Saturday, May 9, 2015
Willful Ignorance in the Age of Misinformation
This post is a departure from my usual presentation of quantitative, objective data in the form of charts. This post is more personal, less quantified, and possibly more important.
This post is about truth. It is about misinformation campaigns in the media. It is about people who believe in propaganda, and people who create an alternate, irrational reality.
This post is about how news media have been subverted by political interests in the United States, and by state interests in other parts of the world. It is about how news media use human psychological weaknesses to manipulate public opinion.
This post is about people who believe in nonsense. It is about those who believe the Apollo moon landing was faked in Hollywood. It is about people who don’t believe in climate change. It is about those who believe President Barack Obama plans to mobilize the U.S. Army to declare martial law in Texas. (And about the Texas governor who gives credence to such nonsense). It is about those who believe President Obama was born in Kenya, or is a Muslim, or would in any way betray the United States. It is about those who believe anti-American propaganda in Russian state-owned media.
It is about people choosing to believe nonsense instead of documented truth. It is about people choosing to live in deliberate and willful ignorance.
Not long ago, I had an altercation on Facebook.
A friend posted something about American astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the moon. I commented that my uncle, a former military pilot and aerospace engineer, had designed the antenna on the lunar lander. My uncle’s antenna allowed the lunar lander to communicate across 250,000 miles to earth, sending mechanical parameters, voice and video signals across that vast distance. My uncle was quietly proud; he never spoke about the work, but a plaque hung in the hallway of his house.
Someone commented that he didn’t believe that men had landed on the moon.
I was astonished. I was outraged.
I wrote about the tens of thousands of people, like my uncle, who worked on the program. I mentioned 4 billion-year-old moon rocks, which were analyzed at my university while I attended graduate school. Such rocks could not have been counterfeited. I wrote about the cost of the program, representing 0.5 % of America’s GDP during the Vietnam War. There is physical evidence. There are photos of the abandoned landing modules made by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. There are laser reflectors placed on the moon by Apollo astronauts which are still used for precisions measurements of the moon’s orbit.
All of my words were futile. My antagonist was unmoved. His arguments became more absurd; his comments became more insulting. He suggested that robots had landed on the moon in the 1960’s – ridiculous, as the required computer technology did not exist in the 1960s.
Words cannot express my anger. With unbelief, this apparently intelligent person dishonors one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. He dishonors those who accomplished the feat. This person chooses to reject all reasonable evidence of truth and to believe something nonsensical.
I call that willful ignorance.
We live in an age of misinformation.
In America, commercial interests with a political agenda have taken control of many of the major news services in the country. At best, these commercial interests have abandoned the idea of objective reporting, in favor of “news-ertainment”, anything that produces better ratings and advertising revenue. At worst, these interests have deep political objectives and are manipulating the news for political gain. Journalistic ethics are failing, and objective reporting has been replaced by advocacy journalism, or in simpler terms, propaganda. Reporting is relentlessly biased, opinionated, incomplete, and constructed for the purpose of manipulating public opinion.
In many countries, the government or government-controlled organizations have taken control of new services. Governments are increasingly aggressive in censoring the internet and censoring the news. Some nations have hired armies of shills (“trolls”) to write commentary on the Internet, and funded false “independent” websites dedicated to spreading government lies. Currently, Russian state-owned media is engaged in propaganda campaigns against America, western Europe, and to justify Russian intervention in Ukraine. This propaganda uses distortion across a wide spectrum from fascism to homosexuality to impugn the character of the west. The strangest accusation that I encountered in Russian media was that American psychologists approve of pedophilia. Social media is used to spread such lies and deception; I just watched an anti-American video posted on You-tube. The video is a fraud; the events it depicts did not happen. But the video allegedly attracted 500,000 views on the first day.
Misinformation is generally not in the form of outright lies. Rather, the general technique in America is more subtle. Misinformation consists of innuendo, irrelevant negative associations, selective and incomplete evidence, pejorative photography or reporting, etc. Many of these techniques are based on well-known psychological phenomena, such as those discussed by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational (http://danariely.com/the-books/), and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374533555). It is disturbingly easy to manipulate the human mind and modern news organizations are ready to do it.
Techniques of Opinion Manipulation
News organizations are increasingly manipulating public opinion for political gain. Here are some of the techniques used to influence the public perception of a story.
One of the strongest techniques of manipulation is self-induced by viewers. People invariably favor evidence that reinforces existing beliefs, and tend to discount or discredit evidence that opposes their existing beliefs.
Anchoring is the technique of providing a reference point to the viewer. The viewer is biased by the reference point in weighing deviations from that point.
Emotional arousal is used to influence viewers. Typically, something of highly negative emotional content is used to smear a political opponent. I sometimes call this “pushing the ‘outrage’ button”.
The Halo Effect
An irrelevant positive or negative trait is associated with a target, in order to bias the viewer’s perceptions about unrelated traits.
The Endowment Effect
People value things they possess higher than things they do not possess. Suggestions of possession are used to promote nationalism.
Disproportionate or illegitimate “expert” testimony is broadcast to influence viewers, regardless of whether the expert opinion actually represents the mainstream expert viewpoint.
These techniques can be seen every day on Fox News (with its Orwellian motto “Fair and Balanced”), on MSNBC, on RT (Russia Television) News, in the opinion pages of The Dallas Morning News and other papers, and sadly, the newest acquisitions of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s magazine. These formerly had the highest standards of journalistic integrity, and are now corrupted. It is becoming more and more difficult to find objective news.
Integrity in Journalism
I intend to write further about integrity in Journalism. Truthful information is the lifeblood of every society. Propaganda is a cancer which will destroy the society. There should be a Hippocratic Oath of Integrity for journalists, binding them to truthful, complete and accurate reporting. But in the current, real world, such a thing does not exist. And it becomes the duty of the citizen to become informed, and to make reasoned judgments about truth while being bombarded by propaganda. It will not be easy.
We live in an age of misinformation. Misinformation and political propaganda are found on state-sponsored media, commercial media, and social media. Our laws restrict untruthful claims about simple products, but allow truth to be trampled in political discourse under the protection of free speech. (But I will defend free speech unto death.)
Author Nate Silver (The Signal and the Noise, http://www.amazon.com/The-Signal-Noise-Predictions-Fail-but/dp/0143125087) compared the early age of the Internet to the early years following the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. The new media removed the barriers to publication, and enabled both good and bad material to be published (including this blog). What followed Gutenberg was a period of chaos in publishing, until society developed standards which ensured the quality of books. A similar process may be unfolding now. But the power of state and commercial interests will be difficult to overturn.
In an environment of misinformation, people will believe the damndest things. I don’t know why. People realize that the news is unreliable, and grasp at straws to make sense of the world. Some people accept propaganda as truth. Some people recognize that media cannot be trusted, and fall back on crackpot conspiracy theories as an alternative set of beliefs. In part, irrational beliefs represent confirmation bias, running wild. People believe crazy things because they want to believe crazy things. People reject uncomfortable truths because they don’t like the consequences of those truths.
People have a responsibility to think rationally and truthfully. To live in a world of propaganda, of half-truths, of irrationality is chaos and madness. For a society, the prevalence of such beliefs can only bring about chaos and destruction. People need to think critically about the news presented in the media, and choose rationality instead of willful ignorance.
Apollo moon landing conspiracy theories:
Dan Ariely, 2008, Predictably Irrational, 349 p., http://danariely.com/the-books/.
Daniel Kahneman, 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 499 p., http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374533555.
Nate Silver, 2012, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don’t, 534 p.
About FOX News
Gabriel Sherman, 2014, The Loudest Voice in the Room, 560 p.
David Brock, 2012, How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine, 336 p.
Joe Muto, 2014, An Atheist in the FOXhole; A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of Right-Wing Media, 336 p.
Russian State-Sponsored Propaganda
News website seemingly representing Russian state media: