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Monday, March 12, 2018


Epistemology in the Trump era

by Tom Sullivan

Image via Science.

What is truth? And how do we know?

That question is the heart of the matter. Does anyone care? is more to the point. Robinson Meyer examines for The Atlantic a recent study published in Science on fake news and the Twitter users who love it:

The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominates the truth on Twitter, the study finds: Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.
As if we needed a study.

They taught computers to differentiate between accurate stories and spurious ones, then tracked how both spread. Using a "state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool," researchers at MIT also found false stories are more novel, sparking retweets. The report itself found "the truth inspired replies that expressed greater sadness."

Spread lies, be happy. Cue Bobby McFerrin.

The study did not look at recent bot activity, but rather across the entire existence of Twitter. On that time span, they found little effect of bots in furthering the spread of false stories, concluding "human behavior contributes more to the differential spread of falsity and truth than automated robots do."

Rebekah Tromble, a professor of political science at Leiden University in the Netherlands responded in an email, “The key takeaway is really that content that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster, more deeply, and more broadly on Twitter.” Researchers have not applied the same process to Facebook, but believe the results would be similar.

Even for readers already into a fifth of scotch, the analysis is sobering.

An accompanying article in Science considered interventions for staunching the unreality bleed. The prospects are not good:
Fact checking might even be counterproductive under certain circumstances. Research on fluency—the ease of information recall—and familiarity bias in politics shows that people tend to remember information, or how they feel about it, while forgetting the context within which they encountered it. Moreover, they are more likely to accept familiar information as true (10). There is thus a risk that repeating false information, even in a fact-checking context, may increase an individual's likelihood of accepting it as true. The evidence on the effectiveness of claim repetition in fact checking is mixed (11).
The team called for (emphasis mine) "interdisciplinary research to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies."

As if we needed a study.

Reading through the reports brought to mind Tom Wolfe's essay, "O Rotten Gotham: Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink" (1968?). His tramp through New York with anthropologist Edward T. Hall spawned an essay in how overcrowding would inevitably lead in humans, as it does among rats, to disease and social dysfunction, even mass die-offs. In an over-crowded colony, a few male rats prosper and collect harems while the rest of the colony falls into chaos.

Wolfe wrote:
Most politicians are like the aristocrat rats. They are insulated from The Sink by practically sultanic buffers — limousines chauffeurs, secretaries, aides-de-camp, doormen, shuttered houses, high-floor apartments they almost never ride subways, fight rush-hours, much less live in the slums or work in the Pan-Am Building.

Overcrowding in rural America, of course, is as rare as voter fraud and does not explain the joie de vivre with which Trumpian crowds celebrate every falsehood uttered by their king. They cheered again Saturday night in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. But it is hard not to look at the false news study and feel America, with its widening gulf between haves and anxious have-nots, with its males engaging in (quoting Wolfe) "unprovoked and senseless assault upon one another," as happened in Hall's rat colonies, in Las Vegas, and in Parkland, Florida, is another manifestation of The Sink.

"Social-media platforms do not encourage the kind of behavior that anchors a democratic government," writes Meyer.

As if we needed a study.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer at tom.bluecentury at gmail.