Monday, October 16, 2017

Emotional Skepticism

I am not a librarian -- not nearly well-organized enough for that -- but I have picked up a lot of librarian values from three decades spent with a librarian who is not only an extraordinary practitioner of the bibliothecary arts, but also a scholar of knowledge itself. Lately, her scholarship on information literacy in general has led her to collaboration on empirical research into the "fake news" phenomenon in particular.

That jarring phrase has also had the attention of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, which decided to devote its Annual Forum to the topic this year. This turned out to be a perfect date for a geographer and librarian, especially since the forum was to be held in the Boston Public Library!

The event was entitled What's New About Fake News?, and was in the form of a panel discussion, with journalist Sasha Pfeiffer (of both the Boston Globe and WBUR) serving as moderator. The panel was very well chosen -- and would no doubt have been even more compelling had Professor Jelani Cobb not needed to cancel.
First lesson: Let's not use this phrase.
L-R: Sasha Pfeiffer, Marnie Shure, Charles Ferguson, Claire Wardle
The discussion was wide-ranging, with insights both alarming and constructive. I was grateful for the many new ways of thinking about our current predicament that the panelists and moderators shared, and even for most of the comments and questions from the audience. It was information scholar Claire Wardle, however, who gave us the most readily applicable ideas for beginning to work our way out of the impasse that has been created by dangerous levels of disregard for facts and distrust of sources.

Being Specific 

First, even though the phrase "fake news" was in the title of the day's program, she admonished listeners and fellow panelists to avoid using the phrase altogether, and after a couple of missteps, they actually managed to do so. Referring to the "weaponizing" of communication strategies, she asserted that the phrase "fake news" is used primarily to attack journalism, so journalists should refuse to participate in their own denigration by using it.

Rather, she said, since the term can be used to refer to several VERY different kinds of messages, we should simply indicate which kind is being discussed. To whit:
  • misinformation is something presented as a fact that is not correct; another word is "mistake"
  • disinformation is misinformation that is presented deliberately, with the intention to mislead those who hear or read it, or perhaps to foster discord
  • satire is mistaken information in the form of a joke, which both its creators and its consumers understand to be carefully constructed to shed light on some deeper truth; we were fortunate to have fellow panelist Marnie Shure of The Onion to provide a much deeper understanding of this important kind of commentary
  • reports that simply make the powerful feel uncomfortable are the most likely to be called "fake news," but they are not, in fact, fake
By framing the concept in this way at the very beginning, Wardle helped the entire panel to speak with greater precision about the new ways in which information really is being manipulated.

The "takeaway" from this part of the discussion is that any time we see the phrase "fake news," we should try to assign it to its proper category; this will help us to understand what is worth sharing and what is worth getting alarmed about.

Slow It Down

Which leads me to Wardle's second, perhaps more important suggestion. As someone who has worked on social-media campaigns at a very high level, she understands both how erroneous information gets propagated and the harm it can do. She suggests two ways of fostering what she terms "emotional skepticism" that I think she intended as safeguards within social-media operating systems. The can, for now, simply be seen as guidelines for individual users of social media.
  • Don't share anything before reading it to the end.
  • Don't share anything to which you have an emotional reaction, until you've waited two minutes to calm down.
I try -- and sometimes fail -- to do both of these things. 

Algorithms

In response to a cogent question from the audience, the panelists discussed the opacity of the algorithms that are used to shape each person's newsfeeds and search-engine results. The major technology companies know things about us that we do not know ourselves, and they feed information to us based on those things they know. The ways in which both things are accomplished are opaque to the users, and all of the panelists argued that making these algorithms at least somewhat transparent would give us some defense against being manipulated -- either as individuals or entire electorates.

Until that day of transparency comes, I have a suggestion of my own. We do not know the details of the algorithms at work behind the systems we use, but we know that they all tend to reinforce confirmation bias. We are increasingly unable to understand each other because there is so little overlap among the things we read and listen to. It is up to us, therefore, to seek out information sources -- and people -- with as wide a variety of viewpoints as we can manage.

Pamela -- the librarian by my side at this presentation -- provides even more insight into the program in general and our responsibilities as readers in her post What's New About Fake News on her "Library" Books blog.

The more we know, the harder we are to fool. It was fitting that the MassHumanties director ended the program by encouraging us to draw on the expertise of librarians when trying to ascertain the veracity of something we are asked to believe. I am reminded of the words of Congressman John Lewis, as I quoted him on this blog almost a year ago:

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