the codist - programmerthink

Engineering Truth: How the Internet Pumps Up The Lies

Published: 10/20/2013

When the internet and especially the web first became a part of everyone's life many of us thought "finally, the truth can always be found".

We were terribly wrong.

It turns out the internet is a fine medium for pumping out volumes of misleading, incorrect, dangerous and totally bogus information. The worst of this is created by myriads of PR firms, political groups and others who practice what I want to call Truth Engineering - spreading information to across the internet to lead people to believe lies are true and the truth is a lie.

Before the internet appeared it was far more difficult to get large amounts of people to believe something not entirely true or move them in a particular direction. Newspapers were far more independent, radio was about music and TV limited to a few networks. It required a lot more effort and involved a lot more individuals. Of course it wasn't impossible, like how newspapers forced the US into the Spanish-American War in 1898, or the communist boogyman of the 1950's. But it was never something a few people could do by themselves.

In general getting people to believe altered or biased truth requires a populace without access to enough alternate sources of information or the education to even know to look.

Only people in controlled countries, like Germany in WWII and North Korea today, could manage a completely controlled information flow.

Now came the internet, where anyone could publish, everyone could read, and there were few barriers to information flow.

Where we all thought truth would become easier to find, lies turned out to be far easier to amplify. If you have some fact that just exists in its space you can find in with Google or Bing. However if you want an altered truth or lie or somehow get people to believe something else, you have the ability to SEO your way to being far more discoverable that that pesky truth.

I often have friends on Facebook post articles that have all the hallmarks of engineered truth and I feel compelled to refute or find the real story. It pains me to see people believe something that is either plain wrong or designed to make them believe something that isn't true. The issue is that there are no barriers to putting information on the internet, and people have become quite proficient at taking advantage of the ease of distribution.

In our daily lives we rarely encounter blatant lies outside of the media at least. Your coworkers and family and friends are generally not interested in manipulating and misleading you. So when you see something on the TV or hear it on radio or read it in a blog you tend to continue that familiar level of trust. But it's a bad idea.

Recently I found an article on my Facebook wall where someone was fearful of "Obamacare" destroying non-profit hospitals. I looked up a phrase from the article and found it appeared on hundreds of websites verbatim. It took me several pages of Google to find something related that appeared to be the actual basis of the hysterical article, from a Senate hearing back in 2003. Take this grain of truth, add inflammatory words, distribute widely, and I guess expect some measure of benefit to your cause. Someone reads it, posts a link, people tell it to their friends, and soon the game of internet telephone game moves the message along. You think it must be real since you trust your friends, but they inadvertently amplify the message.

In programming we have our own ideas that percolate over the internet. If you haven't already you should read The Leprechauns of Software Engineering - How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it which is a great read to see how many of today's "truths" are actually based on few facts distorted over time way out of proportion.

Engineering truth, or just simply distorting it over time leads people to base decisions or live their lives on shaky ground. Instead of reasonable discussions we get inflammatory argument which in the long run helps no one except those who might benefit from the lie.

I've come to be skeptical about things I read on the internet, hear on TV or the radio but anyone can be fooled. I wrote some time ago a post Given Enough Data, Could You Build an Internet Lie Detector? but I have no idea if you can actually do this, and would anyone believe it? If you use a site that purports to identify truth what would you use to verify it? A very meta question. But verifying everything you read is a massive pain. Convincing others that your uncovering the truth isn't just another lie is pretty hard.

Various sites like politifact.com and factcheck.org and the venerable snopes.com try to inject some truth but it's really hard to keep up and they get slammed for even a minor error. Sometimes I wish I could put such a site together but that takes a lot of effort to do correctly. Plus it's hard to shout down the noise.

Maybe living with the variety of mistruths and the deliberate engineering of them is something we have to tolerate. But I'm still idealistic enough to hope that technology can find some way to improve the signal to noise ratio. Maybe we could reprogram Watson from IBM to understand the difference between real information and engineered false information and at least give some of us an easier time refuting the bad.

Then again Watson might blow up as the problem is too complicated for even a super smart computer to deal with. So how can us ordinary humans cope?

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