Drowning in Fake News and Bias
In (even reasonably) normal times, Alex Jones would be the poster boy, par excellence, for fake news. On his Infowars website, and in a blizzard of social media, Mr. Jones has zealously promoted an alternative theory regarding what took place in December, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In his view, 20 young children, and 6 adult staff, were not tragically, senselessly gunned down that day. No, not at all. The reality, according to Mr. Jones, was that government-backed gun control activists staged a fake massacre designed to discredit pro-gun defenders of liberty and the 2nd Amendment. The victims, and their grieving parents? “Crisis actors” in a government conspiracy.*
But these are far from normal times. And so Alex Jones simply joins what is a longer and longer list of those using social media to spread distortion, disinformation, and outright deceit. Case in point: it’s been almost two years now since American intelligence agencies informed us that Russia actively subverted the 2016 election with fake news designed to accentuate our political polarization and, more narrowly, to elect Donald Trump as president. Russia similarly used fake news to influence and inflame the U.K.’s hugely contentious Brexit vote.
Of course, it’s not just nefarious outsiders. The Washington Post has been regularly updating its Fact Checker database to track, analyze, and categorize every suspect statement uttered by our president. As of the beginning of September 2018 — 20 months into his presidency — Donald Trump has made 4,713 false or misleading claims. That’s an average of almost eight claims a day. And it’s getting worse. In his first 100 days in office, Trump averaged 4.9 false or misleading claims per day. But during the summer of 2018, Trump’s average has been over 15 such claims every day — helped along by the prodigious feat of 79 false and misleading claims on July 5 alone. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Trump’s claims flow through Twitter.
Elsewhere, though, Facebook tends to serve as the disinformation weapon of choice. On September 4th, the New York Times reported:
When a new bout of fighting between rival militias engulfed the Libyan capital in recent days, badly shaking the fragile United Nations-backed government, some combatants picked up rifles and rocket launchers and headed into the streets.
Others logged on to Facebook. As rockets rained on parts of Tripoli, hitting a hotel popular with foreigners and forcing the airport to close, and 400 prisoners escaped from a jail, a parallel battle unfolded online. On their Facebook pages, rival groups issued boasts, taunts and chilling threats — one vowing to “purify” Libya of its opponents . . . Some “keyboard warriors,” as Facebook partisans are known in Libya, posted fake news or hateful comments. Others offered battlefield guidance.
Such “keyboard warrior” abuses are surprisingly normative. In Myanmar, Facebook has been accused — by the UN — of substantially contributing to genocide against the majority-Muslim Rohingya minority. UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee said Facebook had been used to spread anti-Rohingya hate speech, and added, “Facebook has now turned into a beast.”
This past July, India’s information technology ministry said that a large number of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumors and provocation” were being circulated on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform — leading to lynchings of innocent people in several Indian states. This month, the Columbia Journalism Review ran an article titled, “Facebook now linked to violence in the Philippines, Libya, Germany, Myanmar, and India.”
Remember when the ability of social media platforms to “customize” our media feeds was viewed as a good thing? When we still thought that just meant our preference for cat videos would allow Facebook, et al, to learn not to bother us with dog videos? The promise was that we would get just the news that really interested us, free from the distraction of everything else. Which was just one more way in which our world was being made better, or at least more convenient, by AI-powered technology. It was AI, after all, that allowed the new tech platforms to fully shed the ‘one size fits all’ straightjacket of traditional media. Now every user could be “known” — and every news feed progressively attuned to each user’s unique likes and dislikes. What could go wrong?
Now we know.
And now we know, as well, that we humans have a deep propensity toward “confirmation bias” — toward believing to be true what we prefer to be true, and to prefer the content that confirms what we already believe. Not surprisingly, the more exposure we have to such confirming content, the more deep-seated our beliefs become.
Which means that under a steady stream of reinforcing content, most people’s opinions and beliefs move toward the extremes, for some, even the delusional extremes. Yet it is precisely this reinforcing content that AI has concluded maximizes our “engagement,” our captured attention — and simultaneously maximizes social media stock prices. Facebook and the other social media platforms have, as a result, constructed for each of us our own custom echo chambers. And we are willingly giving ourselves to the largest brain-washing exercise in human history.
The weaponizing of our personal echo chambers seems to have come as a rude surprise to the social media companies, all of whom are scrambling to get the fake news genie back in the bottle, now that it’s run so badly amok. But it doesn’t surprise people of faith. In his second epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes presciently, “A time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NLT)
Similarly, the Old Testament often laments that Israel prefers to listen to false prophets bearing pleasant tidings than to God’s sometimes stern words of correction. Jeremiah 23:16-17 (NIV) says, for example:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts, they say, ‘No harm will come to you.
Evidently, it’s been thousands of years, at least, that humans have preferred those who would tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. Interestingly, Jesus sets himself squarely in opposition to our propensity to listen to what makes us feel good. He says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-31 NIV)
And if we don’t? Well, then, we eventually find ourselves awash in fake news and enslaved to our own biases and fears. In other words, the boogie man wins.
*Under the press of defamation lawsuits by victim’s parents, Jones has slowly and inconsistently walked back various of his Sandy Hook claims.