Fake News is a problem, but what’s the answer?

Rumours, misinformation and disinformation have forever been part of human societies and politics and were spread conventionally through the established media.  Recently however, this has been overshadowed by blatant outrageous lies, fabricated conspiracies: the easily debunked ‘Fake News’, which are now spread over social media and manipulate the citizenship and voters.

 

But how exactly did Fake News come about and how might it be stopped?

 

Well, the phenomenon of Fake News illustrates modern social media technology, specifically Facebook, where the overwhelming majority of fake news stories are spread, interplaying with societal structures and human nature to produce this almost unpredictable outcome.

 

People want to see things that interest them. That includes one’s friends and family but also one’s beliefs and political orientation. At the same time, Facebook wants to appeal to as many people as possible. Hence they show you, considering previously collected data on your past activity, likes, friends and even previously visited sites, and utilizing an algorithm, what they think you want to see. That’s how the personalized ‘news feed’, you’re familiar with, is made just for you.

Although this sounds lovely at first, it effectively sets up an echo chamber, where you are only shown, among other things, news articles and ‘facts’ you probably agree with. You’re pre-existing beliefs are reinforced, because as humans we tend to believe what we want to believe, what is repeated and what feels familiar. This is because it gives you the sensation that you’re right, which makes you feel good: a phenomenon called cognitive ease.

The fact that Facebook and other social media allows instant sharing among friends, means that potentially false articles are further echoed in groups of likeminded people.  Now factor in that this affects a vast number of people, as over 60% of adults in the US get news from social media, especially Facebook.

At the same time, because all articles are displayed in the same manner and the icon and name of the distributer is relatively small compared to the headline, it is really difficult to judge, whether a source is legitimate and in turn it becomes easier to just go with whatever is echoed in your bubble.

Now enter: Fake News sites, who have an incentive to make purposefully insidious, false, outrageous headlines and statements to get as many clicks and shared in those filter bubbles as possible to make ad revenue. And then every single click amplifies the preference for the article in the algorithm used to create your ‘news feed’, and around and around it goes…

All of these above factors decisively interplay to add up to the hardly foreseeable spreading of heinous falsehoods: Fake News, a true problem is born.

 

In the 2016 election, it was found that months before the election, more fake news, such as that the Pope endorsed Trump and that Clinton runs a child trafficking ring from a pizzeria, than true news was shared. It has come to a point, where Fake News, not only has real consequences on a global scale, as it manipulates voters, arguably against their best interest, but it also leads to specific, dangerous, outcomes. One example being an armed man entering and firing his weapon in said pizzeria trying to ‘self-investigate’ that story.

 

So now we have to solve this insanity, right?

At least the current attention to Fake News shows a lot of people are concerned, resulting in the proposal of several different approaches.

 

After initially denying that Facebook’s enabling of Fake News had significant consequences, Mark Zuckerberg seems to have recognized the problem and the role of Facebook as global publisher to about 1.86 billion people. Therefore, some measures have been implemented into Facebook recently. It’s now easier to report on suspected fake news stories, which will be flagged but not censored if third party fact checks dispute its legitimacy. Also, users are warned but not prohibited form sharing those disputed news.

These seem to be sensible ways to improve the technology platform, as reporting fake news draws on knowledge of crowds, coupled with different fact checking services to distribute the power of deciding what is true, thus democratizing the process. Merely informing and warning users of potentially false information allows choices and is a technological fix that will not generate significant opposition, potentially making it more effective than banning certain news.

 

In contrast to these, some more radical and questionable ‘solutions’ have been introduced.

Arguing human fact checking is not enough anymore, even though the number of fact checking sites has been greatly increasing,  has led to the suggestion of and heavy work on  automated, algorithmic, fact checking. This technological fix, although in theory a good idea for accurately informing people, might have some inherent downfalls.

As the outcome of implementing a technology is at least somewhat unpredictable, one has to consider that this could lead to replacing the individual judgement of multiple independent human fact checkers with a technology and algorithm that determines singlehandedly what is regarded as true. This could concentrate considerable power in the hands of a single entity in control of the technology. Combining this with the fact that the effectiveness of the technological fix in practice depends strongly on the entity applying it, the manner it is applied in and the intentions of applying it, it becomes obvious that it could be potentially misused.

 

This seems especially concerning in combination with recent, open calls from Clinton and others to ‘boost government response’ through legislation proposals censoring what social media can and can’t show to users. In Germany, where fake news is also seen as an urgent issue, legislation to impose huge fines of up to 500.000€ on social media sites, such as Facebook, which carry fake news, is also being considered.

But who determines what is and isn’t legitimate news in these cases?

Obviously, this is a very slippery slope, as the proposals effectively give a small, often partial group in government, authority to determine what is a permitted news source and to shut down descending voices. Speaking of political figures who love to shut down any objectively factual news that do not play in their favour, have you noticed the most powerful man on earth maligning any disagreeing media outlet on a daily basis?

It’s obvious that handing over this power from the people, who could self-regulate via i.e. the improvements made by Facebook, to few people in government, is dangerous!

 

So, what might be some viable solutions?

  • Supply information using independent democratic fact checking sites and new Facebook implementations to help people discern fake news and possibly change their stance through reason.
  • Teach the new generation to understand their mind’s inherent biases and evaluate what they read on the web. Some proposals for this have been made by California lawmakers.
  • Allow more as opposed to less free speech and let objectively true ideas, with which there is no way to argue with, win on a battleground of ideas.

 

 

[WORD COUNT Blog 2: 1151]

How Guns devastate American society & why culture and money in politics means nothing is done about it

If you ask a regular person in Britain, Japan or pretty much most of the western world, whether they own a gun, they would probably look at you in a bewildered way. That is not likely to happen in the United States, because guns are really part of American culture.

In stark contrast to Britain, guns in the US are only regulated to a minimal extent. Semiautomatic assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and armour-piercing bullets and military-style rifles are all allowed under federal law. Depending on the state some or all of these weapons are even allowed to be carried openly when going to the supermarket or even the airport.

This sounds insane to people living here in the UK.

Why? – well, because, as you would expect, it has devastating societal impacts!

Gun deaths have cost the US over 1.4 million (!) lives since 1968, more than every war they have fought ever since (and they have fought many), according to research done by Politifact. Breaking it down, there have been 33,880 gun deaths in the US per year from 2011-2015, with 39 people being killed daily. Over one mass shooting per day (475) and 64 school shootings have been recorded in 2015, where a mass shooting is an incident where 4 or more people are killed or injured. The US, the country with the most guns per capita, has a gun related homicide rate about 25 times as high as other high-income western countries.

Besides, the fact that potentially everyone is armed, also has significant psychological impact. It leads to constant fear, especially in intense confrontational situations. This may be part of the reason for US law enforcement, who encounters tense situations regularly and fear for their lives, to be more likely to pull the trigger and overreact.

Whilst all this happens, many conservatives argue for MORE people to be armed! Their argument goes: if everyone is armed, more good, than bad people will be armed and therefore the good will overcome the bad. It boils down to the concept that this technology, has no intrinsic property.

 But is this correct?

Well, the hypothesis is frankly easy to test: Arm an entire population and look at the result. Ironically this has been done and the jury is in. Americans swim in a sea of around 300 million guns and by no stretch of the imagination are they safer than people in other western countries. If the aforementioned statistics were not enough, multiple Harvard meta-analysis studies have found that across states and counties, the shire existence of more guns empirically leads to, more gun accidents, more homicides, more violent death of children,  more female violent death, more police shootings (especially of people of colour) and more police officer being killed. Clearly, this technology does not amplify good and bad equally, but has intrinsic property by being primarily a killing tool and therefore leads to negative societal outcomes when barely regulated.

So, the obvious question that must follow is: Why is this barely regulated?

 

Well, two main factors that contribute to this are

  • American culture and the feelings guns evoke in (American) society
  • and corrupt inherent societal structures.

Since the birth of the nation, guns have been deeply embedded into American culture. Early settlers already used guns to hunt and defend themselves in the infant American society. The ‘right to keep and bear arms’, so fundamental it’s in the US constitution, was inherited by the militias, who successfully rebelled against the British and gained America’s independence and liberty using weapons. Their muskets became an early symbol of freedom, a value dear to American society, and therefore, guns until this day hold patriotic significance.

The importance of guns in American culture only gained momentum in the civil war, where arms manufacturing exploded and cheaper weapons made them more accessible. We therefore arrived in a day and age where guns have become more and more widespread and gun ownership normalised.

With so many guns around, the technology interestingly reinforces its own existence, because it has a psychological effect on people.  A majority of gun owners buy guns out of fear and for protection and many to even feel vulnerable and unsafe not having one. This fear being a powerful emotion, many Americans will ironically turn to weapons to provide themselves with the feeling of being in control, safe and secure. In areas of socioeconomic decline, especially men who feel they cannot provide and protect their family, use the masculinity of guns to address their social insecurity. Although having a gun in the household empirically makes you less safe, it’s quite frankly not all about statistical facts.

It’s about how guns make people feel.

Regulating guns to a major extent therefore faces significant opposition, as guns are not just objects, but bring forth powerful emotions of fear and safety, and symbolize and evoke sentiments of liberty, independence and patriotism in many Americans.

Nevertheless, even when Americans support some gun regulation, it is rarely, if ever, realized.

 

The reason for this starts with gun manufacturers having money on the line.

The laxer the regulations, the more gun sales and the higher the revenues. After every ‘large’ mass shooting, societal fear drives people further toward guns to feel security and thus gun sales spike. So do share prices. Therefore, keeping the status quo is incredibly profitable for these corporations.

This is where the National Riffle Association (NRA), which started as a grassroots organisation, comes into play. Nowadays, less than half of the NRA’s million dollar revenues comes from membership and program fees, whilst a majority is bankrolled by the gun industry. The Violence Policy Centre details how large corporate contributions to the NRA’s ‘Ring of Fire’ corporate sponsorship program have amounted to between $19.8 to $52.6 million from 2005-2011 alone. Selling advertisement to gun manufacturers also amounted to another $20 million dollars, about 11% of their revenue. On top, gun manufactures often donate a percentage of their sales directly to the NRA.

Therefore, the NRA becomes beholden to their main sponsors and spend this money in representing gun manufacturers’ interests by exerting significant political influence.

This is done indirectly, by spending on mobilising its politically active membership and triggering members fear by suggesting Obama or Clinton want to take away their safety inspiring guns is also used to make its membership call into congress.

More importantly however, the NRA donates consistently directly to Washington House and Senate politicians. In the 2016 election cycle alone these donations amounted to about $850,000. But it goes far beyond that. In 2016 the NRA also spent another $3.6 million in lobbying, whilst it’s Super Political Action Committee (PAC), which is allowed to spend as much money as it pleases in influencing elections and attacking gun reforms, spent another $52 million in political advertisement in TV, radio and on the internet.

Especially politicians running for congress in less covered races depend upon those campaign contributions, as the candidate with the most monetary support has a huge megaphone and wins 91% of the time. Politicians become beholden to their ‘sponsors’ such as the NRA, knowing their vote could cause either large contributions or lavishly funded attack ads against them.

The influence the NRA and gun lobby exerts was best demonstrated after the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. Although 90% of the public and even a majority of NRA members, supported an universal background check, not even a loophole filled background check bill, passed NRA backed Republicans in the house. No gun reform was enacted federally ever since: the status quo was preserved.

 

When the overwriting of people’s will by unlimited private and corporate money in politics, combines with a society, which is naturally hesitant to support gun reform, sensible regulation of the technology becomes seemingly impossible.

What can be done now, you might ask?

Start at the root problems:

  • inform and supply facts: make people understand that guns do not make them safer and that this is more important than visceral emotions the technology brings forth.
  • get money out of politics, because it often all comes back to a simple thing the Wu-Tang Clan said in 1993: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.

 

 

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