The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has just published its “Interim Report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’.”
Professor Lewandowsky proved a bit monomaniac. Asked about fake news and misinformation, he replied about climate change. Four times.
If we can get to people before the misinformation does then there is evidence to show that they will be able to filter it out better. One example is a recent study that I published with colleagues last year where we told people about the way the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s was trying to create the appearance of a scientific debate about tobacco when, in fact, the science was quite clear. Once you remind people of that precedent, they then became extremely resilient to misinformation about climate change, which followed the same playbook.
The overriding variable that I discover and other researchers discover is political ideology and the worldview. People’s political leanings determine about 80% of everything that is going on out there on social media or in their attitudes towards climate change and so on. Then, yes, I look at age and gender in my studies but it is like either nothing shows up or it is a very small effect.
I think there is work now on categorising different types of misinformation. In fact, in one of my recent papers we have come up with five different categories of misinformation. I do not have time to get into them all, but basically I would differentiate between two things. There are specifically targeted curated lies that are designed to achieve a particular purpose on the one hand but that make a claim to reality. The issues that come to mind would be what I call climate denial, where there is a systematic attempt to claim the same reality with an alternative story. Then on the other hand we have a sort of free-for-all constructivist shock and chaos misinformation in fake news that do not even make a claim to reality any more.
We have data on that. In a recent Australian study on climate change only 8% of people were found to completely negate the idea that the climate is changing but those 8% thought that their opinion was shared by half the population and that was because they were all in this echo chamber and talked to each other and felt their opinions confirmed. I think that is a novel problem that is inherent to the technology. That people think, whatever they think, everybody else thinks the same way.
The latter quote is mentioned by the authors of the report, who were obviously impressed by his evidence, since they quote him by name twice in the body of the report. They say:
Within those social relationships, [i.e. on social media] people tend to connect and want to spend time with others who share their same views and interests, which is when the spread of misinformation can happen so quickly. Professor Lewandowsky, from the University of Bristol, told us about an Australian study on climate change…
The Australian report is not referenced, but it is highly unlikely that it actually makes the point that the authors and Lewandowsky claim. I have certainly never heard of a report which examines the media habits of climate deniers in order to determine where they get their information. It’s certainly not from the hundreds of sceptical sites on the internet that you and I consult.
The fact that the 8% of climate change “negaters” referred to by Lewandowsky think that half the population agree with them seems to me to be a perfectly normal expression of one’s necessarily vague impressions of what the rest of the world does or doesn’t think about one’s own thoughts, opinions, claims, beliefs, feelings, peer-reviewed findings or what have you. (Note that the kind of cognitive psychology practiced by Professor Lewandowsky does not distinguish between the above concepts. If it’s in your brain, and it spills out in response to a questionnaire, that’s good enough.) What proportion of the human race shares my opinions about politics, Trump, Brexit, stand up comedy, or Barcelona Football Club? About half, I’d say.
This view, that social media must be at the heart of what’s wrong with the world, seems to be an assumption that Lewandowsky shares with the members of the committee. Consider this extract from his testimony which precedes the reference to the Australian study:
Professor Lewandowsky: Could I make one more comment, connecting to what you were saying about the social environment and the importance of that?
Professor Lewandowsky: I think again that is under-appreciated, how that has changed with the technology. One of the things we know with great certainty is that people’s opinions are held to the extent a person thinks it is shared by others. We are social animals. If I think everybody else thinks the world is flat then I am not going to change my mind on that. The problem is that 300 years ago or in the middle ages the proverbial village idiot in Gloucestershire, or whatever, might have thought that the earth was flat and everybody kind of knew, “Yeah, right”, and he knew that everybody else thought, “I am not quite aligned with everybody else”.
Today, that same person, no matter how absurd the belief is will find a community on Facebook because with a billion users there will be somebody else in Denmark who thinks the earth is flat and then they are joined by somebody from Turkey and all of a sudden they have an epistemic community. The moment that happens their opinion becomes entrenched because they see no reason to change it. The social signals are telling me, “Oh, everybody else feels the same way”.
Now, you might argue that if village idiots react that way to social media, why shouldn’t other minority groups – climate scientists, for instance? Isn’t that how consensus is born?
Or, you might point out that his example is completely at odds with what he’s trying to establish. The mediaeval village idiot who believed that the world was flat was not looked at askance, because everyone else believed the same thing. And it wasn’t a shared belief that came about by some kind of communal folk wisdom. It was imposed by authority, specifically by the peer-reviewed findings of the Catholic Church. And woe betide you if you expressed a differing opinion on the mediaeval equivalent of Radio Four. Some Ecclesiastical Bob Ward character would have you burnt at the stake before you could say: “It’s warming.”
And what dragged the Gloucestershire village idiot out of his idiocy was not the action of parliamentary committees, but the Renaissance equivalent of social media – the printing press – and the mobility of scholars who were in touch with likeminded people who could exchange information about what was happening in Denmark, or Turkey, or New Spain.
Of course, the flat earthers in power were in touch with each other via the infinitely more powerful structures of church, state and universities. Neither group were much interested in what the Gloucestershire village idiot thought, because he couldn’t read, or vote.
Which brings us to the heart of the report, which is not about fake news at all, but about supposed attempts to influence elections via personal data collection. Fake news is never defined. Information sources other than social media are never examined. In the section entitled “Recommendations” (paragraphs 19 and 20) the authors look forward to hearing the government‘s response to their recommendations, and welcomes submissions based on their recommendations, but then forget to make any. The bulk of the report is about “interference” in elections (e.g. by saying stuff about your opponent which isn’t true.)
At this point they mention the Zinoviev letter and quote Thucydides and Plutarch on dirty doings on the stump in Athens. (Oh, silly me, no they don’t. They talk about Russian interference in the Catalonia referendum:
An example of alleged Russian interference in other countries’ affairs is provided by the Catalan independence Referendum… Francisco de Borja Lasheras told us about the context in which alleged Russian interference occurred:
“In the case of Catalonia, we saw a mixture of things that were right—that there were instances of police violence—and of fake news, biased reporting and a misleading account. With all of those patterns, we cannot attribute all of that to Russia; that would just not be correct. It is important to distinguish between proper fake news—there were cases of fake news—and biased reporting. In the case of the Russian-affiliated outlets, you see a little bit of both: you see instances of balanced reporting with instances of biased reporting and fake news.”
Gosh. People from all over the world said stuff about the Catalonia referendum – some of it true, some of it biassed – and some of them were Russian.
It’s happening all over, apparently, from St Kitts and Nevis (paras 214-217) to Trinidad and Tobago (para 218):
Trinidadian elections are affected by the population’s mixed ethnicity: political leaders from one group have difficulty in making their messages resonate with those outside of it. Working from this 2009 finding, SCL designed an ambitious campaign of political graffiti that “disseminated campaign messages” that ostensibly came from a ‘united youth’.
“An ambitious campaign of political graffiti” “that ostensibly came from a ‘united youth’.” Oh, the horror of it.
Now Trinidad is no stranger to what is described in the report’s summary as: “the relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour” for political or commercial ends. The sinister figures behind this century-old tradition are called songwriters, and their medium is the Calypso.
Take for example this blatant interference in the election process by Attila the Hun in his “Mr Nankivell’s Speech.” Or what about the attempt to intervene in the British constitutional crisis of 1938 perpetrateded by Lord Caresser with his partisan “Edward the Eighth”? Or the seditious sentiments expressed by Lord Pretender in the mischievously named “Human Race”?
But when it comes to interference with the democratic process, the prize must go to Mighty Sparrow for his defamatory accusation against the supposedly rigged election which resulted in him being (temporarily) dethroned from his title of Calypso King in his “Robbery with V.”
We won’t hear their likes again. Not if the The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee can help it.
The idiots have taken over the village, and it’s global.