Thursday, October 27, 2016

Disinformation Wants To Be Free! Or... "I don't know shit for sure, and that's the way I like it!"

Hopeful open minded skepticism:
The understanding that we can't actually know anything for certain because we are
deeply aware that all information we receive apart from what we directly experience is filtered through other people's perceptions before it gets to us, and that, to some degree, it is unintentionally skewed or purposefully manipulated by noble or nefarious motivations or self-interest.

When I was a young man I came to the realization that the only source of information that I could trust completely was my own experiences.  All other information had to be consumed with the understanding that I could never absolutely know if it was factual. I could only rank the information, compare it to other sources and come to an opinion that I would need to keep flexible in case competing information challenged the rank I had previously given it. I started training my brain on this concept making it a deeply ingrained part of my belief system. The goal was not to become paranoid or untrusting but understand The flow of information, the motivations of the people presenting it and to avoid being misled or manipulated.

Of course, that was before the Internet. 

Perhaps because of this mindset, I made modest attempts to warn people at the onset of online self-publishing that we were entering a dangerous new age and that we needed to develop systems for vetting information. I tried to urge caution as I foresaw a world with astounding and frightening opportunities for those who would like to "shape" the thinking of people who were not as disciplined as I had made myself. I'm afraid that my warnings went mostly unheard, my audience was much too small to have any effect. Outside of the few half-interested friends, postings on message boards, comment sections of blogs and news sites that mostly no longer exist, I doubt I had any impact whatsoever. People who raised alarms like I did were very few and far between and quite unpopular. The much larger voices of the time were all about how wonderful and different the technology was and how the free flow of information was the most important thing. The idea of limiting information in any way was seen as sacrilegious. They used to say "information wants to be free!" I did not see the Internet as fundamentally "different", just a much more efficient way to do the same things we have always done, including misbehave. Unfortunately, disinformation also enjoys that same freedom.

I don't think most people are inherently bad, I think many times they are tragically misinformed. Because they have not developed or been taught the tools to be open-minded, empathetic, and skeptical, they are incapable of navigating the increasingly complex and confounding information landscape we all are now forced to live in. They retreat into simple and nonchallenging world views because the alternative is asking WAY to much of them.
I am seen by some as a clever person, but I find it very taxing to try to sort and categorize the information I am presented each day. It would be MUCH simpler to just join a group or listen to a single loud voice that "mostly" aligns with the way I feel about things and switch off the part of me that has to consider each point as a separate issue. This gives the handful of people who really want to push an agenda a powerful tool. 

I don't see things getting better very soon, sources that fact check content of the Internet are under attack themselves, this is not really surprising as the people who wish to distort facts can't abide by such institutions. But my question is why are there so FEW of them? Why are we not heavily invested in the business of sorting fact from fiction? Furthermore, who is continuing to do the fact finding that these sites use? Newspapers?! Increasing investigative reporting is getting downsized at news organizations. I have been watching a tv show that presents surprising facts about commonly held misconceptions in a humorous and entertaining way, but they often site 60 minutes as the source of the information... think about that for a second. Large numbers  of people are all watching the funny show... that presents facts... that were uncovered by real investigative reporters... from a show that very few people watch anymore. So what happens when I news sources like 60 minutes are gone for good?

We need more critical thinking. It needs to be taught.

We need more empathy. We need to encourage it in our young people.

We need to give people real tools to help them sort information on the web.

We should seek ways to bring people out of their information bubbles, we should all stop thinking we absolutely know what is true.

***Update November 9, 2016 at 6:40 PM***

Disinformation Wants To Be Free. How to we fix the "repository of all human knowledge" before it destroys us? I don't know the answer... I am just very mad tonight because I have been asking the question for two decades while people told me I was overreacting and it would "all work out", and that "truth will rise to the top". Now I find myself and my loved ones living in a cracked world brought on in part by people seeming to be more interested in the flashy gleam of a new toy than they were concerned by how it could harm what we had built. It would seem that nearly half of us believe a whole bunch of untrue garbage supported by self motivated cranks on the internet, and the other half believe a different set of untrue garbage ASLO supported by self motivated cranks on the internet. Who is to say which set of garbage is less untrue? You can't "prove" anything. People can find competing "facts" for every point and piece of evidence you provide. Sources? News media is a joke because they sold out journalistic standards long ago. Fact Checking is a dirty word. Techno-hippies and their damed belief that the internet would self regulate... yup it has settled into a perfect balance of truth and lies! The trouble is average people are give no way to tell the difference. Do I think it can be fixed? Yes... but people need to want to do it, they have to demand it, and they have to start NOW.

***Update November 10, 2016 at 7:38 AM***

Maybe we are in a transitional phase. People used to say "they couldn't print it if it weren't true" sometimes sarcastically, but often in earnest. Perhaps there's a large population of people who still believe that its literally true and believe to some extent that information found on the Internet must carry some weight. Maybe young kids born into a world saturated with tech will not have that same bias and will understand instinctively that most of what they find on the Internet needs to be met with a great deal of skepticism. At least a higher percentage of them will develop some immunity, but this still doesn't solve the problem of vulnerable people who because of medically related decline in cognitive ability, or just a natural lower intelligence have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction. Something that is becoming more time consuming to even the sharpest of us.

***Update November 11, 2016 at 12:38 PM***

A couple of weeks back I posted this blog entry discussing my dismay over people becoming overwhelmed by misinformation and not being given useful tools to break free of their information bubbles that they find much more comforting than trying to sort the purposely confusing sea of facts and lies floating about these days. 

Well today, while doing research on the ACLU I discovered this interesting site. Now the fact that I had never heard of it or seen anyone ever link to it somewhat proves my point, and it falls far short of the sort of in-line real time truthfulness ranking tool I imagine and hope could be ubiquitous someday. But in the mean time, I found it very helpful in understanding two sides of a complex issue.

I would like people to use it and spread the word about it. Perhaps it will not get the bad rap that fact-checking sites have recently since it presents both sides of an argument and lets the user decide