The science of fake news

Update (13-04-2022): The University of Cambridge has a disinformation summit planned for next year July. This is their website blurb:

“Strategic disinformation is a malignant accelerant for major societal problems such as climate change denial, the rise and sustenance of extremism, radicalisation of terrorism, criminal fraud, and suppression of rights. It is exploited across all information dissemination platforms, including social media, news media, financial and non-financial reporting, and other broadcast vehicles.”

I can’t say I am impressed. In fact, I am thoroughly underwhelmed. It is clear that whoever wrote the intro text thinks that certain scientific topics - climate change - are fixed points on the scientific compass that cannot be critically assessed anymore.

This is sheer confusion.

Science of the empirical kind is not in the business of producing necessary truths that are forever beyond dispute. That is reserved for logic and mathematics only. As I remark in my book written with my friend Aalt Bast and inspired by friend and colleague Briggs:

“… no scientific results will give us definitive answers to our many questions. Many scientists, perhaps following too closely the citizen or policy cheering section, developed the risky habit of insisting that their conditional truths are necessary truths. Some have gone further downhill by insisting fallaciously that their probable truths are universally true. The compelling statement “science has shown that …” should be taken with a grain of salt, and sometimes perhaps even more than that, say, a truckload. Wholesome skepticism thus is a balancing act, as Michael Polanyi showed, between orthodoxy and dissent, between the quietist “everybody knows that . . .” and the twitchy “forget everything you know about . . .”.

If the Cambridge summit persists in their approach, the planned conference can only result in strategies for censorship. That is to say: which stories can and can’t be allowed according to the predetermined narrative du jour.

We’ll have to see what’s gonna happen. I am not hopeful.

It is time to talk about something pedestrian: untrustworthy public utterances via e.g. written media, newsreels, webpages, aka fake news.

Fake news is carried by some form of mis-/disinformation that might be found in different sources, science journals included.

Why is fake news boring, common, prosaic, humdrum, and the like? Because there is nothing new about it. That’s why.

One thing sticks out: academics and intellectuals are just as susceptible, if not more, to fake news than anyone else.

Academics and intellectuals, however, have a means to hide their gullibility, for themselves and others, by emphasising their expertise that seemingly protects them against fakeness.

However, history teaches us that that is in fact profoundly mistaken. Let’s have a closer look, so that we might learn something.

My esteemed colleague Michael Burke, together with co-authors, have tried to tackle the issue of fake news in their 2021-paper Countering the Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Underpinnings Behind Susceptibility to Fake News (emphasis added):

“… fake news is the intentional creation, repetition, or presentation of deceptive disinformation which masquerades as the truth. The effect of this is to instill false beliefs with intentional misinformation behind them …; the intention to be taken seriously, and to be instrumentalized sociopolitically, is what sets it apart from satire and hoaxes …. Furthermore, fake news lends its own credibility by framing invented or distorted news stories tangentially as related to true events and real people. Fake news links itself to real events while doing so in a politically contested … climate so that the reader draws those events into question. Therefore, fake news finds support by relying on the general distrust of the public and the overly critical individuals in the minority who repeat disinformation.

Now, this paper extensively delves into the psychology, linguistics and other aspects of fake news, addressing also the aspect of the recipients age.

Another paper from 2022, Lateral reading and monetary incentives to spot disinformation about science by Panizza et al., tries to delve into the subject matter as well, with reference to so called fact checkers:

“fact checkers adopt two core strategies to avoid being biased in their search. The first strategy is lateral reading, namely leaving a website and opening new tabs along a horizontal axis to use the resources of the Internet to learn more about a site and its claims. Appearance of websites can sometimes mislead about their reliability, hence reading laterally helps to identify potential issues such as undisclosed interests or false credentials. The second core strategy is click restraint, that is, to sift through search results of a browser search before clicking on any link.”

The aim of this particular paper is to measure participants’ ability to identify whether information was scientifically valid or invalid.

Now, overall, both papers don’t tackle the ‘fakeness’ of texts as such, whether these texts are found on websites, newspapers, journal papers and so on.

In fact, both papers try to define proxy’s of fakeness, whether in linguistics, psychology, lateral reading, click restraint, or even scientific validity.

It seems to me that it would be quite helpful, academically and otherwise, to have something to say about the reality of fake news (pun intended) and in what ways one could unveil the fakeness of public texts.

First and foremost, if we want to understand fake, we need to know what is real. In other words, fundamentally we need to be able to distinguish between truth and falsity.

This implies, and the authors of both papers would agree with me here I believe, that there is actually truth to be had about the world we live in and the knowledge we have of our world.

To be absolutely clear: if someone says “there is no such thing as truth”, truth has been expressed, whereby the originally articulated proposition is incoherent.

Fake news, therefore, is just a subset of untrustworthy public utterances about the world, in whatever ways these are brought to the attention of the public.

In that respect, photos, film (documentaries, newsreels), written texts, as in newspaper articles, blogposts, scientific papers(!), can be, for lack of better term, very fake.

And that is far from new. Au contraire.

Let’s go back in time and explore fakeness on a truly gargantuan scale, to the detriment of millions that fell victim thereto.

Paul Hollander’s book Political Pilgrims - Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society will be excellent and shocking reading material. This is Hollander’s research question, in my own words:

Why did the intellectual creme the la creme of Western culture fell hook, line, and sinker for the communist lie, the massive fake of a utopian society they visited, that hid its gargantuan violence in plain sight for these intellectuals?

For instance, Hollander, reflecting on the Soviet’s Great Purge of the 1930s in which at least 3/4 of a million people were murdered under Stalin’s rule, has the following to say about the Western elite’s disastrous and gullible embrace of Soviet communism:

“… the most credulous [gullible] visitors the attractive features of Soviet society formed a “package” which was hard to pull apart. They could not bring themselves to think or say, for instance, that the decline of illiteracy and infant mortality was admirable but clearly the Purges and police terror were not. Those who admired the decline of infant mortality persuaded themselves … that the judicial proceedings too were admirable. In some extreme cases … the believers could not bring themselves to stop believing. They became political addicts; like the alcoholic who cannot remain a social drinker, the most credulous among the sympathizers were incapable of drawing the line. If he believed X why not also believe Y? If Jerome Davis could believe that those who confessed in the Moscow Trials were guilty why not also that the Baltic people welcomed annexation by the Soviet Union? Why not the Soviet professions of innocence in the Katyn massacre in Poland? Why not the Soviet version of why the Soviet Army halted at the gates of Warsaw in 1944 and let the Nazis slaughter the non-communist Polish resistance fighters?”

Hollander makes it absolutely clear that people of all walks of life can be taken in by fake portrayals of the world, which we nowadays would call ‘fake news’.

In fact, he shows with respect to the communist history that Western intellectuals such as academics are more gullible than the average person to be fooled into this hellish utopian worldview.

This historical episode of fakeness of an ultraviolent utopian society sold by the majority of Western intellectuals and academics to the rest of the world is the prime example of the inability to understand reality beyond the ideological preferences of its days.

The propagation of this monumental disinformation on a global scale went on well into the 1980s (and beyond?). Dutch politicians, such as Paul Rosenmöller, are well known for their unapologetic support of the most murderous of communist leaders. He was certainly not the only one. As Hollander remarks (emphasis added):

“Socialism … still offers, after many historical disappointments, a myth, a way out. The grass seems greener on the other side, in societies which legitimate themselves by high ideals and appeal to (and promise) community, brotherhood, wholeness, social justice, equality, and selflessness; they offer some shared forms of self-transcendence …. We must once more return to the concept of double standards which underlies and helps to explain the fluctuation between the critical and uncritical attitudes, belief and disbelief, moral absolutism and moral relativism (or as Ernst Fisher, the German ex-Communist, put it, “the length to which a man can go, who, though neither stupid nor vicious, deliberately ceases to see, to listen, to think critically . . . so as not to doubt the cause he serves …”).”

Returning to the papers referred to above, both try to immediately push through to proxy findings that might be the consequences of some kind of fakeness that is supposed to be known without fail a priori.

That, however, is an extremely weak approach that would never be able to identify the intellectuals gullibility in any timeframe.

Indeed, as these past ánd present intellectual defenders of unpardonable murderous politics are supremely equipped to write and speak eloquently using accepted scientific-intellectual jargon, the proposed approaches of both papers will surely fail.

Whether or not arguments are ‘scientifically valid’, as Panizza et al. propose, is neither here nor there. Arguments are valid if and only if true conclusions follow from true premises and sound logical connections!

In the final analysis then, we have to do the hard work in separating truth from falsity. There are no, and never will be, shortcuts.

In fact, being an intellectual and/or academic might very well cripple the ability to separate fake from real. History clearly speaks against us! That simultaneously is a stark warning to self (Matthew 11:25):

“At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

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