Monday 8 October 2018

No One Actually Believes Fake News. So What's The Problem?

The statistics are shocking. A Russian troll farm created false anti-Clinton stories and distributed them on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have encountered at least one piece of Russian propaganda; Russian tweets received as many as 288 million views. The Russians, like Trump's campaign itself, leveraged the AdTech infrastructure developed by social media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to identify and target those most receptive to their lies and provocations.

What is going on? Is this something new? Does it matter?

I. Does anybody really believe 'fake news'?

It is often claimed that people are being tricked into believing fake news stories because we automatically believe anything we see in our social media feed. Organisations that know how to plant misinformation in our feeds - whether a Russian troll farm or Cambridge Analytica - can therefore control what we believe. 

I disagree. I think very few people actually believe fake news. Rather, they indulge in believing that they believe it. People's relationship to such beliefs is much more like how they relate to icecream than the enlightenment notion of respecting objective truth.

Consider Pizzagate, an especially notorious example of fake news. At the end of October 2016 an anti-Clinton conspiracy theory started circulating on fringe rightist social media and fake news websites like Infowars. Russian troll accounts seem to have been among those helping the story spread. Over the next month, millions of Americans heard or read that top members of the Democratic Party were running a child sexual slavery ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC. Infowars talkshow host Alex Jones  talked about it repeatedly:
“When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her....Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore.” (In a since-deleted Youtube video quoted by the Washington Post)
Did Americans believe what they were hearing? According to Public Policy Polling's survey on December 6-7, many did:
Q28. Do you think that Hillary Clinton is or is not connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC?
  • 9% Think Hillary Clinton is connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC [14% of respondents identifying as Trump supporters]
  • 72% Don't think Hillary Clinton is connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC [54% of Trump supporters]
  • Not sure 19% [32% of Trump supporters] 
Extrapolating from these percentages, there were millions of Americans who had heard the Pizzagate story and would claim to believe it if you asked. But how many really believed? Survey questions aren't sufficient here. Talk is cheap. The test of whether someone really believes something is whether they will pay a price to act on it. The social media response to the pedophile ring claims did produce lots of cyber harassment and nasty phone calls to the owners and staff of the pizza restaurant (and other businesses on the block). But that kind of thing is so easy these days that it hardly demonstrates commitment.

Out of all the millions of people who thought they believed that a child sex slavery conspiracy was going on, only one bothered to drive to Washington DC with a gun to save the children. Only one person acted as if it was real.

This example demonstrates that fake news does not work in the way we naively suppose. Exposure to it does not brainwash people into believing things that aren't true. People aren't that dumb. We are not being tricked into making an epistemic mistake by Cartesian demons distorting our information flows. Rather, we are actively choosing make-believe stories to read, share and talk about because we enjoy doing so and see no good reason not to.

As another example, consider the popularity of conspiracy theories. The great attraction of conspiracy thinking is to make the world seem more intelligible and exciting than it really is, and this is something that people outside the populist right also enjoy. The stories about Russian spy trolls stealing the 2016 US and Brexit elections are doing so well because they are more pleasant for those on the losing side to believe in. We can pretend to ourselves that we never really lost - the other side just cheated. We get to feel outraged and indignant, which is much better than feeling like a loser. The  underlying details of the spy troll story may be true (unlike Pizzagate), but the overall story is wrong. Russian spies may have messed about with the Facebook feeds of American and British voters, but they couldn't make us believe anything we didn't want to.

There is a deeper malaise at work here than any conspiracy: pathological consumerism. The point of facts is that they are objective. Their truth can be discovered by us but is independent of our wishes. They command us to go along with them whether we like it or not [previously]. The point of consumerism is that value is entirely subjective, bestowed by the individual according to whatever standards they please. The furore over fake news is the belated recognition that consumerism is dissolving our hard won Enlightenment respect for truth. Facts are out, likes are in. I like chocolate icecream best. I like that photo. I like to believe that Hillary Clinton rapes and chops up children.

II. What's new about 'fake news'?

People consume fake news because it is more fun. This is not a new phenomenon. Just think about how gossip works. The stories people are most interested to hear and repeat are the most outrageous and exaggerated ones. ('She never!') This is because truth tends to be less interesting than falsehood because truth tends to closely resemble what we already know. It doesn't surprise or excite us. In contrast, false stories are much more likely to succeed because they are engineered to be exciting and are not constrained by boring facts. They can be tailored to the audience's expectations. 

Before the Enlightenment we didn't have much more than gossip (and acquiescence to certain politically significant truths under threat of raw power). We lacked the trustworthy institutions that would guarantee the credibility of facts, and so we were stuck having to decide for ourselves what we preferred to believe. But then we built institutions - such as science and government and responsible journalism - capable of determining truth from falsity [previously]. We started to take the idea of objective truth for granted, even though we never actually conquered our consumerist impulses.

Consider the news media. There are high fixed costs to setting up and running a TV station or newspaper. The business logic of mainstream media requires long-term investment for long-term returns. Therefore there was some enduring institution that could be held accountable to society for the truth and decency of its output. Even gossipy sensationalist tabloids like the Daily Mail or Fox News had to keep one foot on the ground. Moreover, some people actually prefer to consume their news rich in facts; enough that it made financial sense for some media companies to build a reputation for truth.

Social media has disrupted the institutional constraints so laboriously built against truth consumerism. It provides a distribution system, and, via AdTech, a targeting and payment system, that frees publishers from even minimal accountability to society or the long-term. Unfortunately, a system where people decide for themselves what they like to believe has not empowered consumers but degraded the products on sale. Food scientists spent the last 50 years loading their products with the evolutionary signals of nourishment while removing the expensive nutrition part. Social media companies likewise employ the latest behavioural science to manipulate our cognitive biases so that we will keep scrolling and liking and sharing. This is because the longer we stay on their apps, the more of our attention they can scrape off for resale to advertisers. In both cases, we end up consuming junk. The quality of the products is simply irrelevant to the business model in these industries.

So, falsehoods spread as fast as people want to hear them, thanks to algorithms designed to give you whatever kind of content most engages you. Corrections travel much slower, thanks to those same algorithms protecting you from facts you find inconvenient or boring. Checking sources is difficult. Facebook designed its NewsFeed to emphasise the headline claim rather than its origin - so even those media companies that did invest in truth branding could not be distinguished from the babble. The analytics and personalisation packages provided by mainstream companies - like Facebook Custom Audiences - allows advertisers (or political operators) to automate the tailoring of factual claims to readers' existing beliefs. Instead of having to publish a single one-size fits all claim that would be publicly visible, consumers can be targeted with a personal unique 'truth' just for them. 

Yet I don't pin all the blame on social media. I think we have been heading down this consumerist road for some time. Religion long ago turned into a consumer product, something deliberately chosen to meets your needs rather than commanding obedience to timeless truth (previously). Television provides an attractive alternative pseudo-reality rich in conspiracy thinking, magic, vampires and ethnic minority villains that cumulatively erodes our sense of reality. Institutions that are supposed to hold the line between wishful thinking and truth have failed. Pharmacists, for example, stock 'fake meds' right next to real ones. Chiropractors and other charlatans can get degrees from real universities. And why not, since universities now assess the quality of their education in terms of whether it meets the likes and expectations of their students.

III. Does 'fake news' matter?

People are increasingly unable to explain the difference between fact and make-believe. But, as the response to Pizzagate shows, in practise we seem somewhat more sensible. Once real, personal consequences are involved most ridiculous beliefs are revealed to be what economists call 'cheap talk'. Lots of people claim to believe in God. Happily, very few would pass the test God inflicted on Abraham: to prove his faith by murdering his child. Likewise, lots of people claim to believe in homeopathy and other fake medicines. But when they or their loved ones are seriously ill, nearly all go to a real hospital. Republican politicians from red states deny climate change in public, but the state governments they run are still basing their coastal infrastructure planning on real climate science.

Few people are willing to pay a price for their belief in fake news. So one might suppose it is harmless. Actually it is a great threat to democracy.

From the individual perspective the important thing about fake news is that, like celebrity gossip, it just doesn't matter. There is no cost to believing that a movie star is secretly gay, or even a lizard monster from space. You are very unlikely to ever face a situation in which believing such silly things would cause you trouble. So if it makes you feel better in some way to believe it, why not?

Likewise, almost everything you hear about in the news is too far away to matter to your life. Political news is the most irrelevant of all - and so it is no surprise that false stories about politics spread the fastest. Since your vote has no chance of shifting an election (the error rate in counting votes being greater than one) there is no instrumental logic to voting in order to achieve something you want. Therefore there is no instrumental reason to bother to find out the facts about the different candidates and their positions, or even how the political system works in the first place. 

Unfortunately what is rational from the perspective of the individual is less so from the perspective of a democratic society as a whole. Totalitarian regimes attempt to control exactly what people believe by imposing a single propaganda line on everyone and banning dissent. But authoritarian regimes like Putin's encourage consumerism about truth. Putin is happy for Russians to believe whatever drivel they like. It stops them from ever thinking straight or thinking together about how Russia should be governed. 

Democracy depends on the ability of society to think together about its problems, to govern itself. That requires a shared understanding of how the world works and a less self-indulgent attitude to facts than we take to icecream. Fake news is a symptom of an excessive consumerism incompatible with the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. It also does specific harm to public reasoning. Not because people believe the lies but because all the lies make truth harder to identify and promote a toxic cynicism. We become used to thinking of all information as bullshit designed to manipulate our behaviour for other people's gain. And so we lose faith in the possibility of objective truth and become unable to distinguish those institutions and claims that deserve our trust. Instead of sharing a single objective public reality, we drift around in our filter bubbles, alighting from time to time on causes and tribal identities that catch our attention and emotional loyalty.

I'm sure Putin is delighted that Western democracies are losing their grip on reality. Democracy offers the strongest moral challenge to the legitimacy of his neo-feudalist regime, so our stumble into idiocy strengthens his position. But he didn't make it happen.

Note: An earlier version was published on 3 Quarks Daily