Bulltish blitzkrieg

Bulltish blitzkrieg

WARNING:
Following some of the links in this post
may alter the reality of your search results and recommendations. 
I know mine are pretty warped.

Read the full essay On Bullshit as a PDF.

I read the fake news today, oh boy

Greetings glamorous sheeple, it's time to wake up and pop the red pill. When you do, you'll realize the truth behind the headlines of the fakestream media. Just look at some of the big news stories of last year, like the Pokemon Go psyops craze, the false flag massacre hoax in Orlando, at how Prince and Merle Haggard were murdered and the time that fella died in a meth-lab explosion after lighting farts on fire. Seriously, that last one was a big story on Facebook. And before you think that only the Americans are into this kind of truly investigative reporting, check out Britain's best news hound David Icke and Australia's own Peaky Truth.

Fake news is the great moral panic of 2017. Fringe is the new normal.

As Abraham Lincoln once said: "Don't believe everything you see on the internet."

What's going on?

Oxford Dictionaries' 2016 Word of the Year was "post-truth". I suggest that an early front-runner for 2017 just might be #fakenews. Recently trending and related terms like truthinessgaslighting and "alternative-facts" all help describe and perpetuate what's being called "a post factual society" where everything is up for grabs.

We live in a culture where we are encouraged not to trust authority. We are encouraged to look for ourselves, to think about the evidence, the hypotheses and theories and come to our own conclusions. That's important for our personal development and social progress. However, when we have pluralist content creation and mass peer-to-peer distribution where everything is publicly disputed and challenged do we have what it takes to appropriately evaluate what we find online?

Davis and Eynon noted that the Internet's "contribution to formal learning has been considerably less transformative than its contribution to informal learning". That informal learning inevitably includes web searching, which can leave people with an inflated illusion of personal knowledge. This is significant when you combine it with what Hooper and Herath concluded from their studies comparing online to offline reading behaviour: "In general, online reading has had a negative impact on people’s cognition. Concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates were all much lower while reading online than offline." As Herath had previously observed, we tend to skim read and scan more online than offline.

Quote from Internet searches create illusion of personal knowledge, research finds, Science Daily, 31 March 2015.
Image macro from A Science Enthusiast.

It isn't just web searching that galvanizes our self-belief online. Social networks have formed to create digital tribes that work together to actively reinforce, defend and promote their position or interests through competition with others. Social media allows learned scholars and self-appointed experts demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect equal access and potential reach. Evidence-based positions become another postmodern "narrative among many" as people "reject vast subjects rooted in fact in order to have reality conform to their worldviews". 

A recent UK survey by Channel 4  found that when shown "six individual news stories, three of which were true and three of which were fake, only 4% [of the test subjects] were able to identify them all correctly. Nearly five in ten (49 per cent) of all respondents thought at least one of the fake stories was true." The figures were significantly worse for people whose primary source of news came was Facebook.

Just as rumor and gossip are shared through peer networks, the filtering and creation of our online information environment has become increasingly crowd sourced through peer networks like those we have on Facebook and Twitter. Research indicates that "social media recommendations improve levels of media trust, and also make people want to follow more news from that particular media outlet in the future." In other words, we are more likely to trust a news story or a source shared by a friend or someone we follow..

Marshall McLuhan speaking in compilation video Our present as predicted half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan
Ask Ann Landers was a sometimes controversial advice column.

Consider how viral memes are shared globally at lightning speed. They appear in our news feeds and a second or two later we're activating the share button. But these things appear to us (and appeal to us) for reasons. To be aware of what's happening behind the scenes you need to know about confirmation bias, of online echo chambers and filter bubble algorithms and of how our own emotional responses are being manipulated; because, at the same time that we have unprecedented access to facts, we also have instant access to nearly everyone's opinions, however bizarre and counter-factual (manifesting in everything from a "crisis of statistics" to the resurgence of flat Earthers on YouTube). It also helps to know a little about the maths of coincidence and of Littlewood's law of miracles and about how we are prone to find patterns in randomness.

When the public has little trust in legacy media journalists and there's an "implosion of trust" in major institutions, alternative news sources can move in to fill the trust gap.  As BBC Global News chief executive Jim Egan recently put it: "We potentially live in a dangerous world of declining trust in mainstream media, because if in the end people believe nothing, there's a risk that they'll believe anything." We have a crisis of credibility and authority.

 Article source:  New York Times, 18 November, 2016 . Tweets:  @realDonaldTrump  from 18 and 19 February, 2017.

Article source: New York Times, 18 November, 2016.
Tweets: @realDonaldTrump from 18 and 19 February, 2017.

You can rank high in transliteracy but fail at information literacy and thereby successfully spread all sorts of nonsense among multiple platforms to your followers. It's not just about what institutional sources we choose to give authority to and which we choose to ignore, dismiss or consume, it's also about scientific, social, historical and political literacies and the ability to logically evaluate evidence. It's even about kindness, empathy, insight and compassion: in other words, emotional literacy. .

Some suggested reading on the themes of modern propaganda and the manufacturing of doubt.  Find a copy in a library near you.

Then there is the sheer number and diversity of voices that are creating content, the clever clickbait, cheeky memes, heaping praise or sowing the seeds of dissent. Daily we experience content from mainstream (aka the old or legacy media) and alternative news sites, from satire news sites like The Onion and from fake news or fauxtire sites. It becomes easy to categories our mainstream media as fake when there's "bullshit" gossip magazines, major print and online newspapers like the Daily Mail (described by Wikipedia editors as "unreliable") and when columnists like Andrew Bolt are constantly in print, online, on TV and across broadcast radio. In the mainstream the spaces between objective reporting and opinion (or activist journalism) have been blurred and nudged in favour of the columnists, opinion makers and the spectacle of contrived debates.

There are messages from politicians. professional spin doctors, corporate lobbyists and NGO lobby groups, product defenders and think tanks with their experts for hiresockpuppetsfronts, shills and astroturfing. Marketing, advertising and PR firms also get in on the act.  A recent story that Putin and Trump had been seen together at a Swiss resort turned out to be fake news by way of a viral marketing campaign for a movie. As a small town in Macedonia has taught us, generating fake news is profitable; and, as the creator of the viral "fraudulent Clinton ballots" story has explained, it can be done in minutes. Across platforms and senses we see and hear the views of the professional commentariat, the bloggertariat and celebrity YouTube vloggers and podcasters. Everywhere there are hoaxers, pranksters, quacks, cranks and gish-galloping, word-salad wielding woo merchants.  

The 21st century's dark satanic mill is a troll factory employing a 50 Cent Party spreading all shades of propaganda, including disabling disinformatzya. When you see online discussions rapidly turn ad hominem, it mightn't even be humans who are doing the dishing, but bigoted trollbots. When bullshitting is a winning political strategy, we need to educate ourselves on how modern propaganda works (and on how propaganda has worked in the past). 

You can read the full text of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism online. 

It's all too much and our little eyes tend to glaze over. Research takes time, effort and some skill; and no one's going to appreciate your fact-checking restraint when you don't share that dodgy post. By contrast, sharing an emotionally arousing tweet, image macro or video is quick and easy, and if someone else Likes it or goes on to share it, then it's rewarding, too. We are social creatures who seek attention, validation and dopamine. In an engaged global village that confuses the dichotomy of McLuhan's hot and cool media, the online media has us in a loop of instant gratification.

Find a copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman in a library near you. Although, I must observe that there are several mentions of book banning and suppressed science in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (read the full text on archive.org and all of Orwell's 1984, too).

Down the rabbit hole

Alternative facts are nothing new. As a kid I was into ghosts, the Bermunda Triangle and UFOs and the ancient astronauts of Erich Von Daniken. I hung out with ufologists and over time realised that these well-meaning citizens wanted to be scientists, but really didn't have much of a clue about science. Because I wanted to get a rounded view of the subject I also read the debunkers, those fantasy-quenchers who preferred prosaic answers to the logical fallacy of arguments from ignorance. With their help I gradually I grew out of my love for all things faux mysterious. In the cognitive dissonance between science and fantasy, skepticism won out. I can enjoy The X-Files as a reflexive and entertaining work of fiction, not as a documentary (or even as a piece of predictive programming).

There's nothing worse than an ex-believer. During my adventures on Twitter and Facebook, I've had several run-ins with alt.truth fantasists. There's really no middle ground when a conspiracy theorist and an evidence-based skeptic meet online. The Truther asserts ignorance and speculation as fact and will ignore the refuting evidence that you respond with, replying with with more nonsensical  "100% proof" that "even a librarian could understand" and attempting to distract with a straw-man arguments. It doesn't matter if the subject is chemtrails, 911, vaccines or anthropocentric global warming, the tactics and tricks, sources and stated level of confidence are the same.

Dr Who image via @NicholasPegg.
See Tom Baker deliver these immortal lines on Youtube.
Tim O'Brien's
 'The Little Golden Book of Alternate Facts' via Boing Boing.

This can be quite frustrating for a librarian. I've spent quite a bit of time tracking down good quality sources to respond with. I've scoured Google Scholar to research a claim that "global warming has been proven to be wrong"; only to be informed that I was looking in the wrong place and failing to find the un-peer-reviewed work of Piers Corbyn (whose climate Weather Action website fails the most cursory of scientific checklists). At least I educated myself. 

Sometimes it's as easy as sharing a counter meme. Getting fed-up with a serial sharer of bulldust, I responded to his silly anti-fluoridation meme with the equally alarming anti-dihydrogen monoxide meme (which reminds me of the time that the SciBabe called dulldust on the Food Babe). I don't know if he got it, but if I'd shared some peer-reviewed scientific papers at best I would have got some Natural News story back. At worst, a rant about how science if fixed.

Find Germany: Jekyll and Hyde by Sebastian Haffner in a library near you.
For a 2017 take on how impressive bullshitting can result in admiration and victory through appeal, engagement and empowerment, see How advertising research explains Donald Trump’s profound appeal.

There are many suggested ways of dealing with conspiracy theorists and those who give the knee-jerk reactions of #fakenews and the like and I was probably going about it all wrong. Some propose a method of logic-breaking questioning and others suggest empathy as a starting point before presenting facts. More specifically, another research team suggests that rather "than taking on people's surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation." These approaches in some ways resemble the methods of the Street Epistemology movement. 

Harvard Berkman Faculty Fellow Judith Donath sees serial alt.news sharing as an act of "signaling identity" and recommends a three step approach: don't feed the trolls and use direct messaging to signal your concern, "help promote a culture that reveres veracity" and "appreciate humor". That latter point is interesting, as evidenced by the controversialist statements of former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos. In a Brietbart article he has explained that part of the allure of the alt.right is having fun. Indeed, given Poe's Law, who can't see Alex Jones as parody? And that he's channelling Peter Finch in Network.

Donath's second step is relevant to our profession and may have a broader application. Studies by Professor Viren Swami indicate that engaging people in tasks that require analytical thought can make us less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. There may be a role for library programs that promote science, information literacy, analytical thought and critical thinking.

What is to be done?

While researching this article I stumbled across a story about how Donald Trump wanted to "get rid of the Library of Congress". It was after midnight but with even a quick, half-dazed read I smelled a rat. The claimed Trump quote that "decomposing newspapers, pansy artwork and a bunch of black and white movies about women and illegal immigrants have no business being “protected”" didn't sound right: it was too coherent and didn't even scan like it came from a Trump quote generator. I went no further, instead going in search of the truth and Googling the headline. The top result was from Snopes.com, which informed me that it was an April Fools Day fake news story. Maybe Google's algorithms gave me Snopes as the top result because I use Snopes a lot. 

If you want to be a responsible librarian, online and offline, you have to be skeptical. I want us to earn a reputation as that nerdy fact-checker who pours cold water on people's fake news, bad science, internet myths and alternative facts. Our challenge is to change the conversation and earn Likes and shares with our factual interventions. Someone has to.

By the way, you could be totally boring and go about reporting fake news. (And I'm waiting to hear about the orchestrated campaigns to manipulate Facebook's new reporting system.)

So, before Liking or sharing, pause and be critical. Be skeptical and check it out. IFLA has adapted a FactCheck.org checklist on how to spot fake news and published an infographic for print-out in numerous languages. As IFLA note, "critical thinking is a key skill in media and information literacy, and the mission of libraries is to educate and advocate its importance."

Go to IFLA for How To Stop Fake News posters in a multitude of languages.

I find that consulting fact-checking websites are useful in this pursuit. Of course, fact-checkers are only human, prone to error, bias and omission. With that caveat in mind, here's some top fact-checking websites:

I suggest that if you are unfamiliar with viral fakery and arguments based on logical fallacies that you have a browse through these sources to become acquainted with the subject matter. You can find out more about fact-checking at Poynter.org and the Duke Reporters' Lab has links to fact-checkers world-wide. But beware, as now there are fake fact-checkers too!

Some suggested reads for honing your scientific skepticism. Find a copy in a library near you and you can listen to The Demon Haunted World as an audio book on YouTube.

In October, 2016, Assistant Professor Melissa Zimdars published a list of False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources (and, naturally, not everyone agrees with it). The list has triggered the development of apps, browser plug-ins and extensions that alert you when seeing an "unreliable" or "questionable" new source. These include This Is Fake (for use with Facebook) and BS Detector. The memeTruth app and RealDonaldContext might be useful, too. However, both dodgy forums and, perhaps more significantly, YouTube are major blind spots for these products. As Buzzfeed has observed, YouTube is a key platform for the alt.news industry (and it pays well, too).

#Resistance in LibraryLand

It's refreshing that libraries have discovered the STEM programs. Scientific literacy is vital in combating the post-truth era, especially when climate change denialists, anti-vaxxers and the like are arguably waging a "war on science".  But in the interests of lifelong learning, we should also be addressing adults with STEM programs, with science and technology based activities and library versions of science in the pub. It might be time to contact a science communicator, your local university or museum to see who's available to give a talk or two or do some practical programs, for adults. You can also find commercial science and technology program operators. Even simple things like displays of science books and material that embraces inclusion and encourages critical thinking can help resist normalising the "new normal".

Does your institution do internet lessons? Cybersafety in usually part of these sessions. I suggest that it might be a good time to include a BS detecting tool kit as part of these programs, or do some sessions about identifying fake news. Information or media literacy are vital and need to be incorporated into our programs. Your organisation's social media presence can play a role here too, linking to fact-checking websites, apps and such. 

Here's a tricky question to ask at your next team meeting. Should we put some fake or unreliable news alert browser apps on our public computers? A more practical option might be to print out some of those IFLA fake news PDFs and post them to a display wall or two, or build a display around it. You could also review your magazine subs, too, and see if there's room for more scientific and skeptical periodicals.

In practice

Sometimes our professional commitments clash. We have a commitment to the freedom to read, but also a duty of care to provide quality information.

Recent I had a customer request for a book on diabetes. I couldn't find it referenced in Global Books In Print, but I did find it on Amazon, where it has far too many positive reviews. Also, no other libraries in Australia had a copy. So I went Googling and found the publisher's website, which is where the tubular alarm bells really went off. Deciding against it I phoned the requesting customer and quietly explained my concerns and the reasons for them (you can see some more of those here). I also offered more credible alternatives from our collection. She was OK with that and appreciated the concern, so it ended well. 

Sometimes, when you're not being neutral, gently does it.

What is GLAM? Some personal ponderings

What is GLAM? Some personal ponderings

Body of Knowledge 1: Understanding the Information Environment

Body of Knowledge 1: Understanding the Information Environment