3 Things We Can Do About Fake News

 

FAKE NEWS!

It’s amazing that we’ve now had our collective awareness heightened to the problem of fake news.  I get frustrated at times with the sheer nonsense that seems to swim in the public consciousness, but in search of what I can do about it, I figured I’d share something that happened to me recently.

I have many people in my Facebook feed that are professional, fun, and have real character, but there are some that carry a bit of an aggressive and intolerant flavor.  They’re Facebook friends for other reasons, and, while I could easily unfriend these folks, I resist the urge so that I remain open to what they have to say or what they share.  People have a variety of perspectives, and I feel it’s important to understand them, even if the purpose is to counter them with better information.  That said, it can be a bit trying at times, and here’s one of those times.

This image was spread widely via Facebook (29,218 shares at the time of this writing), finding its way into my own feed.  The clear implication was that it is unfair for Ivanka Trump to be criticized for what she wears, when Michelle Obama, who is lauded for her fashion sense, wore something ugly in an official setting.

Some of the less incendiary comments from the thread include:

  • but it is ok for Moochell to dress like a pinata. she was a disgusting first lady
  • Is there anything about the Trump family the press will not complain about. Frankly I am tired of their [expletive deleted] complaints. The press is awful
  • …Michelle’s dress is horrid!! 🤮”””

Images like these seem to spread so easily via Facebook Shares or Twitter retweets, potentially reinforcing any biases held by the people that view them.   The assumption that most of us hold is that the images we see are genuine, but in this case, it’s worth questioning what our own eyes see.

When I first saw this image, it didn’t seem right to me.  Did Michelle Obama really wear this dress?  It didn’t seem consistent with what I’ve understood.  I tried to evaluate the information with a critical eye, questioning whether it makes sense.  Sure enough – with a little investigating, I found that this image of the Obamas was altered somewhere along the way to superimpose the bullseye dress on the First Lady.

I could have stopped there, satisfied with my own discovery of the truth, but I decided to inform others, sending a comment to the Facebook thread focusing on the facts that the Michelle Obama image was faked.  My premise:  in order to have a better informed view of the world, the people in this thread needed to be presented with facts that (1) were true and (2) countered their current view.

Here was my post:

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At risk of receiving a lot of intemperate responses, this post was shared in my FB feed so given the epidemic of spreading fake news, it’s worth a reply to get some facts in the mix.

The image of Michelle Obama is fake – it was photoshopped from the attached image from 2009, where the Obamas were on their way to award a posthumous Medal of Honor to a soldier killed in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti. (https://www.gettyimages.com/…/obama-awards-medal-of…)

Discourse is important and it’s important to share our views and opinions, but they need to be based on the facts. None of us benefit otherwise.

Facts matter. We should exercise our freedom of expression, but let us all agree to seek the truth and honor the facts, so that our views can be better informed.

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If you are already predisposed to see the Obamas negatively, the doctored photo is information that, upon a quick glance, confirms your understanding, therefore you might determine that it is “the truth”.

However, this violates what I believe to be a more scientific definition of truth — consistency under repeated and independent examination, and this phenomenon, which is referred to as confirmation bias, becomes a violation of independent examination.

The values people hold (“I can’t stand those Obamas…”) get in the way of the information presented to them (“the image you’re viewing, which is reinforcing your negative view of the Obamas, was faked”).  For us to seek the truth accurately, we need to be more open to the information presented to us, while simultaneously being critical of whether the information itself is consistent with other independent information.

This is truly the challenge of our time, that of arming us all with the ability to review information/data critically and make beneficial and well-informed decisions.  We are being inundated with more and more data, and much of our society’s decision making is being automated.  Much of what we’re experiencing with hand-coded bots, trolls, and disinformation campaigns are human-driven, but they really are decision-driven – automated technologies will be able to create the same kinds of chaos, only at scale, unless we understand and approach differently how we make better informed decisions in this ocean of information.

Given these challenges, here are three things we can do now (and learn to be better at):

1)  Evaluate the data – not just the source

To find the actual truth – the one which serves as the best explanation for what we observe – we can’t trust the source of information without question.  We can’t just assume that the New York Times is accurate because they are a trusted source for us.  For those that trust the Washington Post, there are others that trust Fox News.  If we only focus on the sources, we keep ourselves in our own information tribes and don’t get at the truth.

When we blindly believe what a trusted source tells us, we open ourselves open to confirmation bias, or worse, manipulation and coercion.  All of these effects lead to bad decision making, some with more severe impacts than others.

To counter this, we need to analyze the information, reporting, and data critically, and seek some manner of independent confirmation to see that all the information we receive is consistent with the explanation at hand.

2)  Engage – Conversation and communication is needed

Admittedly, it’s easier to just turn off the noise machine and speak only with those who already share our views.  But, if we are to be stronger as a nation, or even a global community, we need to share our perspectives, encourage a vigorous back-and-forth regarding our views, and jointly agree to hold that discourse in the presence of facts and in search of the truth.  The alternative is to disengage, leading us to destruction of “the other side” and their points of view for our own survival.  This is a natural tendency throughout all of human history, resulting in chaos, war, and worse, so tough work of engagement and striving for the truth is critical.

Again, as we start to rely upon automated decision making algorithms and artificial intelligence, these information processing biases will not go away – they will only become part and parcel of the automated information flows, so it’s an important phenomenon of which to be aware.

The sharing of knowledge, information, and perspectives is what is needed to get to a more accurate version of the truth and the best explanation for what happens in our world.

3)  Focus on the facts and choose to seek the truth

Facts matter, but values can differ.  Two people can, in fact, see the same information and agree on the root causes for what they see, and yet make two different decisions regarding what to do about it.

Even though different groups may hold contrasting values regarding what our decisions should be, such as Democrats and Republicans in Congress, both sides should agree to seek a common set of facts upon which to based our collective decision making.  It’s OK to disagree on the decisions, but we shouldn’t disagree on the facts.

If we focus on our tribes, we won’t seek truth; we’ll only seek “our” side winning.  If we seek the truth, ultimately, in the long run, we all win.

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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