Guilty till proven innocent

Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Am I guilty? Sure. I have to restrain myself from reposting articles and links that contain information that strengthens my argument, whatever it is. First, I have to check and make sure that it’s true.

Gone are the days where information is innocent until proven guilty, true till proven false. The situation has turned on its head and now, I need confirmation that something is true before I take it seriously. And this upsets me. It upsets me that my innate trusting nature is slowly being choked by tendrils of suspicion. It upsets me because this, I fear, will seep into other aspects of my life. Trust, or the lack thereof, is pervasive.

Fake news: the role of confirmation bias in a post-truth world was the title of a seminar I attended in Geneva, an optional event offered as part of CD Multi, a DiploFoundation programme gathering 26 participants from 17 African, Pacific, and Caribbean countries and immersing them in what is known as International Geneva – the policy-making hub of the world. They say that policy dishes are prepared in Geneva and served in New York.

Speaker Rolf Olsen teaches in the Executive Certificate on Advocacy in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He opening by asking, what if we’d left Planet Earth on 14 June 2016 and come back today. Would we believe:

  • The UK is leaving the EU
  • Boris Johnson is UK Foreign Minster
  • Donald Trump is President of the USA
  • France has a new president, someone we’d never heard of
  • The Tories are going in to coalition with the DUP

With real news like that, he asked, who needs fake news.

Olsen went on to talk about what he calls Defensive advocacy – that ability to respond to unforeseen events. Unless we are prepared for all possible unforeseen events, the certainty of success will remain out of reach. Politicians and leaders are no longer in control of their message. Unplanned events are the new norm.

Journalism was built on a foundation of pride in ethics. The Society of Journalists, in the preamble to its Code of Ethics, states:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

The most powerful enemy of fake news is a strong press corps. But today, so much of our content is created by those untrained in such ethics. Bloggers proliferate. Fact-checking. Confirmation of sources. Independent verification. These no longer feature in so much of what we read. The three principles of good communication have fallen:

  1. The sender/source is known.
  2. The information has been verified.
  3. The receiver can independently make a decision without fear or undue influence.

But confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, is far from being a new phenomenon. Take news outlets in the UK, the USA, and France as cases in point – all have biased points of view, from the right-wing Murdoch stable to the left-wing Guardian and CNN. Media outlets have become politicised. The Washington Post did a study of 21981 articles mentioning Clinton and Trump and concluded the same.

Fake news wasn’t born yesterday. Go back five hundred years to the advent of the printing press and you’ll see examples of sensationalism, aimed at inflaming passions and prejudices. More recently, in 1844, the Anti-Catholic movement in Philadelphia falsely accused Irish Catholic men of stealing bibles from public schools. Riots ensued. So what’s new about fake news? Technology. Its an enabler.

With the oligopoly of traditional media broken, journalists are under increasing financial pressure to report quickly and sensationally. Monetary returns for clicks encourage dramatic headlines. Data collection and use of Big Data facilitate bias and allow specific targeting of the converted.

It’s been said that we are living in an echo chamber. We read what reinforces what we already believe. We connect with people who agree with us. We are not being challenged. The critical thinkers among us are often mocked or labelled conspiracy theorists when they offer a dissenting opinion.

But is the situation out of control? Can we make a difference? Olsen argues that yes, we can. By…

  • Rebutting fake news at every opportunity
  • Supporting free press by paying for our news – taking out subscriptions to credible outlets
  • Participating in dialogue and in elections

We also need more transparency. Do we really want to waste time reading advertorial press that is clearly biased? Or would we prefer objective, impartial accounts of what’s going on in the world? We need to start asking – cui bono – who benefits.

A chap from Sweden wondered at the connection between the decline in respect for authority and established institutions and the rise of fake news. He suggested that the blame cannot be laid squarely at technology’s door – but that it’s rather a symptom of a broader malaise.

Someone from Jordan raised the issue of false flags – real reporting on fake events. Where are the investigative journalists who reveal those fake events for what they are? But what is true and what is fake? Just yesterday, when I first read new so of the Baseball shooting in DC, I had to check it before I believed it. That upset me. Simple fact-checking for my blog has become difficult. Simple facts like what year, how high, how big …. I can no longer accept the first source I find and the more I check the more variations of the truth I find. And these are measurable facts. I despair. A participant from Malawi wondered at the time we waste checking whether something is true or not. Lots of time … too much time, I say.
My issue now will be to find a media outlet that I can trust, knowing, as a Brazilian journalist in the audience commented: neutrality is a goal, but complete impartiality is utopia.

My take-away came from Kenya:

He who knows how is always at the mercy of he who knows why.

Speaker Rolf Olsen is CEO and strategic counsel at Leidar, which he founded in 2009. He spends his time helping clients set their course, and some of Europe´s largest and most successful companies have had their vision, mission and stories developed with Rolf´s assistance. Rolf has more than 35 years’ experience in communications, the last 25 at a top tier international level. Before setting up Leidar, he was CEO Continental Europe of Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm. Prior to this he held executive positions at both European and global level for two American Fortune 50 companies; firstly 13 years with Digital Equipment Corporation and then five years with Motorola. Rolf teaches in the Executive Certificate on Advocacy in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute, Geneva.
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