Everyone values truth and honesty but it has never been so hard find. We are swimming in a sea of memes, misplaced quotes, debunked science, biased news programs, dishonest political leadership, fraudsters, scammers and the untruthful. Misinformation is getting so out of hand that sociologists and other experts are starting to label our current era as the ‘post-truth’ era. They may very well be right and if they are that is something everyone must be fighting before we are plunged too deep into an era of ignorance, superstition and fear.
‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ – Oxford Dictionary
The term started as a description of the political use of appeal to emotion to sway voters but is steadily increasing to include the unfounded trust of unreliable sources such as social media posts and memes, celebrities, television and radio shows, viral videos, talk shows and rumors. More and more people using post truth to describe an era where true facts are scarce and less and less people can tell the difference between fact and fiction.
The Dangers of the Post Truth Era:
Hoaxes: A hoax is a falsehood presented as truth and differs from other forms of dishonesty in that it is done deliberately. This is a problem as old as civilization itself and is unlikely to change. There are hoaxes that are mostly harmless such as celebrity deaths hoaxes and or a viral video (in most cases). However most of the time a hoax has some form of harm it does. Why do people do it then?
- Attention: A hoax is certainly a good way of satisfying this basic human need.
Examples include the balloon boy hoax or imposters such as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter (Clarke Rockafeller) or Grey Owl
- Greed: Promoting a product or committing fraud for financial gain. Business and industry do a lot of viral marketing. Some of these campaigns are legitimate like the space skydive or Pepsi’s race car driver prank but other flat out dishonest like Hunting for Bambi or the Mini Cooper robot
- Contempt: A hoax committed out of hate or to discredit a competitor.
- Self-Interest: A Hoax committed to promote a personal belief or opinion.
- Fun: No apparent reason for the hoax other then the committer must have thought it was be fun or a prank of some kind
Conspiracy Theories: I did a write about this one and in it I summarized that while exploring the possibility of a conspiracy for the sake of the truth is noble these theories too often get out of hand and drive unhealthy levels of fear and paranoia. The anti-vaccine movement touted by the likes of Jenny McCarthy caused so many to deny their children vaccinations that formerly controlled or eliminated diseases started to resurface, many died.
Memes: A new and popular source of misinformation on the internet. Richard Dawkins first used the term to describe an ideas, symbols, trends or other cultural phenomena that are passed from one person to another and act like viruses in the way they spread. This is also the source of the word ‘viral’.
Memes are as old as civilization itself and things went ‘viral’ long before the internet. Some examples include ‘I think therefore I am‘ coined by Decartes in 1637 or ”To be or not to be, that is the question’ from Shakspeare’s Hamlet in 1603. In more more modern culture we have ideas like Kilroy was here. It’s origins are debated but it started during WWII and came to mean many things from allied unity to general mischief. Another popular one was ‘What me worry?’ that was made popular by Mad Magazine but was already a culture joke by the 1960s.
It’s hard to pinpoint when memes started on the internet but some of the early examples include ‘All your base belong to us’ taken from the opening to a 1989 Genesis game called Zero Wing, the hamster dance and the dancing baby. These days memes on the internet take the form of viral videos and pictures with text. This great infographic has a good history of internet memes.
Celebrities as sources: We have always looked to role models for advice and leadership. As kids we looked to our caregivers and teachers, as we got older we may also look to coaches, friends or other trusted people in our lives. In some cases this certainly makes sense. For example I would rather ask my lawyer for advice on legal matters or talk to my parents about family problems. What doesn’t make sense is trusting a famous person we have never met to know what’s in our best interest as a person or group or culture.
In a 2013 study a study published in the medical journal the BMJ an assistant professor at McMaster University looked into why people value celebrities’ opinions and found three major factors:
- Marketing: ‘Celebrities transfer their desirable attributes to products and use their success to boost their perceived credibility.’
- Psychology: ‘People are classically conditioned to react positively to the advice of celebrities, experience cognitive dissonance if they do not, and are influenced by congruencies with their self conceptions.
- Sociology: ‘The spread of celebrity medical advice as a contagion that diffuses through social networks and people’s desire to acquire celebrities’ social capital’
A desire to be like a celebrity and cultural conditioning gives celebrities credibility they often don’t deserve. These people are great at acting, singing…etc. but following their advice is as dangerous as following any strangers advice. Even in the case where they are experts (i.e Ken Jeong is a licensed medical doctor) following their advice is risky and their giving it is often irresponsible.
Biased/Non-Partisan News: We touched on this in briefly before. In the post we summarized why news is so often negative and influenced by the ratings race, which is in turn a result of greed. Also it has become widely known that you don’t often hear of corporate crime because of fear of losing sponsors, another problem with greed. Reliable news is out there but hard to find.
Pseudo and bogus science: This is a topic so large people have written entire books about it like James Randi’s Flim Flam or Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. The list of pseudosciences has gotten to be humongous and longer every year. What they all have in common is a lack reliable proof. None of these are accepted as reliable alternatives to conventional medicine or treatment for anything. Tidbits of bogus science get circulated as memes and put people at risk for ignoring advice from a professional or not seeking the proper care at all.
Misinformation has gotten to be so prevalent that a recent Standford University showed that Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. The recent pizzagate fiasco exemplifies why this is so dangerous. Part of this is because of a mistrust of mainstream media. A recent Gallup poll shows trust in mainstream media is at an all time low, down to 32% and even lower among 18-49 years old, down to 26%. So it makes sense people are turning to alternatives. The trouble is these alternatives are no better or worse.
So who can we trust?
It sometimes takes a bit of searching to find a news or information source that is trustworthy. Depending on the subject experts recommend the following:
- Consider the source: Who authored the information and what are their credentials? Any reliable source should have credentials readily available or be willing to provide them. You might only need to check the works cited/bibliography to validate information provided.
- Look for Bias: An article on the safety Noname’s snow tires published on Noname’s website or a site funded by Noname is going to be high risk for bias. Check who owns or maintains the source of information you are being provided.
- Verify: Is the information verifiable? Other sources should provide the same information in the same context. This is especially true of academic sites. For example a study published at the Mayo Clinic website could easily verify if information on a specific illness is legitimate.
- Dates and Times: When was the information published? Generally the newer the better except in specific cases of primary studies which will usually state that more research is needed.
- Educate yourself: Learn how to recognize a a good argument and sound logic. Standford has a great free course on logic provided by Standford or MIT’s free online course is another good one Learning to recognize a good argument and some common fallacies can go a long way to making sure what your seeing or reading is true or not.
How do We Fight It?
No need to explain why we should fight the spread of misinformation and get out this ‘post-truth’ era. I would hope everyone reading would agree that misinformation is dangerous and that we all have a responsibility to fight it. In no particular order:
- Call it out: Never let misinformation go unchecked. Most places, especially on the web, will allow you to comment or give feedback, use it. Never be afraid to point the flaw in a logic, the corporate funding behind a study or why a picture with words is just a picture with words (memes).
- Letters and Emails: On old and still effective way of pushing for change. If a smart business receives enough complaints about something they will make changes. Politicians will listen, especially when people complain in large numbers. An approaching election is a great time for a letter writing campaign.
- Get the right information out there: Start your own website, blog or radio show. Cite your sources well and you will help people that listen or visit.
- Support a cause: Organizations like CSiCOP and Adbusters have long been fighting misinformation and are among many that deserve our support
- Boycott: If you know a source of information that is consistently unreliable or biased..etc. then never go there and encourage others to do the same. Money talks and that news channel, website or whatever will either have to change or lose viewers/listeners. This is passive-aggressive but effective in large numbers
When our friends believe that a website can offer medical advice, when controversial business tycoons can become president, when the line between satirical and real news becomes blurred and the actual news cares more about ratings then the truth and even our political leaders lie to us everyday then it is time to fight back. Our tagline ‘Education is the key’ was used because it is through discussion, investigation and a commitment to the truth that we can help fight the sea of lies we all risk drowning in.
- The Museum of Hoaxes
- Encyclopedia Britannica
- Flim Flam
- Demon Haunted World
- Stanford University/Coursera
- MIT online
- The BMJ.com