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YESTERDAY, WE BEGAN an analysis of misinformation in its many nuances, all prompted by two Danish researchers, Vincent Hendricks and Mad Vestergaard, and their book, Reality Lost: Markets of Attention, Misinformation, and Manipulation. Today in Part 2, they expand our knowledge of mendacity through framing, cherry picking, and belief echoes.
Framing. “Setting an agenda,” Hendricks and Vestergaard note, “is not only about which cases get attention, but also how they are framed and presented.”
The researchers cite differing coverage of an identical story appearing in Fox News as well as Fox News Latino: “For the Spanish-speaking segment, the more neutral word ‘undocumented’ is used to describe the student, while the main channel Fox News uses the negative word ‘illegal.’ ”
Opinion Versus Fact. Hendricks and Vestergaard also cite the danger of “fifty/fifty journalism,” in which “there are two sides to everything and that they are necessarily equally compelling. An extreme case would be to confront a flat Earth believer with a scientist… and treat the two as bona fide equal, cosmological positions.”
They note, “The fact that people have a right to their opinion does not mean that all opinions are equally cogent. Besides, although you have a right to your own opinions, you don’t have a right to your own facts, Daniel Moynihan once instructed us.”
Cherry Picking. Hendricks and Vestergaard describe the technique: You pick exactly the cherries from the tree suiting the case in point but ignore or suppress others. In politics, it means omitting the facts not fitting the program, perspective, or point of view. Facts become something to use or ignore according to needs.”
I confess to have cherry-picked here from the Hendricks and Vestergaard article: My criterion, though, was picking elements from a 77-page article that I found interesting, quotable, and within the SimanaitisSays format. For instance, Hendricks and Vestergaard discuss a little-known historical fact that Benjamin Franklin produced a fake news effort of colonial propaganda.
Rumors, Belief Echoes, and Fact Checking. A rumor may be true or false. Even if debunked as false, though, it may still influence people as a belief echo.
“Belief echoes,” Hendricks and Vestergaard say, “unfortunately show how fact checking has limited effect or perhaps sometimes even make matters worse. Fact check needs to reiterate the false claim, which in and by itself makes the belief echo stronger. And even if the fact check is taken at face value, the rumor still damages the reputation of its subjects.”
The researchers offer a pessimistic observation: “A study from September 2016 shows that only 29 percent of American voters trust fact checks and the media outlets producing them. In a political landscape of distrust, lies may be useful tactics even if unveiled.”
Summerizing It All. Hendricks and Vestergaard present a challenge: “Rational agents base opinions on facts and sober reasoning…. But we are not rational agents or exemplars of homo economicus. We are humans—and humans are affective beings motivated by emotions more than reason (Hume 1739; Freud 1917; Haidt 2001). This makes us susceptible to all kinds of trickery, deceit, and emotional manipulations as well as resistant to inconvenient facts.”
A Scale of Information Quality. Fortunately, Hendricks and Vestergaard also offer a means of assessing the quality of information.
The challenge for all of us is striving for rationality. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020