Stories About Fibs and Fake News, and 70+ Other Types of Deceit

Lies 24/7. It's hard to keep up with the unending tsunami of falsehoods that greets us each and every day. And, that's just the lies coming from our family and friends. The bigger lies aimed at our communities often make the local and national news, usually under the guise of fact and truth. Without a full-time staff of hundreds of investigative journalists and "lientists" it's impossible for us to catalog every one of these newsworthy alternative facts. However, here we discuss our favorite stories about lying, fake news and "evidence-free" facts.

30 Songs About Lies: Our Starter Collection

30 Songs About Lies: Our Starter Collection

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I just added 30-plus songs — each with a great music video — to kick start our definitive audio-visual collection about lies.

That’s right. My plan is to gather, for the first time, in once place every song or piece of music dedicated to lies, lying and liars. As you might have guessed with such a rich and deep mine of human deceit to dig through it will take me a while. So, please bear with me and enjoy the musical misinformation in the meantime. No songs about “fake news” yet.

My initial songbook includes: Ain’t That Peculiar by Marvin Gaye; Careless Whisper by George Michael; Don’t Lie by The Black Eyed Peas; Escape (The Piña Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes; Human by The Human League; Lies by Marina and the Diamonds; Love the Way You Lie by Eminem; Lyin’ Eyes by The Eagles; Rumour Has It by Adele; and, You Oughta Know by Alanis Morissette.

New Books About Lies: The Liar in Your Life | The Post-Truth Era

New Books About Lies: The Liar in Your Life | The Post-Truth Era

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I just added a couple of new books to Post*factua!ly's growing resource library about lies, alternative facts, fake news and misquotes. They are: The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships by Robert Feldman, and The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life by Ralph Keyes.

Professor of psychology Robert Feldman is one of the leading authorities on deception. In his 2010 book The Liar in Your Life he reviews a broad body of knowledge to deliver some timely analysis and insight into why and how we lie. Feldman looks at all manner of common, personal deceit, including: "marital infidelity, little white lies, career-driven resumé lies, and how we teach children to lie." He also looks at the lies we tell ourselves.

This is a must read for serious scholars of deceit and for anyone whose life has been influenced by lies.

Ralph Keyes is credited with having invented the term "post-truth". He published his book, The Post-Truth Era, on cultural dishonesty in 2004. However, it remains highly relevant today. Indeed Keyes was remarkably ahead of his time.

As the summary on Amazon remarks, "Dishonesty inspires more euphemisms than copulation or defecation. This helps desensitize us to its implications. In the post-truth era we don't just have truth and lies but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall just short of a lie."

Fake News and the Big Lie

Fake News and the Big Lie

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On February 21, 2017, James McDaniel launched a news website. A couple of weeks later, after careful promotion in social media, his news service was getting over 1 million page views. This is the kind of result that established news organizations covet and spend millions of dollars nurturing. So, you’d think that a larger media company would have gobbled up McDaniel’s news site — UndergroundNewsReport — and rewarded him with a title of senior vice president. Well, not so fast.

You see, McDaniel’s site was all about fake news. He created the site and all the stories as a joke — to see how gullible and naive Internet audiences could be. And, by this measure it succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It seems that the wilder the story, the more incredible the “news”, the faster it spread, and the bigger the audience.

This goes some way to confirming the theory of the “big lie” — a propaganda technique used by the Nazi regime during WWII. Adolf Hitler coined the term big lie in his 1925 autobiography. He described the big lie as being so vast and complex that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” That is, make the fake news so ridiculous, so brazenly incredible that it has be believed, especially by those whose worldview appears to be confirmed in the process.

A month in to the joke would-be media mogul and jokester James McDaniel closed his “news” service down. His fake story about Whoopi Goldberg condemning Carryn Owens, the widow of the Navy SEAL killed in January’s Yemen raid, convinced him to stop — the story and reaction to it got quickly out of hand.

His caution to the naive and gullible among us is telling: “I definitely don’t share anything that I don’t consider to be from a reliable source… and anytime I see something interesting from an alternative media outlet, I do a quick bit of research to see how reliable the story is.

Here are some choice snippets from Punditfact’s interview with McDaniel. Punditfact is a fact checking organization.

“I was surprised by how gullible the people in the Trump groups were, but as I continued to write ridiculous things they just kept getting shared and I kept drawing more viewers,” McDaniel told PolitiFact. “I saw how many fake ridiculous stories were making rounds in these groups and just wanted to see how ridiculous they could get.”

McDaniel even tried to warn viewers by putting a disclaimer on the bottom of his web pages saying his posts “are fiction, and presumably fake news.” While a handful of people took the time to email him to ask if stories were real or send hate mail, most of the comments on his links blindly accepted what he wrote as the truth.

For example, many readers of the story about Clinton’s lost email appear to believe WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was releasing information tying the former Democratic presidential nominee to Pizzagate. That’s the conspiracy theory that claims Democrats are secretly running a pedophile ring out of a D.C.-area pizza shop.

“It’s over for them but PIZZAGATE goes VERY deep it WILL Rock the world I also believe killary has kuro (sic) disease from eating body parts the symptoms are there she is very close to destination of hell where she belongs,” a commenter listed as “Bryon” wrote.

“Trump is being set up for impeachment and Pence wants his place,” a reader named “Di” commented. “If Obama, Clintons, Soros re not arrested now and their funds frozen there’s going to be a revolution in May.”

McDaniel said he would sometimes peg his posts to real news events, but more often, he just made them up wholesale. He’d find photos on the Internet and generally rip off an article without even rereading it. In all, he speculated, he worked on the site about two hours per day.

“I think that almost every story I did, or at least the successful ones, relayed off of things that Trump supporters already believed. Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Hillary (Clinton) is a demonic child trafficker,” McDaniel said. “These are things much more widely believed among Trump supporters than I had previously thought.”

Image: Composite screenshot of UndergroundNewsReport website. Credit: UndergroundNewsReport.

This Week’s New Books in the Fib Library

This Week’s New Books in the Fib Library

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I just added a couple of new books to Post*factua!ly's growing resource library about lies, alternative facts, fake news and misquotes. They are: Lying by Sam Harris, and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich.

Lying

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in his book Lying that our lives and, indeed society in general, would be much simpler and better if we replaced telling lies with telling the truth. While Harris only focuses on "white" lies -- those well-intentioned lies we tell to spare others from pain -- his analysis and prognosis is insightful. Now, time for him to focus on the other 70+ types of lie.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich is one of America’s foremost poets, feminist theorists and progressive activists. In this collection of prose she reflects on issues that have shaped her work and life, including motherhood, racism, history and language. Importantly, she muses on our fluid relationship with the truth and the pathology of lying. This is a must read.

Fake Businesses on Google

Fake Businesses on Google

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You have to give credit to scammers, fraudsters and pathological liars. When money is at stake they are nothing if not creative. For example, did you know that thousands of new, fraudulent business listings show up on Google search and Google Maps each month?

The image shows a Fake Company — at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — that I recently added to Google Maps. So, while mine is fake, caveat emptor, especially if you’re searching for a local locksmith, electrician or plumber.

According to Timothy Revell over at New Scientist:

Local businesses on Google Maps aren’t always as local as they seem. Tens of thousands of bogus listings are added to Google Maps every month, directing browsing traffic towards fraudulent schemes, finds a team of researchers at Google and the University of San Diego, California.

As an example, a fraudster might list a locksmiths at a location on Google Maps when they don’t actually have premises there. When a potential customer calls the phone number listed, they are put through to a central call centre that hires unaccredited contractors to do jobs all over. Often the customer ends up being coerced into paying more than the original quoted price.

To analyse the scope of this abuse, the group looked at over 100,000 listings that the Google Maps team had identified as abusive between June 2014 and September 2015. The fraudulent listings most often belonged to services like locksmiths, plumbers and electricians.

Image: Google Maps screenshot.

CWA at Boulder

CWA at Boulder

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I’m attending the 69th annual Conference on World Affairs (CWA) in Boulder, CO during week of April 10, 2017. I can’t wait for Monday’s panel on “The Evolution of Facts, Alternative Facts, and Doublespeak”. The free, week-long festival of ideas and discussion is crammed full of fascinating discussions ranging from food, expeditions to Mars, social justice and biodiversity, to the power grid, international development, opioid use, student debt, and fear, and 101 other engaging topics. Of course, the panel discussion nearest and dearest to my heart is all about alternative facts and lies. Check out the full schedule.

Added 3 New Books to the Fib Library: False Quotes, Black Lies and White Lies

Added 3 New Books to the Fib Library: False Quotes, Black Lies and White Lies

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I just added 3 new books to Post*factua!ly’s growing resource library about lies, alternative facts, fake news and misquotes. They are: Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations; Black Lies Matter: Why Lies Matter to the Race Grievance Industry; and White Lies Matter: Race, Crime and the Politics of Fear.

First, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations by author and quote investigator Garson O’Toole aims to set the record straight on many commonly used quotes. Many of the quotes we voice or hear are, in fact, wrong or wrongly attributed. And, author and quote investigator Garson O’Toole lays out his research findings in a first-ever encyclopedia of corrective, historical revisionism. For instance, Albert Einstein is often credited with having said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. But there is no evidence. Amazon’s editorial describes Garson O’Toole as “the Internet’s foremost investigator into the dubious origins of our most repeated quotations, aphorisms, and everyday sayings”. O’Toole has researched the origins of familiar sayings for years at www.quoteinvestigator.com. His new book Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations collects and corrects many quotes, misquotes and misattribution from public figures including Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Cicero.

Second, a very blunt and contrarian assessment of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, race relations and business opportunism by author Taleeb Starkes (@TaleebStarkes) in his new book Black Lies Matter: Why Lies Matter to the Race Grievance Industry. Not surprisingly, Starkes’ book gains both stellar reviews for delving into facts about the epidemic of black violence and harsh criticism for being an unbalanced, racist diatribe. That said, Starkes, who is a black American, is credited for opening a much needed dialog on the “black-based industry” that seems to be benefiting from “nurturing comfortable lies while burying uncomfortable truths.”

Third, Tim Wise (@timjacobwise‏) prominent educator and antiracist activist published a new book, White Lies Matter: Race, Crime and the Politics of Fear. It offers a clear and compelling assessment of the false narratives, perpetuated by our political system, the national media and business interests, which tend to reinforce systemic inequality and racial oppression in the United States.

It’s purely coincidental that one book is “Black Lies Matter…” and another is “White Lies Matter…”. What is clear, however, is that we are swimming in an ocean of lies of all colors.

Image: Bookcover, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. Credit: Garson O’Toole.

Combating Fake News

Combating Fake News

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Interesting to read that billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is spending $100 million to combat fake news. Apparently, Omidyar’s fund aims to tackle the “global trust deficit” by allocating money to projects around the world.

I suspect it’ll take a lot more than hundreds of millions of dollars to save democracy and facts from a monster that seems to be devouring the world at the moment.

From the Telegraph:

The funds will be dispersed over the next three years through the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm which he and his wife founded in 2004 and which has committed more than $1 billion to good causes.

The first recipients include the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the group behind last year’s release of the Panama Papers, which will receive $4.5 million.

Read more here.

Image: Pierre Omidyar, 2007. Courtesy: Wikipedia.

The Benefits of Self-Deception

The Benefits of Self-Deception

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Psychologists have long studied the causes and characteristics of deception. In recent times they have had a huge pool of talented liars from which to draw — bankers, mortgage lenders, Enron executives, borrowers, and of course politicians. Now, researchers have begun to took at the art of self-deception, with some interesting results. Self-deception may be a useful tool in influencing others.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Lying to yourself—or self-deception, as psychologists call it—can actually have benefits. And nearly everybody does it, based on a growing body of research using new experimental techniques.

Self-deception isn’t just lying or faking, but is deeper and more complicated, says Del Paulhus, psychology professor at University of British Columbia and author of a widely used scale to measure self-deceptive tendencies. It involves strong psychological forces that keep us from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves, he says.

Believing we are more talented or intelligent than we really are can help us influence and win over others, says Robert Trivers, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Folly of Fools,” a 2011 book on the subject. An executive who talks himself into believing he is a great public speaker may not only feel better as he performs, but increase “how much he fools people, by having a confident style that persuades them that he’s good,” he says.

Researchers haven’t studied large population samples to compare rates of self-deception or compared men and women, but they know based on smaller studies that it is very common. And scientists in many different disciplines are drawn to studying it, says Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “It’s also one of the most puzzling things that humans do.”

Researchers disagree over what exactly happens in the brain during self-deception. Social psychologists say people deceive themselves in an unconscious effort to boost self-esteem or feel better. Evolutionary psychologists, who say different parts of the brain can harbor conflicting beliefs at the same time, say self-deception is a way of fooling others to our own advantage.

Read the entire article after the jump.

mage: Truth or Consequences. Courtesy of CBS 1950-51 / Wikia.

Sign First — Lie Less

Sign First — Lie Less

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A recent paper filed with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that we are more likely to be honest if we sign a form before, rather than after, completing it. So, over the coming years look out for Uncle Sam to revise the ubiquitous IRS 1040 form by adding a signature line at the top rather than the bottom of the last page.

From Ars Technica:

What’s the purpose of signing a form? On the simplest level, a signature is simply a way to make someone legally responsible for the content of the form. But in addition to the legal aspect, the signature is an appeal to personal integrity, forcing people to consider whether they’re comfortable attaching their identity to something that may not be completely true.

Based on some figures in a new PNAS paper, the signatures on most forms are miserable failures, at least from the latter perspective. The IRS estimates that it misses out on about $175 billion because people misrepresent their income or deductions. And the insurance industry calculates that it loses about $80 billion annually due to fraudulent claims. But the same paper suggests a fix that is as simple as tweaking the form. Forcing people to sign before they complete the form greatly increases their honesty.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that signing at the end of a form does not promote accurate reporting, given what we know about human psychology. “Immediately after lying,” the paper’s authors write, “individuals quickly engage in various mental justifications, reinterpretations, and other ‘tricks’ such as suppressing thoughts about their moral standards that allow them to maintain a positive self-image despite having lied.” By the time they get to the actual request for a signature, they’ve already made their peace with lying: “When signing comes after reporting, the morality train has already left the station.”

The problem isn’t with the signature itself. Lots of studies have shown that focusing the attention on one’s self, which a signature does successfully, can cause people to behave more ethically. The problem comes from its placement after the lying has already happened. So, the authors posited a quick fix: stick the signature at the start. Their hypothesis was that “signing one’s name before reporting information (rather than at the end) makes morality accessible right before it is most needed, which will consequently promote honest reporting.”

To test this proposal, they designed a series of forms that required self reporting of personal information, either involving performance on a math quiz where higher scores meant higher rewards, or the reimbursable travel expenses involved in getting to the study’s location. The only difference among the forms? Some did not ask for a signature, some put the signature on top, and some placed it in its traditional location, at the end.

In the case of the math quiz, the researchers actually tracked how well the participants had performed. With the signature at the end, a full 79 percent of the participants cheated. Somewhat fewer cheated when no signature was required, though the difference was not statistically significant. But when the signature was required on top, only 37 percent cheated—less than half the rate seen in the signature-at-bottom group. A similar pattern was seen when the authors analyzed the extent of the cheating involved.

Although they didn’t have complete information on travel expenses, the same pattern prevailed: people who were given the signature-on-top form reported fewer expenses than either of the other two groups.

The authors then repeated this experiment, but added a word completion task, where participants were given a series of blanks, some filled in with letters, and asked to complete the word. These completion tasks were set up so that they could be answered with neutral words or with those associated with personal ethics, like “virtue.” They got the same results as in the earlier tests of cheating, and the word completion task showed that the people who had signed on top were more likely to fill in the blanks to form ethics-focused words. This supported the contention that the early signature put people in an ethical state of mind prior to completion of the form.

But the really impressive part of the study came from its real-world demonstration of this effect. The authors got an unnamed auto insurance company to send out two versions of its annual renewal forms to over 13,000 policy holders, identical except for the location of the signature. One part of this form included a request for odometer readings, which the insurance companies use to calculate typical miles travelled, which are proportional to accident risk. These are used to calculate insurance cost—the more you drive, the more expensive it is.

Those who signed at the top reported nearly 2,500 miles more than the ones who signed at the end.

Read the entire article after the jump, or follow the article at PNAS, here.

Image courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

New Lie Discovery: Meta-Lie

New Lie Discovery: Meta-Lie

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Our “lientists” — social scientists specializing in lies, falsehood and post-fact research, armed with the most powerful lie detectors yet invented discovered the Meta-Lie, on February 14, 2017. This one’s been hiding in plain sight for quite some time. However, it had never been carefully weighed and categorized.

The Meta-Lie has a lie-number of 72 and the symbol Mt. It’s a rather heavy lie, but it does occur naturally. Though it tends to be found mostly in politicians since it involves lying about a previous lie.

Embed

Password Protected Site

The Macedonian Fake News Factory

The Macedonian Fake News Factory

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Veles is a small city of around 50,000 located in the central hills of the Republic of Macedonia. Until recently the city laid claim to being the second most polluted region in the ex-Yugoslavia. Once home to a famed ceramic factory, Veles is now host to a different type of manufacturer, one that fabricates fake news. In 2016, Veles hit the headlines following the discovery that a small group of teenagers was behind over 100 websites supporting U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and filled with sensational rumor and completely fake news. Through active promotion on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the sites raked in significant revenues for their young founders. Importantly, these fake news sites, and others, may have also influenced the result of the U.S. election.

I urge you to read more about this fascinating and unnerving story over at Wired.

From Wired:

The first article about Donald Trump that Boris ever published described how, during a campaign rally in North Carolina, the candidate slapped a man in the audience for disagreeing with him. This never happened, of course. Boris had found the article somewhere online, and he needed to feed his web­site, Daily Interesting Things, so he appropriated the text, down to its last mis­begotten comma. He posted the link on Facebook, seeding it within various groups devoted to American politics; to his astonish­ment, it was shared around 800 times. That month—February 2016—Boris made more than $150 off the Google ads on his website. Considering this to be the best possible use of his time, he stopped going to high school.

Image courtesy of: Македонец at Macedonian Wikipedia.

Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

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Should we blame the creative originators of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation and click-bait hype? Or, should we blame the media for disseminating, spinning and aggrandizing these stories for their own profit or political motives? Or, should we blame us — the witless consumers.

I subscribe to the opinion that all three constituencies share responsibility — it’s very much a symbiotic relationship.

James Warren chief media writer for Poynter has a different opinion; he lays the blame squarely at the feet of gullible and unquestioning citizens. He makes a very compelling argument.

Perhaps if any educated political scholars remain several hundred years from now, they’ll hold the US presidential election of 2016 as the culmination of a process where lazy stupidity triumphed over healthy skepticism and reason.

From Hive:

The rise of “fake news” inspires the press to uncover its many practitioners worldwide, discern its economics and herald the alleged guilt-ridden soul-searching by its greatest enablers, Facebook and Google.

But the media dances around another reality with the dexterity of Beyonce, Usher and septuagenarian Mick Jagger: the stupidity of a growing number of Americans.

So thanks to Neal Gabler for taking to Bill Moyers’ website to pen, “Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News.” (Moyers)

Fake news, of course, “is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth — which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it — fake news is an assault on democracy as well.”

Gabler is identified here as the author of five books, without mentioning any. Well, one is 1995’s Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. It’s a superb look at Walter Winchell, the man who really invented the gossip column and wound up with a readership and radio audience of 50 million, or two-thirds of the then-population, as he helped create our modern media world of privacy-invading gossip and personal destruction as entertainment.

“What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public,” Gabler writes of our current mess. “Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign. That is our current situation, and it is no sure thing that either truth or democracy survives.”

Think of it. The goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t be bothered to read a newspaper or decent digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times. Ask all those pissed-off Trump loyalists in rural towns to name their two U.S. senators.

We love convincing ourselves of the strengths of democracy, including the inevitable collective wisdom setting us back on a right track if ever we go astray. And while the media may hold itself out as cultural anthropologists in explaining the “anger” or “frustration” of “real people,” as is the case after Donald Trump’s election victory, we won’t really underscore rampant illiteracy and incomprehension.

So read Gabler. “Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.”

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Artist’s conception of an alien spacecraft tractor-beaming a human victim. Courtesy: unknown artist, Wikipedia. Public Domain.

The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

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The online filter bubble is a natural extension of our preexisting biases, particularly evident in our media consumption. Those of us of a certain age — above 30 years — once purchased (and maybe still do) our favorite paper-based newspapers and glued ourselves to our favorite TV news channels. These sources mirrored, for the most part, our cultural and political preferences. The internet took this a step further by building a tightly wound, self-reinforcing feedback loop. We consume our favorite online media, which solicits algorithms to deliver more of the same. I’ve written about the filter bubble for years (here, here and here).

The online filter bubble in which each of us lives — those of us online — may seem no more dangerous than its offline predecessor. After all, the online version of the NYT delivers left-of-center news, just like its printed cousin. So what’s the big deal? Well, the pervasiveness of our technology has now enabled these filters to creep insidiously into many aspects of our lives, from news consumption and entertainment programming to shopping and even dating. And, since we now spend growing  swathes of our time online, our serendipitous exposure to varied content that typically lies outside this bubble in the real, offline world is diminishing. Consequently, the online filter bubble is taking on a much more critical role and having greater effect in maintaining our tunnel vision.

However, that’s not all. Over the last few years we have become exposed to yet another dangerous phenomenon to have made the jump from the offline world to online — the echo chamber. The online echo chamber is enabled by our like-minded online communities and catalyzed by the tools of social media. And, it turns our filter bubble into a self-reinforcing, exclusionary community that is harmful to varied, reasoned opinion and healthy skepticism.

Those of us who reside on Facebook are likely to be part of a very homogeneous social circle, which trusts, shares and reinforces information accepted by the group and discards information that does not match the group’s social norms. This makes the spread of misinformation — fake stories, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors — so very effective. Importantly, this is increasingly to the exclusion of all else, including real news and accepted scientific fact.

Why embrace objective journalism, trusted science and thoughtful political dialogue when you can get a juicy, emotive meme from a friend of a friend on Facebook? Why trust a story from Reuters or science from Scientific American when you get your “news” via a friend’s link from Alex Jones and the Brietbart News Network?

And, there’s no simple solution, which puts many of our once trusted institutions in severe jeopardy. Those of us who care have a duty to ensure these issues are in the minds of our public officials and the guardians of our technology and media networks.

From Scientific American:

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

Many are asking whether this onslaught of digital misinformation affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. The truth is we do not know, although there are reasons to believe it is entirely possible, based on past analysis and accounts from other countries. Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. Overall, the harm can be very real: If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?

As a researcher on the spread of misinformation through social media, I know that limiting news fakers’ ability to sell ads, as recently announced by Google and Facebook, is a step in the right direction. But it will not curb abuses driven by political motives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

The Conspiracy of Disbelief

The Conspiracy of Disbelief

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Faux news and hoaxes are a staple of our culture. I suspect that disinformation, fabrications and lies have been around since our ancestors first learned to walk on their hind legs. Researchers know that lying provides a critical personal and social function; white lies help hide discomfort and often strengthen support with partners and peers. Broader and deeper lies are often used to build and maintain power and project strength over others. Indeed, some nations rise and fall based on the quality of their falsehoods and propaganda.

The rise of the internet and social media over the last couple of decades has amplified the issue to such an extent that it becomes ever more challenging to decipher fact from fiction. Indeed entire highly profitable industries are built on feeding misinformation and disseminating hoaxes. But while many of us laugh at and dismiss the front page headlines of the National Enquirer proclaiming “aliens abducted my neighbor“, other forms of fiction are much more sinister. One example is the Sandy Hook mass shooting, where a significant number of paranoid and skeptical conspiracy theorists continue to maintain to this day — almost 4 years on — that the massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults was and is a well-fabricated hoax.

From NY Magazine:

On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner dropped off his three children, Sophia, Arielle, and Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Noah had recently turned 6, and on the drive over they listened to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style,” for what turned out to be the last time. Half an hour later, while Sophia and Arielle hid nearby, Adam Lanza walked into Noah’s first-grade class with an AR-15 rifle. Noah was the youngest of the 20 children and seven adults killed in one of the deadliest shootings in American history. When the medical examiner found Noah lying face up in a Batman sweatshirt, his jaw had been blown off. Lenny and his wife, Veronique, raced to the school as soon as they heard the news, but had to wait for hours alongside other parents to learn their son’s fate.

It didn’t take much longer for Pozner to find out that many people didn’t believe his son had died or even that he had lived at all. Days after the rampage, a man walked around Newtown filming a video in which he declared that the massacre had been staged by “some sort of New World Order global elitists” intent on taking away our guns and our liberty. A week later, James Tracy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote a blog post expressing doubts about the massacre. By January, a 30-minute YouTube video, titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed,” which asked questions like “Wouldn’t frantic kids be a difficult target to hit?,” had been viewed more than 10 million times.

As the families grieved, conspiracy theorists began to press their case in ways that Newtown couldn’t avoid. State officials received anonymous phone calls at their homes, late at night, demanding answers: Why were there no trauma helicopters? What happened to the initial reports of a second shooter? A Virginia man stole playground signs memorializing two of the victims, then called their parents to say that the burglary shouldn’t affect them, since their children had never existed. At one point, Lenny Pozner was checking into a hotel out of town when the clerk looked up from the address on his driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook — the government did that.” Pozner had tried his best to ignore the conspiracies, but eventually they disrupted his grieving process so much that he could no longer turn a blind eye. “Conspiracy theorists erase the human aspect of history,” Pozner said this summer. “My child — who lived, who was a real person — is basically going to be erased.”

Read the entire disturbing story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Clicks or Truth

Clicks or Truth

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The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site Snopes.com puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

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This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

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Conspiracy theorists are a small but vocal and influential minority. Their views span the gamut of conspiracy theories: holocaust denial, President Kennedy’s assassination, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Flat Earth, alternate technology suppression, climate change, to name just a handful.

The United States is after all host to a candidate for the Presidency who subscribes to a number of conspiratorial theories, and, importantly, there’s even a dating app — Awake Dating — for like-minded conspiracy theorists. Though, the site’s COO Jarrod Fidden prefers to label his members “early adopter[s] of inconvenient truths” over the term “conspiracy theorist”, which, let’s face it, is often used pejoratively.

So, perhaps it serves to delve a little deeper into why some nonsensical and scientifically disproved ideas persist in 2016.

Briefly, it seems that zombie ideas thrive for a couple of key reasons: first, they may confer some level of group identity, attention and/or influence; second, they provide a degree of simplistic comfort to counter often highly complex scientific explanations. Moreover, conspiracy theories do have a generally positive cultural effect — some bring laughter to our days, but most tend to drive serious debate and further research in the quest for true (scientific) consensus.

From the Guardian:

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Azimuthal equidistant projection, used by some Flat Earthers as evidence for a flat Earth. Courtesy: Strebe / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Dishonesty and Intelligence

Dishonesty and Intelligence

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Another day, another survey. This time it’s one that links honesty and intelligence. Apparently, the more intelligent you are — as measured by a quick intelligence test — the less likely you’ll be to lie. Fascinatingly, the survey also shows that those who do lie from the small subgroup of the most intelligent tell smaller whoppers; people in the less intelligent subgroup tell bigger lies, for a bigger payoff.

From Washington Post:

Last summer, a couple of researchers ran a funny experiment about honesty. They went to an Israeli shopping mall and recruited people, one-by-one, into a private booth. Alone inside the booth, each subject rolled a six-sided die. Then they stepped out and reported the number that came up.

There was an incentive to lie. The higher the number, the more money people received. If they rolled a one, they got a bonus of about $2.50. If they rolled a two, they got a bonus of $5, and so on. If they rolled a six, the bonus was about $15. (Everyone also received $5 just for participating.)

Before I reveal the results, think about what you would do in that situation. Someone comes up to you at the mall and offers you free money to roll a die. If you wanted to make a few extra bucks, you could lie about what you rolled. Nobody would know, and nobody would be harmed.

Imagine you went into that booth and rolled a 1. What would you do? Would you be dishonest? Would you say you rolled a six, just to get the largest payout?

The researchers, Bradley Ruffle of Wilfrid Laurier University and Yossef Tobol, of the Jerusalem College of Technology, wanted to know what kinds of people would lie in this situation. So they asked everyone about their backgrounds, whether they considered themselves honest, whether they thought honesty was important. They asked whether people were employed, how much money they earned, and whether they were religious. They also gave people a quick intelligence test.

Out of all those attributes, brainpower stood out. Smarter people were less likely to lie about the number they rolled.

It didn’t matter whether they claimed they were honest or not; it didn’t matter whether they were religious, whether they were male or female, or whether they lived in a city. Money didn’t seem to be a factor either. Even after controlling for incomes, the researchers found that the most honest people were the ones who scored highest on the intelligence test.

Read the entire article here.

Lies By Any Other Name

Lies By Any Other Name

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Lies_and_the_lying_liarsCertain gestures and facial movements are usually good indicators of a lie in progress. If your boss averts her eyes when she tells you “what a good employee you are”, or if your spouse looks at his finger nails when telling you “how gorgeous your new dress looks”, you can be almost certain that you are being told some half-truths or mistruths. Psychologists have studied these visual indicators for as long as humans have told lies.

Since dishonesty is so widespread and well-studied it comes as no surprise that there are verbal cues as well — just as telling as sweaty palms. A well-used verbal clue to insincerity, ironically, is the phrase “to be honest“. Verbal tee-ups such as this are known by behavioral scientists as qualifiers or performatives. There is a growing list.

From the WSJ:

A friend of mine recently started a conversation with these words: “Don’t take this the wrong way…”

I wish I could tell you what she said next. But I wasn’t listening—my brain had stalled. I was bracing for the sentence that would follow that phrase, which experience has taught me probably wouldn’t be good.

Certain phrases just seem to creep into our daily speech. We hear them a few times and suddenly we find ourselves using them. We like the way they sound, and we may find they are useful. They may make it easier to say something difficult or buy us a few extra seconds to collect our next thought.

Yet for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say.

Consider: “I want you to know…” or “I’m just saying…” or “I hate to be the one to tell you this…” Often, these phrases imply the opposite of what the words mean, as with the phrase, “I’m not saying…” as in “I’m not saying we have to stop seeing each other, but…”

Take this sentence: “I want to say that your new haircut looks fabulous.” In one sense, it’s true: The speaker does wish to tell you that your hair looks great. But does he or she really think it is so or just want to say it? It’s unclear.

Language experts have textbook names for these phrases—”performatives,” or “qualifiers.” Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as “I am writing to say…” At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.

“Politeness is another word for deception,” says James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these phrases. “The point is to formalize social relations so you don’t have to reveal your true self.”

In other words, “if you’re going to lie, it’s a good way to do it—because you’re not really lying. So it softens the blow,” Dr. Pennebaker says.

Of course, it’s generally best not to lie, Dr. Pennebaker notes. But because these sayings so frequently signal untruth, they can be confusing even when used in a neutral context. No wonder they often lead to a breakdown in personal communications.

Some people refer to these phrases as “tee-ups.” That is fitting. What do you do with a golf ball? You put it on a peg at the tee—tee it up—and then give it a giant wallop.

Betsy Schow says she felt like she was “hit in the stomach by a cannonball” the day she was preparing to teach one of her first yoga classes. A good friend—one she’d assumed had shown up to support her—approached her while she was warming up. She was in the downward facing dog pose when she heard her friend say, “I am only telling you this because I love you…”

The friend pointed out that lumps were showing beneath Ms. Schow’s yoga clothes and said people laughed at her behind her back because they thought she wasn’t fit enough to teach yoga. Ms. Schow had recently lost a lot of weight and written a book about it. She says the woman also mentioned that Ms. Schow’s friends felt she was “acting better than they were.” Then the woman offered up the name of a doctor who specializes in liposuction. “Hearing that made me feel sick,” says Ms. Schow, a 32-year-old fitness consultant in Alpine, Utah. “Later, I realized that her ‘help’ was no help at all.”

Tee-ups have probably been around as long as language, experts say. They seem to be used with equal frequency by men and women, although there aren’t major studies of the issue. Their use may be increasing as a result of social media, where people use phrases such as “I am thinking that…” or “As far as I know…” both to avoid committing to a definitive position and to manage the impression they make in print.

“Awareness about image management is increased any time people put things into print, such as in email or on social networks,” says Jessica Moore, department chair and assistant professor at the College of Communication at Butler University, Indianapolis. “Thus people often make caveats to their statements that function as a substitute for vocalized hedges.” And people do this hedging—whether in writing or in speech—largely unconsciously, Dr. Pennebaker says. “We are emotionally distancing ourselves from our statement, without even knowing it,” he says.

So, if tee-ups are damaging our relationships, yet we often don’t even know we’re using them, what can we do? Start by trying to be more aware of what you are saying. Tee-ups should serve as yellow lights. If you are about to utter one, slow down. Proceed with caution. Think about what you are about to say.

“If you are feeling a need to use them a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people,” says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. She considers some tee-up phrases to be worse than others. “Don’t take this the wrong way…” is “ungracious,” she says. “It is a doomed attempt to evade the consequences of a comment.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, book cover, by Al Franken. Courtesy of Wikipedia.