The wicked problem of information disorder

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Edward I – had his own troubles with ‘fake news’

Is the term “fake news” any longer fit for purpose? It seems it is not. Weaponized in the culture wars, it has become meaningless in the context of any serious analysis of what now passes for journalism. Áine Kerr, formerly of Storyful, latterly of Facebook, and now co-founder of NevaLabs, speaking at a Dublin symposium on the subject asks us to forget it. What we have to contend with, she says, is something a little more nuanced – “information disorder”, which comes in two distinct packages, neither very helpful but one certainly more malign than the other: misinformation (incomplete or skewed) and disinformation (purposely untrue/ propaganda).

It would seem that if we want to be serious about tackling the problems of modern media we need to begin by being a little more clinical in our analysis and succumb less to using our categories as terms of abuse.

But whatever we call it, this phenomenon is not new. It has been with us for a long, long time. History records it as a problem which Edward I had to deal with in 13th century England. Henry IV had to deal with the reports of the resurrection of Richard II, the predecessor whom he deposed and then had murdered. A few more people lost their heads for their troubles in spreading that bit of fake news – sorry, disinformation.

What probably is new is that information disorder has now become what is termed a wicked problem, explained by Ms. Kerr as a complex problem for which there is no simple method of solution. In the epoch which fell between Guttenberg and Zuckerberg, controlling information – good, bad or indifferent – with censorship was already a losing battle. In the post-Zuckerberg era it has seemingly escalated to the wicked status.

The Dublin symposium, organized by Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, with an eight-member panel of media practitioners, kept drifting back to the question of how to regulate, whether regulation was at all possible and whether it would be any more effective than the clumsy weapon of censorship was in the past.

But whenever people seem to gather to confront this problem they seem to keep failing to address the elephant in the room. This elephant, if addressed might show everyone that the problem is infinitely more wicked that our wildest nightmares suggest. Not only have we got a serious information disorder on our hands, not only is “fake news” our problem but on top of that we have the even more virulent strain of this virus, “fake views”.

In an age where truth is no longer identified as something which we can agree on, where relativism rules the roost and where “facts” for many people are just a matter of “whatever”, information disorders are going to be endemic in our culture. From that condition then inevitably comes the more serious malaise of fake views – because any view, any opinion, any proposed solution to the problems of mankind which are based on a philosophy which makes truth relative and subjective will be a fake solution leading at best to a dead end, at worst to social and personal chaos.

This elephant, if addressed, would tell us that talking about trust, talking about truth or falsehood, talking about good or bad intentions is to talk about morality. The words moral, morality or virtue, if they figured at all in that symposium were only touched on tangentially. Indeed, one had the sense that mentioning them would have evoked at best an uncomprehending silence, maybe even a patronizing consignment to another planet.

The exceptions might have been Fionnan Sheahan, Editor of the Irish Independent, one of Ireland’s national newspapers, and the contribution from Sile Lane, Head of International Campaigns and Policy at Sense About Science. Sheehan made the pertinent observation which suggested that the red faces of Ireland’s governing class which let financial organizations off the moral leash , bringing the Irish economy to its knees ten years ago, might be changing colour again. The implication was that the giant IT companies which have made Ireland their European headquarters are just able to click their fingers and the Irish Government jumps to attention.

All the contributors were deeply concerned about this wicked problem, but without acknowledging the need to go back to these basics and find out how we have strayed so far from them, our bewilderment will not only not be resolved, it will continue to deepen.

Is there any serious human civilization that does not have among its first moral principles that which says, as the Judaeo-Christian Decalogue does, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”? Unlikely. That is a regulation, but it is a regulation because first and foremost it is written in our reasoning minds. The tragedy of the modern age and modern education is that it has abandoned the cultivation of reason in favour of the cultivation of feelings – and without the former the latter is a soggy marsh where humanity may wallow happily for a time but will eventually sink in misery.

The roots of this problem, now of wicked proportions, go back to the false philosophical turning over a thousand years ago which led eventually to the Cartesian “I think therefore I am”. From there it lead right down to the follies of Michel Foucault in our own time. It has lead us into the dead end of subjective morality, a process which Professor Brad S. Gregory of Notre Dame University describes in detail in The Unintended Reformation.

No sane thinking person denies or undervalues the great benefits which thinking humans have brought to our race over those centuries. Sadly, however, many apparently sane people have repeatedly failed to read the wrong turnings philosophy  – anthropological ethical and political – has taken in that time. This misreading, this information disorder has now led us to a point where we have left ourselves, not just with a wicked problem but with a hyper-wicked problem.

One passage in Gregory’s book gives something of a taste of this predicament and the problems it spawns. He says that if morality is simply a function of personal preference, and there are neither intrinsic human goods nor such a thing as human nature, then there can be no moral impediments to, for example, the deliberate genetic manipulation of human beings so as to accelerate the evolutionary self-transcendence of the species, whatever legal prohibitions might happen to remain in place.

We can see that the regulatory provisions which may be put in place to control the internet in any of its undesirable manifestations will only have a legal force, not a moral force. Gregory draws out the barren implications of subjectivism across a number of contemporary issues which we can also connect to the one being considered here.

The “transhumanist” strand of modernity asks, for example, in Gregory’s paraphrasing: Why not try to overcome humanity’s many problems by making human beings obsolete? Perhaps a biogenetically engineered, higher, better, newer, more advanced post-human species will succeed where Homo sapiens is failing. Upbeat transhumanists simply want to enact their choices, to pursue their own good in their own way, rather than to sulk in Weberian disenchantment or uptight hand-wringing.

Scoffing at “bio-Luddites” inhibited by their “sciphobia,” Simon Young declares that “the human adventure is just beginning, and there are no limits to what we might achieve once we embrace the Will to Evolve beyond our human-all-too-human condition.”

In Ray Kurzweil’s expansive vision, “we can imagine the possibility of our future intelligence spreading into other universes. Such a scenario is conceivable given our current understanding of cosmology, although speculative. This could potentially allow our future intelligence to go beyond any limits.”

 With such transhumanists we meet a particularly ambitious, latter-day extension of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, who proclaimed that “a sound magician is a mighty god.”  ln keeping with the dominant, liberationist ideology of modernity, more choices equals more progress. Technological advances provide the means to move forward. Why let mere biology hold us back?

With information supporting the views of thinkers like Young and Kurzweil floating around in our culture, and being taken seriously, what regulatory environment could possibly cope with that? With information disorder rampant in this way – in both its “fake news” and “fake views” modes – we are clearly on the cusp of a new world order. The question is, will it be,

as some hope, a Brave New World, or as others fear, a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?

Illogically induced brain trauma

I was in the Late Late Show audience last night. The show, on Irish television, is the longest running “chat” show in the world – we are told. I was invited on the basis of my being on the side of traditional  marriage in the forthcoming debate on gay “marriage” which is going to begin raging in this jurisdiction soon.

One homosexual person on the panel, “married” with children, objected to the term gay being attached to their campaign for legislative change. He said that what their campaign was about was “marriage equality”. A strange signal hit my brain cells – like when someone says something entirely illogical but you cannot at once put your finger on the illogicality. Essentially the nerve-ending which was touched was the one which sent a signal to my brain when writing the last paragraph telling me again that when gay is used with the word marriage then that word marriage must be put in inverted commas – because as a compound noun, gay marriage does not, and cannot, exist if marriage is accepted as a bond between a man and a woman sharing rights which depend on their complimentary biological nature.

Marriage in this sense, the sense in which the marriage bond has been understood from time immemorial, has nothing essentially to do with love. A marriage contracted between a man and a woman may be loveless and it will still be a marriage. A marriage without the commitment to share the couple’s complimentary sexual faculties is not in the proper sense a marriage at all.

I thought to myself that there must be some logical formula which can unravel this fallacy? Perhaps this is it?

Current meaning of marriage: “biological man+ biological woman+(children)”. That’s it.

What the “marriage equality” campaign is proposing is the following: “biological man+ biological woman+(children)” = “biological man+ biological man+(children)” or  “biological woman+ biological woman+(children)”.

Is this not patently false?

If you want to see the somewhat unbalanced discussion and experience first-hand the same brain trauma you can check it out at 1 hour sixteen minutes into the show.

Distorted Images of the Real World

In the film, The Matrix, we explore the threat to our humanity by forces seeking to create a perfect world. It is a world in which men and women have been distorted beyond recognition into characters in a computer programme devoid of any real human qualities. With a little adjustment it is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In our own media-driven world we are already distorting the truth in an alarming way. Ireland’s national broadcaster has just incurred damages rumoured to be in the region of €2,000,000 for ruining the life of an innocent man, a Catholic missionary priest whom it portrayed as a rapist through the medium of its investigative flagship, Primetime Investigates. It all serves to remind us that we have a dangerous capacity to create something which at first serves our best interests and then allows it to become a distorting and all-consuming monster.

The television programme was presented last May and for most viewers it was simply driving another nail in the coffin of the battered reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Gross and unjust allegations were presented to the viewing public as journalistically verified fact and allowed to feed into and feed on a prejudice which has already been created by the constant focus of the media on the crimes and misdemeanours of a minority of Catholic priests

A few weeks ago the Iona Institute, an Irish think-tank focussing on religion and family in the Irish context, found that the majority view among Irish people now is that Catholic priests and religious are responsible for one in five instances of child abuse in the country. The reality is that one in 30 of such cases are perpetrated by this group. Now that is what we call distortion.

But the really alarming thing is that we seem to be quite prepared to live with this distorting mirror and fail to recognise the lethal nature of this cancerous growth within our society. There may be people who consider that the Roman Catholic Church is an institution that we would be better off without – but getting rid of it on the basis of a gross distortion of public opinion is probably not something even the liberal intelligentsia would advocate. Houston, we have a problem – and it is not just a problem of distorting the public image of the Catholic Church. It is a problem which distorts most of the things it touches and it is a problem endemic in the culture of news, news-gatherers and news organisations.

The now defunct Irish Press newspaper had as it motto, placed right under the masthead of the paper, The Truth in the News. I was very proud of that motto when I had the pleasure and privilege of training with and working as a journalist for that paper. Newspapers have a tendency to give themselves some rather meaningful if sometimes pretentious titles – The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Examiner, The Inquirer; Ireland even had The Impartial Reporter. At one time those certainly represented the good intentions of proprietors and journalists who tried to live by their implicit mottos of guarding the truth, reflecting the truth, examining and inquiring and impartially reporting without fear or favour. But to live and work by those principles of operation involved more than just reporting isolated facts. They were seen as expressing a commitment to present society with an honest and balanced view of itself. To do that the facts which were presented had to in some way be balanced within the context of a bigger picture. It is in this that we are now failing abysmally.

Essentially it is a “story” problem. News is gathered in the form of stories and without some story there is really little news. But the story is not an end in itself. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is the objective. When this is lost sight of then the story itself can become dangerous and distorting.

All this was brought home to me very recently on a very personal level when I had to spend eight days in the care of a big – very big – Dublin hospital to undergo surgery. A week before I was admitted I heard reported on television that the hospital was having big problems. Managerial decisions had to be imposed on it from outside by the Health Service Executive which runs the Irish health service. This, a little like the broadcasting debacle above, simply fed into a sense of the overall state of dysfunction which daily and nightly news reports of health service disasters has created among Irish people. We shrug our shoulders and ask ourselves why can’t these people get their act together and organise a decent system of health care for us?

Eight days in Dublin’s Adelaide/Meath Hospital in Tallaght gave me an entirely different perspective on Ireland’s much-maligned health service. News bulletins on Irish radio and television are seldom if ever without some damning report of another mal-function in one or other of the country’s hospitals – missing files, mis-diagnosed illness, and patients on trolleys for days on end – all giving an impression of near total systemic failure of the institutions entrusted with the care of the nation’s sick and sickly. The end result is an abiding impression of a health service from hell.

The truth is very different. In fact the hospital is a miracle of effective administration, of superbly professional nursing and medical care, of warmth, kindness and dedication. Except that it is not really a miracle. It is a perfectly natural phenomenon where good people go about their work showing a wonderful range of human qualities and virtues, day after day, week after week and month after month. What appalled me – to a point of anger – was the fact that out in the wider world there exists this parallel public impression of a health service in disarray. Saying this is not to deny that problems exist and are sometimes not dealt with as they should be. They do. But the distorting effect on public opinion which the emphasis these problems get in news reports is not just something regrettable, it is a travesty. In pursuing “the story” in the way they do news organisations are not mirroring reality at all, they are not guarding anyone’s interest, and they are fooling themselves if they think they are being impartial in what they do.

The solution to this injustice is not, of course, to ignore the problems. They must remain in focus. The solution is to widen the angle to bring in the bigger picture. Journalists must resist the inclination to spice up their stories by giving the impression that something terrible has happened, is happening or is about to happen. That clearly is part of the journalist’s instinct. But they cannot pursue it at the expense of the wider truth, the lives and integrity of ordinary people who dedicate themselves to something as beautiful and noble as this particular field of human endeavour is. It is not enough for the journalist to say that providing the bigger picture is not my job. Everyone is responsible for the truth.

The problem is a much wider one than just the health service and its institutions, or the churches and their institutions. For example, the constant reporting of crime and criminality without any attempt to give the public a feel for the overall context of the general level of well-being in our societies is another distortion and one with all sorts of consequences – creating fear, anxiety, depression and distrust – which can undermine the values by which we try to live.

The integrity of the world’s media organisations has taken a severe battering in recent times. News International’s phone-hacking scandal now being investigated by the Levenson enquiry in the UK, the Irish state broadcaster’s destruction of an innocent man’s life and reputation, are but two instances of a sorry saga. There will be more until such time as the culture surrounding the news industry begins to identify the deeper values which must underpin its service to humanity.