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Public Knowledge Wants to Solve the Misinformation Problem

9 May 2019

From The Illusion of More:

On Tuesday, Meredith Filak Rose of Public Knowledge posted a blog suggesting that a solution to rampant misinformation is to “bring libraries online.” Not surprisingly, she identifies copyright law as the barrier currently preventing access to quality information that could otherwise help solve the problem …

“High-quality, vetted, peer-reviewed secondary sources are, unfortunately, increasingly hard to come by, online or off. Scientific and medical research is frequently locked behind paywalls and in expensive journals; legal documents are stuck in the pay-per-page hell that is the PACER filing system; and digital-only information can be erased, placing it out of public reach for good (absent some industrious archivists).”

Really?  We’re just a few peer-reviewed papers away from addressing the social cancer of misinformation?

. . . .

The funny thing is that Rose does a pretty decent job of summing up how misinformation can be effectively deployed online, but her description could easily be the Public Knowledge Primer for Writing About Copyright Law:

Misinformation exploits this basic fact of human nature — that no one can be an expert in everything — by meeting people where they naturally are, and filling in the gaps in their knowledge with assertions that seem “plausible enough.” Sometimes, these assertions are misleading, false, or flatly self-serving.  In aggregate, these gap-fillers add up to construct a totally alternate reality whose politics, science, law, and history bear only a passing resemblance to our own.

. . . .

Having said all that, Meredith Rose’s article does not say anything categorically false. It is a sincere editorial whose main flaw is that it is sincerely naïve.  “…in the absence of accessible, high-quality, primary source information, it’s next to impossible to convince people that what they’ve been told isn’t true,” she writes.

Yeah. That psychological human frailty is not going to be cured by putting even more information online, regardless of how “good” it may be, or how copyright figures in the equation.  To the contrary, more information is exactly why we’re wandering in a landscape of free-range ignorance in the first place.

. . . .

Speaking as someone schooled in what we might call traditional liberal academia, I believe Rose reiterates a classically liberal, academic fallacy, which assumes that if just enough horses are led to just enough water, then reason based on empirical evidence will prevail over ignorance.  That’s not even true among the smartest horses who choose to drink. Humans tend to make decisions based on emotion more than information, and it is axiomatic that truth is in the eye of the beholder.

But if galloping bullshit is the disease, the catalyst causing it to spread is not copyright law keeping content off the internet, but the nature of the internet platforms themselves.  By democratizing information with a billion soapboxes it was inevitable that this would foster bespoke realities occupied by warrens of subcultures that inoculate themselves against counter-narratives (i.e. facts) with an assortment of talismanic phrases used to dismiss the peer-reviewed scientist, journalist, doctor, et al, as part of a conspiracy who “don’t want us to know the truth.”

Link to the rest at The Illusion of More

While PG didn’t particularly like the tone of the OP, if you’re going to have an open Internet and if you’re going to have freedom of speech, it is all but certain that some people who operate their own blogs, participate in online discussion groups, write for newspapers, appear on television, publish books, have a Twitter account, etc., etc., are going to communicate ideas that either are wrong or seem wrong.

Ever since cave persons of various genders collected around an open fire to drink and talk, some incorrect information was passed from one person to at least one other person, then disseminated from there.

“If Rockie kills a brontosaurus and examines its entrails, he can tell whether it will rain in three days or not.”

Pretty soon, everyone is harassing Rockie to go dinosaur hunting so they could know whether to schedule the prom for next Thursday or not.

From that day until this, regardless of their political persuasion, someone is passing on false information, believing it to be the truth. Someone else is passing on false information for the greater good, knowing it is false. Someone else is creating false information because they have just discovered a great truth which isn’t.

A large majority of Americans regard Adolph Hitler and Nazism as an obvious and indisputable evil. However, this was not always so.

Charles Lindbergh was one of the greatest American heroes of the 1920’s.  He gained even more public stature and enormous public sympathy in 1932, when his 20-month-old son was kidnapped. The most prominent journalist of the period, H. L. Mencken called the kidnapping and trial “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”

Responding to the kidnapping, the United States Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act, commonly called the “Lindbergh Law.” In the middle of the Great Depression, rewards equivalent to more than one million dollars in 2018 currency were offered for information leading to the safe return of the child.

A ransom of $50,000 (the equivalent of nearly $1 million today) was demanded for the safe return of the child and was paid. Unfortunately, the Lindbergh baby was killed before he could be found.

Back to the certainty of public opinion, in 1940, the America First Committee was established for the purpose of supporting Adolph Hitler and the Nazis by keeping the United States out of the war in Europe. It quickly gained more than 800,000 members, including a large number of prominent business figures. The pressure of the organization caused President Franklin Roosevelt to pledge that he would keep America out of war.

Lindbergh was greatly admired in Germany and, at the invitation of Hermann Göring, took a high-profile trip to Germany in 1936 where he was treated as a great hero and shown the highly-sophisticated airplanes developed for the German air force. Lindbergh was a high-profile visitor to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, a huge Nazi propaganda exercise.

The visit was a press sensation with daily articles covering Lindbergh’s activities published in The New York Times. On his return, Lindbergh met with President Roosevelt to report on his observations and opinions. Lindbergh would return to Germany on two more occasions prior to the entry into the war by the United States.

Here’s a short video account of the America First movement and Lindbergh’s opposition to war with Germany from The Smithsonian

Circling back to the OP, had the Internet existed in 1936, what would “high-quality, peer-reviewed” articles have said about Germany and America’s best path forward? What would prominent academics, the owners of major media conglomerates and other prominent world leaders, have posted about Hitler and his supporters?

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Germany and Japan, the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, New York Herald Tribune, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and many more publications reported the great economic progress Hitler-lead Germany was making as it pulled itself out of the Depression and downplayed the extent and nature of the nation’s attacks on the Jews. Indeed, Hitler was providing the West with important benefits by vigorously attacking Bolshevism and imprisoning Communist supporters.

In Britain, The Daily Mail was a strong supporter of Germany. Harold Harmsworth, the first Viscount Rothermere, was the founder of the Daily Mail and owned 14 other papers. His influence was on a par with Lord Beaverbrook’s.

Rothermere was a strong supporter of Mussolini’s version of fascism, “He is the greatest figure of the age,” Rothermere proclaimed in 1928. “Mussolini will probably dominate the history of the 20th century as Napoleon dominated that of the early 19th.”

“[The Nazis] represent the rebirth of Germany as a nation,” Rothermere wrote in the Mail. The election, he correctly prophesied, would come to be seen as “a landmark of this time.”

The Nazis’ “Jew-baiting,” Rothermere warned, was “a stupid survival of medieval prejudice.” Of course, he also added, the Jews had brought the Nazis’ displeasure on themselves, having shown “conspicuous political unwisdom since the war.”

Germany had been “falling under the control of alien elements,” Rothermere argued. There were 20 times as many Jews in government positions than there had been before the war.

“Israelites of international attachments were insinuating themselves into key positions in the German administrative machine,” he noted darkly. “It is from such abuses that Hitler has freed Germany.”

The Jews were not just a problem in Germany. The menace they posed was much more widespread, he felt.

“The Jews are everywhere, controlling everything,” Rothermere wrote in private correspondence.

See The Times of Israel for more.

Back to the “problem” with fake news on the Internet, PG suggests that the online disputes between right and left are a feature, not a bug, in a free society.

An Appeal to Authority (“experts agree” “science says” “academic publications clearly demonstrate”) is a classic logical fallacy.

Whether in the form of “bringing libraries online,” “High-quality, vetted, peer-reviewed secondary sources,” or “keeping content off the internet,” PG is very much a supporter of free and open disputes, arguments as the best way of preserving the rights of all individuals, debunking fallacy and ensuring that no one group can control and limit the spread of information, whether fake news or real news.

Books in General, Copyright/Intellectual Property, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

16 Comments to “Public Knowledge Wants to Solve the Misinformation Problem”

  1. Any gatekeeper of knowledge (or anything else) will be gate-keeping as ‘they’ see things because far too many so-called ‘facts’ are in fact judgement calls which can be true for some while being false to others.

  2. I’ve an old guy, been around a while, sat in on some board room debates, was subjected to a consent decree in a securities fraud prosecution and saw the CEO frog-marched out the front door, and watched what went into the grinder when the sausage was made. I still get out on occasion.

    When I was young, I subscribed to the National Review and generally argued with my Vietnam era peers. I’ve been deaf in one ear since I was 14, which kept me out of the army even though I drew a single digit lottery number. I was stupid then. I was seduced by the glitter of power. I wish I had known better.

    I wrote code for a home-brew TCP/IP stack when the web barely existed and HTTP was casual and kind of dumb instead of a religion. I didn’t think much about the social consequences of a stinking communications protocols. I wish I had, but, in retrospect, I don’t think such insight was possible at the time.

    Okay. I’m old and boring. Power, greed, and treachery go a long way in this world, but I now believe that truth, kindness, and fair dealing eventually win.

    So, yeah. The higher the quality the information that is freely available, the happier I will be. The only way I know to check on truth is to duke it out with bare knuckles.

    • Power, greed, and treachery go a long way in this world, but I now believe that truth, kindness, and fair dealing eventually win.

      Wow. You made my day.

      I write stories where truth and kindness eventually win, but I was afraid that might be true only in stories. I think I’d rather believe you.

  3. Terrence OBrien

    Nobody cares about fake news. They care about true news they don’t want the other guy to know.

  4. I keep a commonplace book, and here’s a recent entry:

    “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

    — Herbert Simon

    One of the things that I think historians will regard as emblematic of the Trump Era is that it is the period in which it became apparent that the filters that we used to have to sift through the information we receive (space, time, Walter Cronkite) have utterly disappeared. The result is that because of the information glut, (& putting aside any knowledge a person has about his or her own profession or endeavors), it is virtually impossible to have a coherent view of anything that one can with any certainty suppose approaches accuracy. Our attention is simply overwhelmed, even if the information is accurate, which so much of it isn’t. You wind up trying to identify people who you think know what they are talking about, & just deciding to rely on what they have to say. Or worse, people who are saying what you want to be true.

    So I think that the problem is not fake news per se – or even what the guys over at Epsilon Theory call “fiat news” (opinion presented as news.) Even if all the news were entirely accurate, we’d still be washed away in the flood. So we try to build our arks of understanding, knowing that the best we can hope for is that our perception of reality approximates it sufficiently to be able to act in a way that helps us understand what the hell is going on.

    I think that the online disputes between left & right are not so much a feature of a free society as a symptom of one that does not know how to govern itself in any cooperative manner. It doesn’t help that the primary mode of thought on all sides seems to be utopian rather than pragmatic.

    At this point, I resort to another snippet from my commonplace book:

    “I doubt any of us can see reality for what it is. My worldview is that we were in one kind of illusion before and some of us moved to another. When it comes to understanding reality, the best we can do is pick a version that does a good job predicting.”

    –Scott Adams

  5. Truth is what I believe. Fake news is what you believe when you don’t agree with me.

  6. in the absence of accessible, high-quality, primary source information, it’s next to impossible to convince people that what they’ve been told isn’t true

    Clearly, the OP has never argued with Facebook friends and family on political issues. One of my family members, when told that she needed to back up her statements with facts, told me that it was my job to research the issue and that all she had to do was utter her opinion. It reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s statement that you are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. We have since decided never to argue politics again because we do love each other and want to remain friends.

    I have educated many other FB friends and family members on the lack of truthfulness in the many memes they blithely pass along. One of them now checks Snopes before clicking the share button, but every so often another falls through the cracks and I call BS on it.

    I have been blessed with an extremely good BS detector. I can spot a hoax at ten miles and have only been taken in once in my entire online life (it was the “naked paintball” hoax, and I was so incensed that women were being shot that I ignored all the tells it was BS). As a result, I’ve had to unfollow a lot of people on Facebook for the sake of my blood pressure and sanity.

    There is no way to stop misinformation and lies from spreading. Especially in these days, when our media stars are only too happy to pass along innuendo and rumor and pretend that they’re newsworthy because they MIGHT be true.

    I argue my side backed up with facts. I have been told I “disrespected” a debate opponent because I wasn’t acknowledging the validity of her viewpoint. When I told her it was because I thought she was wrong, she took offense.

    Welcome to the 21st century, where debating skills are no longer taught in high school. My assignment in senior history was to defend Lt. William Calley of the My Lai Massacre. I researched it and argued his side, because that was how you learned back in the day.

    I cannot imagine that being assigned to anyone today. (FYI, I thought his superior officers were more to blame and should have been court-martialed along with him.)

    Sometimes I feel like tilting at windmills. Most often, I click the page down key and ignore the misinformation on my FB feed. It’s the only way to stay sane.

    • This is another reason why I don’t do Facebook: Soooooo many people I know fall for urban legends, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to reply with Snopes links. Before Facebook it was chain-emails.

      I was annoyed, dismayed, and a tad fearful for the future when my journalism classmates were passing around urban legends … that they didn’t know were urban legends. For them I went past Snopes and straight to the original sources (I think it was the FDA in one case) so that the Future Reporters of America would learn to check original sources. We cannot have an informed public if the people tasked with informing the public aren’t too discerning themselves. “Too good to check” is a character problem. Being too clueless to check is surprisingly more likely, but more easily fixed.

      You are entitled to your informed opinion. Because it just can’t be emphasized enough 🙂

    • Terrence OBrien

      It reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s statement that you are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion.

      Neither Ellison nor anyone else can confer entitlement on anyone’s ideas. We control our own mental processes. He can pretend.

      • And you can pretend that your uninformed opinions deserve respect. If you do, you’re a good deal more wrong than Ellison was.

        • Felix J. Torres

          My mother’s lawyer once told her that paper will support whatever ink you put on it. That doesn’t make the ink true or even worth consideration.

          The same applies online and in the media. Just because somebody believes something doesn’t make it true. Or worthy of consideration or respect. There’s a lot of closed minds out there.

  7. Of likely relevance to the original post:

    https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/05/fact-checking-cant-do-much-when-peoples-dueling-facts-are-driven-by-values-instead-of-knowledge/

    People already know what’s right; don’t confuse them with the facts.

  8. Snopes gets it wrong just as often as right. Like all organizations, they have an agenda.

    Hail Hydra.

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