Facts, lies and probability

Politics in the USA has become tainted by lies, or more specifically by the willingness of large sections of the media to manufacture or circulate lies for political ends.  This is because there is not a BBC in the USA, maintaining a basic standard of rigour in interogating claims and validating facts and it is why the BBC is, in my opinion, an institution every British citizen must fight, to their dying breaths, to preserve from the assaults of government, media barons and “free” market fundamentalists.

(As an aside : it is no co-incidence that the greatest incidence of lying in the British media occurs within the tabloid press, i.e. the area of the media where the BBC doesn’t operate – note the revelations currently tumbling forth from the Leveson Inquiry.)

As a consequence of endemic lying, there is a great deal of focus in the USA on the opportunity for citizens to become involved in fact-checking – note the recent efforts by Jeff Jarvis and Craig Newmark, summarised in this Huffington Post article.  The points that Craig make are all very good, but I can’t help thinking that the solution he is advocating – a huge database or network of networks – may prove unworkable because it represents another form of institution (albeit one managed more collaboratively) to supervise the current institutions which are deemed to be failing.  This seems to swim against the tide of what is happening in social media where trust is being swept out of institutions into transparent processes.   Perhaps, therefore, we already have the tools we need – the databse already exists, it is the social digital space – it is more a question of thinking how we design processes, rather than the technologies, to validate facts.

This brought me back to a slide I presented at a #Phonar workshop at the Coventry University School of Art and Design a couple of weeks ago.  The slide (in all its messy build(ed) complexity) is below.

This was an attempt to use the normal distribution curve to explain or understand the future of media, or more precisely the future of mediation and fact checking.  The basic assumption behind this is that the way institutionalised media has worked to date is a reductive process.  It seeks to cut-away the facts that it sees as not relevant or ‘worthy’ of publication and focus on its own, necessarily restricted interpretation, of what is news or what we need to know.  “All the news that is fit to print”, as the NY Times famously put it – albeit it a more accurate presentation of this might be “All the news that it is profitable to print”.  This because media space is a precious and expensive resource – there is no space within it to contain everything. As a result, the institutionalised media focuses on what it perceives to be “the norm”, that which clusters around a median point which it has set.

But the thing about social media is that it is not restricted – it can contain the entire data set – and the issue therefore is how to create a process that allows us to form a judgement about information that exploits this abundance.  It seems to me that this cannot be a process based on saying “this is right” and “this is wrong”, or setting an arbitrary median point around which to focus, to the exclusion of that which falls outside – this is an institutionalised response.  Rather it has to be a process that allows us to see where on the curve everything sits – based around how many people support a particular fact or truth (the two are different) and sufficient transparency to see who these people are.

The example I used to illustrate this, drawn from an earlier part of my presentation, was the recent #superinjunction furore that struck the UK media in which certain celebrities (e.g. footballer Ryan Giggs) sought, to protect themselves from the intrusive behaviour of the tabloid media via the use of legal injunctions.  A quick examination of Twitter and other social media networks, revealed that the vast majority of people were actually not interested in Ryan Giggs’ love-life.  This, of course, clashed with the agenda of the tabloid media who wished to splash this in salacious detail across their front pages.  In other words readers of the tabloid press saw the Ryan Giggs affair as sitting on a very different part of the curve to that of the tabloid media, who saw it as worthy of acres of newsprint.  This lead me to the observation that one of the reasons many tabloid journalists hate social media is because it deflates their ability to titillate.

What we need to focus on are therefore the processes that allow us to see where on the curve something sits, rather than classifying it as right or wrong, fact or lie.  We also need to take care about what we call truth.  The comments that follow Craig’s Huffington Post piece demonstrate the tendency for many to equate the opposite of a lie as being the truth.  Returning to original exercise, the opposite of a lie is a fact.  Facts and lies are absolute things, whereas truth is a relative thing.  Democracy is about preserving a world that supports many truths – establishing single truths is the business of fundamentalism.

This insight doesn’t give me the answer – I can’t, as a consequence, design a process that allows us to re-establish trust in information presented to us (by the media or Twitter).  However, I hope it does illustrate the direction of travel.


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