The Living Thing / Notebooks : Filter bubbles, fact checking and kompromat

News media and public shared reality. Fake news, incomplete news, alternative facts, strategic inference, kompromat, agnotology. Basic media literacy. As seen in elections, fostered by news media.

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[…] newspapers such as the Scarfolk Mail realised that they no longer needed to provide actual content: Readers only saw what they wanted to see and comprehended what they wanted to comprehend.

Data journalism” has interesting tools. But do people care about data? Are facts persuasive? As Gilad Lotan explains, merely selecting facts can get you your own little reality, without even bothering to lie. But let’s, for a moment, assume that people actually have intent to come to a shared understanding of the facts reality. Do they even have the skills? I don’t know, but it is hard to work out when you are being fed bullshit and we don’t do well at teaching that. Here is a course on identifying the lazier type of bullshit.

And, given that society is complex and counter intuitive even if we are doing simple analysis of correlation, how about more complex causation, such as feedback loops? Nicky Case has a diagrammatic account of how “systems journalism” might work.

Let’s get real here; for the moment, reasoned engagement with a shared rational enlightenment doesn’t dominate the media. Bread and circuses and kompromat and gut-instinct do.

Renee DiResta: Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories :

Seeking news from traditional sources—newspapers and magazines—has been replaced with a new model: getting all of one’s news from trending stories on social networks. The people that we know best are most likely to influence us because we trust them. Their ideas and beliefs shape ours. And the tech behind social networks is built to enhance this[…]

Once a user joins a single group on Facebook, the social network will suggest dozens of others on that topic, as well as groups focused on tangential topics that people with similar profiles also joined. That is smart business. However, with unchecked content, it means that once people join a single conspiracy-minded group, they are algorithmically routed to a plethora of others. Join an anti-vaccine group, and your suggestions will include anti-GMO, chemtrail watch, flat Earther (yes, really), and “curing cancer naturally” groups. Rather than pulling a user out of the rabbit hole, the recommendation engine pushes them further in. We are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts.

Nick Cohen, Trump’s lies are not the problem. It’s the millions who swallow them who really matter:

Compulsive believers are not just rednecks. They include figures as elevated as the British prime minister and her cabinet. […]

Mainstream journalists are almost as credulous. After decades of imitating Jeremy Paxman and seizing on the trivial gaffes and small lies of largely harmless politicians, they are unable to cope with the fantastic lies of the new authoritarian movements. When confronted with men who lie so instinctively they believe their lies as they tell them, they can only insist on a fair hearing for the sake of “balance”. Their acceptance signals to the audience the unbelievable is worthy of belief.

This is a shallow analysis to my mind; after all, we create the systems that make it easier to never “get it”. However, starting from this end is an interesting idea. Why not promote analytic thinking? See above re: Bullshit.

Tim Harford, The Problem With Facts:

[…]will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists had an excuse for their stumbles: the tobacco industry’s tactics were clever, complex and new. First, the industry appeared to engage, promising high-quality research into the issue. The public were assured that the best people were on the case. The second stage was to complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have any number of causes, after all. And wasn’t lung cancer, not cigarettes, what really mattered? Stage three was to undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports would be dismissed as anecdotal, epidemiological work as merely statistical, and animal studies as irrelevant. Finally came normalisation: the industry would point out that the tobacco-cancer story was stale news. Couldn’t journalists find something new and interesting to say?

[…] In 1995, Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University who has studied the tobacco case closely, coined the word “agnotology”. This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced; the entire field was started by Proctor’s observation of the tobacco industry. The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.


Johnson, H. M., & Seifert, C. M.(1994) Sources of the Continued Influence Effect: When Misinformation in Memory Affects Later Inferences. Learning, Memory, 20(6), 1420–1436.
Redlawsk, D. P., Civettini, A. J. W., & Emmerson, K. M.(2010) The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever “Get It”?. Political Psychology, 31(4), 563–593. DOI.
West, J. D., & Bergstrom, C. T.(2011) Can Ignorance Promote Democracy?. Science, 334(6062), 1503–1504. DOI.