truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  This concept is far from a new phenomenon, it was well discussed in Plato’s exposition: Gorgias, which dates from around 380 B.C.  Gorgias is a detailed study of virtue, written as a dialogue where Socrates (Plato’s former teacher) enquires into the true nature of rhetoric (the art of public speaking), power, justice, art, temperance, and good versus evil.  This dialogue relates closely to Plato's predominant philosophical project of defining noble and proper human existence. In Athens at that time the successful social influencers were individuals like Gorgias, a man renowned for being particularly brilliant at rhetoric.  In Gorgias, Plato has Socrates explain that people who are competent at rhetoric don’t need to have real knowledge of the topic on which they are speaking.  He points out that rhetoric is neither an art nor a craft but rather a knack or talent for persuasion.  So rhetoric doesn’t argue from a position of education or truth, but merely by telling people what they want to hear.  Socrates continues the dialogue by saying that telling individuals what pleases them, instead of the truth, leads only to negativity because it neither improves the listener nor makes them virtuous.  Fast forward to the 21st Century and Socrates and Plato would be horrified that so many people adept at using social media today have little understanding about what they tweet and retweet to their like-minded friends, as they all exist in a limited information bubble.  The extent of today’s rhetoric (public communications) problem has grown exponentially as we are all broadcasters now.  And we are near to drowning, immersed in a sea of professional communications, be it from politicians, lobbyists, the advertising industry, public relations consultants, or paid social media influencers.  They all use their talent to persuade us, not by presenting any objective truth, but by appealing to the basest of our emotions, biases and prejudices.  Socrates and Plato would despair at the futility of the “fake news” problem in a “post-truth” world.  For they would say that without truth, objectivity, morality, and virtue in all forms of public communication, there is nothing useful or of value to convey.  Those great Greek thinkers would explain simply that until there is morality and truth in the messages given by the media, there will always be a dangerous confusion amongst the audience who will continue to be swayed by their own biases, emotion and the things they want to hear. So what can we do to arm ourselves against the fake news we will be receiving, often passed on unwittingly and digitally by our family and friends, or via various websites we visit?  Well, unfortunately, the honest answer involves hard work.  As any decent researcher knows, you have to isolate a claim so that it can be verified objectively, and then track down the primary source, where the story originated.  Obviously it helps enormously if you have reasonable knowledge about the subject involved as you can then initially evaluate the likelihood of the story, and then the level of validity of the source.  You can appreciate why those lucky enough to be well educated, and those industrious enough to read widely, find sorting truth from fiction much easier than the majority who’ve missed out on education or never bothered to develop their minds. The story about Hilary Clinton selling arms to ISIS presents some idea of the difficulties we face, because all the best fake news stories start with a grain of substance.  To better describe fake news, back in 2005, the American comedian Stephen Colbert, coined the word “truthiness” i.e. a story with just a touch of truth.  The truthiness about the Clintons is that they are both associated with receiving large amounts of money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, countries in which the state sponsors the Salafi version of Sunni Islam as does ISIS or Daesh.  Hilary Clinton was also an advocate of the regime change in Libya, another majority Sunni state, which led to the downfall of Gadaffi and the current chaos in the country, including the tragic flood of refugees into Europe.  The pro-Sunni stance taken by the Clintons, and their close financial association with states directly funding ISIS, is the grain of truth that makes the arms supply story plausible.  This plausibility was helped when Wikileaks released authentic emails from Hilary Clinton clearly describing America’s pro- Sunni and anti-Shia strategy in Syria.  In the crazy complexity of the Middle East virtually any story could be true, and an additional problem with any news originating from this part of the world is that that there are few Western media reporters covering the area because it is just too dangerous.  The result is that we only really get to hear one side of some very biased stories as they are fed into the hungry global news system by ISIS or Daesh.  The story about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump also has a curious melange of truthiness.  February 2016: According to Mashable, shortly after Trump’s infamous announcement that he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Pope Francis, who had been visiting Mexico, told a reporter on the plane home to Rome that: “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."   This Papal criticism infuriated Republican presidential nominee Trump who was then campaigning in South Carolina.  "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful," he said, insisting that he is a very good Christian. July 2016: At the beginning of the month a PEW Research Center report on the religious bias of voters showed that despite being popular with white evangelicals, Trump was faring poorly among Roman Catholics despite, it seems, having attended Fordham, a Roman Catholic university.   But then Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton caused Catholic consternation when she said she supported taxpayer funded abortions!  Getting Catholic approval is vital as they account for 25% of the American electorate, and the majority of Catholics have supported the winning presidential candidate in almost all elections since 1948. September 2016: Donald Trump is variously reported to have been a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic – despite marrying his third wife in an Episcopalian church.  He hardly managed to clarify matters when he highlighted his idea of religion in an interview with CBN's David Brody where he declared:  “I believe in God. I am Christian…  First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica Queens is where I went to church. I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.”   Apparently this positive affirmation went down well with most Christians. October 2016: It emerged that the rumour that His Holiness had endorsed Trump for president had been started by the satirical website WTOE 5 News.  It ran the headline: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement:  VATICAN CITY – News outlets around the world are reporting on the news that Pope Francis has made the unprecedented decision to endorse a US presidential candidate…”   In the superbly written fake news story, the Pope is alleged to comment on the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton, saying: “The FBI, in refusing to recommend prosecution after admitting that the law had been broken on multiple occasions by Secretary Clinton, has exposed itself as corrupted by political forces that have become far too powerful.” The fiction continues with the Pope saying:  “I ask, not as the Holy Father, but as a concerned citizen of the world that Americans vote for Donald Trump for President of the United States.” This fantasy story raced round the Web, despite a Papal denial.  And who can say what effect it had on dithering Catholic voters?   Who can say what effect any of the fake news stories circulating so widely have on any of us?  Was the Brexit result swayed by the massive propaganda and fake figures that were bandied about?   Like Plato and Socrates, we have to be vigilant and questioning, and do a little digging of our own. December 2016
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As a result of the recent Presidential election Americans have woken-up to the fact that they are surrounded by “fake news,” and the result would appear to be a high level of confusion over what is true and false.  The chart above labelled A uses data from a survey conducted by Pew Research Center at the beginning of December 2016.  Looking at the chart you can see that a clear majority of the Pew survey group said that fake news had caused them a great deal of muddle about the basic facts of current events. We must be cautious with the data, (there is a tendency to think that Pew’s survey represents all of America), but it was a telephone survey so it only really represents the 1,002 people who had a landline or cell phone and who answered it when a researcher rang.  You can understand the inherent bias against people who didn’t answer their phone, or indeed didn’t possess one.  Another niggle: the survey callers offered the respondents a sentence to complete: Completely made-up news has caused… but they were given only one of three options to fill in the missing blank: (a great deal of confusion/some confusion/not much or no confusion) about the basic facts of current events.  There is nothing wrong with this methodology for getting an idea of the extent of a problem.  It’s unusual not to own a telephone in the United States, although many people are likely to hang-up on a researcher who they consider a time-waster.  When the survey was taken “fake news” was a hot media topic so people’s views were probably not as carefully considered as they might have been.  Nevertheless, with these qualifications in mind, we can see that the concept of fake news is definitely creating a level of concern amongst Americans. And this concern seems justified: two of the biggest false news stories were 1) that Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and 2) that the Pope had endorsed Trump for the Presidency.  According to Buzzsumo, an analytics company which monitors Facebook data, the idea that Trump was being endorsed by the Pope generated 960,000 shares, reactions and comments, whilst the notion that Clinton sold weapons to ISIS generated 789,000.  Look at the other chart above labelled B showing the data compiled by Buzzfeed which did an analysis of the top 20 fake election news stories and compared them to the reaction on Facebook from stories generated by conventional news outlets.  The fake news stories generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook whilst the 20 best performing genuine election stories only managed to generate 7,367,000.  In the digital world fake electronic news evidently trumps real opinions or comments from old style press journalists.  And this reach and coverage extends into tangible world behaviour, not only in casting votes but in incidents like the one where a man who fired a rifle in a Washington pizzeria claimed to be self-investigating a fake news story about the restaurant being involved in sex abuse of children.       You may think that fake news is merely just another way of rephrasing words used by politicians, lobbyists and public relations companies - such as propaganda, spin, reframing, repositioning or reducing negative impact - and in a way you would be right.  Yet underlying the current concerns about truth and lies are the convergence of three much larger trends that in the future are going to make the recent fake news controversy during the American election seem relatively trivial and crude.  These trends are: 1/ We have moved from a position where the majority of news doesn’t come to us via gatekeepers like trained journalists on newspapers and TV channels but from anyone.  The Internet has enabled everyone to broadcast – indeed the original tag line that explained YouTube, now dropped, was: “broadcast yourself.”  Potentially anything can go viral and be viewed by millions of people.  You have no way of knowing if your cute cat video, or a fake news story you pass on will become the latest viral hit.  It didn’t help matters that in the long run-up to the American election, as well as all the fictitious and confusing stories, the established media were so out of touch with their readers and viewers, they dismissed Trump as a lunatic for whom nobody sane would vote.  This is probably the biggest example of wrong-headed “groupthink” in history. 2/ As you can see from chart B above, social media platforms have now become a more important source of news than established news outlets.  Many, many people, especially the young, are as likely to discover a news story from their friends and family as from any other source.  Trump understands this very well and he seems to Tweet authentic comments about his views which he can, of course, subsequently rescind when he’s had time to consider, or his aides have advised him that a more informed point of view would be prudent.  But when Trump changes his mind later, it only increases the apparent authenticity of the original Tweet, and we get the sense that the tweet was his gut reaction.  Interestingly, Trump’s change of mind isn’t usually tweeted.  Although it’s worth noting since Trump’s triumph, old style newspapers like the Wall Street Journal are on record as saying that they won’t call Trump’s fake news lies “lies.” 3/ A new breed of professional political communicators have realised that any negative factual story or comment can easily be undermined by using the amplifying effect of social media platforms to promote a different message.  As Trump knows very well.  He has skilfully used this as a key part of his communication strategy. Within the complexity of the merging of these three trends there is more than enough material to justify writing a book.  However, as many writers have already covered the death of traditional media and the rising power of social media, it is the third, less documented trend that I think deserves closer examination. At its core this is a very ancient problem.  After some debate the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016 was “Post-Truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  This concept is far from a new phenomenon, it was well discussed in Plato’s exposition: Gorgias, which dates from around 380 B.C.  Gorgias is a detailed study of virtue, written as a dialogue where Socrates (Plato’s former teacher) enquires into the true nature of rhetoric (the art of public speaking), power, justice, art, temperance, and good versus evil.  This dialogue relates closely to Plato's predominant philosophical project of defining noble and proper human existence. In Athens at that time the successful social influencers were individuals like Gorgias, a man renowned for being particularly brilliant at rhetoric.  In Gorgias, Plato has Socrates explain that people who are competent at rhetoric don’t need to have real knowledge of the topic on which they are speaking.  He points out that rhetoric is neither an art nor a craft but rather a knack or talent for persuasion.  So rhetoric doesn’t argue from a position of education or truth, but merely by telling people what they want to hear.  Socrates continues the dialogue by saying that telling individuals what pleases them, instead of the truth, leads only to negativity because it neither improves the listener nor makes them virtuous.  Fast forward to the 21st Century and Socrates and Plato would be horrified that so many people adept at using social media today have little understanding about what they tweet and retweet to their like-minded friends, as they all exist in a limited information bubble.  The extent of today’s rhetoric (public communications) problem has grown exponentially as we are all broadcasters now.  And we are near to drowning, immersed in a sea of professional communications, be it from politicians, lobbyists, the advertising industry, public relations consultants, or paid social media influencers.  They all use their talent to persuade us, not by presenting any objective truth, but by appealing to the basest of our emotions, biases and prejudices.  Socrates and Plato would despair at the futility of the “fake news” problem in a “post-truth” world.  For they would say that without truth, objectivity, morality, and virtue in all forms of public communication, there is nothing useful or of value to convey.  Those great Greek thinkers would explain simply that until there is morality and truth in the messages given by the media, there will always be a dangerous confusion amongst the audience who will continue to be swayed by their own biases, emotion and the things they want to hear. So what can we do to arm ourselves against the fake news we will be receiving, often passed on unwittingly and digitally by our family and friends, or via various websites we visit?  Well, unfortunately, the honest answer involves hard work.  As any decent researcher knows, you have to isolate a claim so that it can be verified objectively, and then track down the primary source, where the story originated.  Obviously it helps enormously if you have reasonable knowledge about the subject involved as you can then initially evaluate the likelihood of the story, and then the level of validity of the source.  You can appreciate why those lucky enough to be well educated, and those industrious enough to read widely, find sorting truth from fiction much easier than the majority who’ve missed out on education or never bothered to develop their minds. The story about Hilary Clinton selling arms to ISIS presents some idea of the difficulties we face, because all the best fake news stories start with a grain of substance.  To better describe fake news, back in 2005, the American comedian Stephen Colbert, coined the word “truthiness” i.e. a story with just a touch of truth.  The truthiness about the Clintons is that they are both associated with receiving large amounts of money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, countries in which the state sponsors the Salafi version of Sunni Islam as does ISIS or Daesh.  Hilary Clinton was also an advocate of the regime change in Libya, another majority Sunni state, which led to the downfall of Gadaffi and the current chaos in the country, including the tragic flood of refugees into Europe.  The pro-Sunni stance taken by the Clintons, and their close financial association with states directly funding ISIS, is the grain of truth that makes the arms supply story plausible.  This plausibility was helped when Wikileaks released authentic emails from Hilary Clinton clearly describing America’s pro- Sunni and anti-Shia strategy in Syria.  In the crazy complexity of the Middle East virtually any story could be true, and an additional problem with any news originating from this part of the world is that that there are few Western media reporters covering the area because it is just too dangerous.  The result is that we only really get to hear one side of some very biased stories as they are fed into the hungry global news system by ISIS or Daesh.  The story about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump also has a curious melange of truthiness.  February 2016: According to Mashable, shortly after Trump’s infamous announcement that he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Pope Francis, who had been visiting Mexico, told a reporter on the plane home to Rome that: “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."   This Papal criticism infuriated Republican presidential nominee Trump who was then campaigning in South Carolina.  "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful," he said, insisting that he is a very good Christian. July 2016: At the beginning of the month a PEW Research Center report on the religious bias of voters showed that despite being popular with white evangelicals, Trump was faring poorly among Roman Catholics despite, it seems, having attended Fordham, a Roman Catholic university.   But then Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton caused Catholic consternation when she said she supported taxpayer funded abortions!  Getting Catholic approval is vital as they account for 25% of the American electorate, and the majority of Catholics have supported the winning presidential candidate in almost all elections since 1948. September 2016: Donald Trump is variously reported to have been a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic – despite marrying his third wife in an Episcopalian church.  He hardly managed to clarify matters when he highlighted his idea of religion in an interview with CBN's David Brody where he declared:  “I believe in God. I am Christian…  First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica Queens is where I went to church. I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.”   Apparently this positive affirmation went down well with most Christians. October 2016: It emerged that the rumour that His Holiness had endorsed Trump for president had been started by the satirical website WTOE 5 News.  It ran the headline: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement:  VATICAN CITY – News outlets around the world are reporting on the news that Pope Francis has made the unprecedented decision to endorse a US presidential candidate…”   In the superbly written fake news story, the Pope is alleged to comment on the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton, saying: “The FBI, in refusing to recommend prosecution after admitting that the law had been broken on multiple occasions by Secretary Clinton, has exposed itself as corrupted by political forces that have become far too powerful.” The fiction continues with the Pope saying:  “I ask, not as the Holy Father, but as a concerned citizen of the world that Americans vote for Donald Trump for President of the United States.” This fantasy story raced round the Web, despite a Papal denial.  And who can say what effect it had on dithering Catholic voters?   Who can say what effect any of the fake news stories circulating so widely have on any of us?  Was the Brexit result swayed by the massive propaganda and fake figures that were bandied about?   Like Plato and Socrates, we have to be vigilant and questioning, and do a little digging of our own. December 2016
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Nothing but the truth?

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