Confronting the Disinformation Age
SFU Public Square’s panel discussed identity-motivated reasoning, personality dark traits, how exactly our minds are being attacked by disinformation — and what to do about it.
People who work in tech and media are in the front seat of the dominant forces shaping our public sphere. But last night, the crowd of 2,500 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre learned that the responsibility should be shared among all of us. Here are some of the highlights from SFU Public Square’s Confronting the Disinformation Age.
The panel was hosted by the CBC’s Ian Hanomansing. The three panelists were David Frum, Sue Gardner, and Christopher Wylie. David Frum is the Senior Editor at the Atlantic. He is the author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic and a republican speech writer. Sue Gardner is the executive director of The Markup, which publishes stories on the impact of technology on society. And Christopher Wylie is the media darling Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who blew open the bigoted, conspiratorial, and illegal actions of political parties during Brexit and the American 2016 election. He has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee no less than five times and says that without a doubt, even if the level of criminal conspiracy was not reached by the White House leadership, that “shady fucking shit” was going on. The crowd loved him.
Each of the panelists brought a unique perspective to what turned out to be a funny, balanced, and educational panel. David Frum represented the media, and had tried-and-true advice for how we can personally confront disinformation in our lives (spoiler: we should pay for media subscriptions). Christopher Wylie was wild onstage, interrupting Frum with delightfully sassy jokes and using plenty of swear words to make his point. Sue Gardner had the strongest voice on the panel, despite speaking the least. She called out the other two for their tone right at the beginning; after Frum suggested that the Internet had allowed for “all the crackpots of the world to convene” she made clear that disinformation affects each and every one of us. The more educated you are, she explained, the more likely you are to be susceptible to misinformation. More on that later.
Is technology to blame?
So, what makes today the Disinformation Age? Sue Gardner started: the casino effect, she posited, is a major player in the spread of disinformation. Algorithms are meant to keep us engaged. Tech platforms are built to attract our attention with notifications, gamification, and emotional pull. This is how the attention economy works, she says: “anger and fear keep us engaged. That is the business model. That is the problem.”
But she was quickly countered by Frum, who suggested that we resist the technological explanation. One of the biggest spreaders of misinformation during Brexit, he told the crowd, was tabloid newspapers in the UK. But, he admitted, of course social media have had an extraordinary role. He looked at the crowd. “The study of Canada is important,” he said. Canada has all the same technology as everyone else. But, they are an outlier in the developed world. They seem immune to extremism. What’s the difference?
The answer is Canada’s middle class, he says. Because Canadians are comfortable, Canada doesn’t have the same anti-system parties. So, malicious foreign actors who want to help anti-system people hurt the system just don’t have anti system people to target in Canada. He said that Canada’s secret sauce, its secret source of strength, is the stability of their society. That the most important defence against disinformation is a robust middle class.
Gardner brought us back to reality. Canada is not remotely immune to disinformation, as recent provincial elections have proven, she says.
What about your role as an individual?
So, if we’re facing a crisis of disinformation, how can we as individuals build resilience to it? One of the strongest safeguards against disinformation, says Frum, is your own personal actions and decisions. We should have more respect for scientific achievement, for one thing. “There is too much disparagement of personal authority figures in our lives,” he says. “Like personal doctors, for instance. The anti-vaxxer movement is happening because we don’t have family doctors.” We don’t defer to expertise.
Gardner took a more social approach. We like to create social consensus, she said. We are social creatures, and we look at other social creatures for cues. If everyone seems to be now doing a different thing, or is now like this, we are all susceptible to that. And, more informed people are more vulnerable to disinformation. The critical mind does a good job of rationalizing the thought they want to have.
Wylie then brought out the big guns. “Yup,” he said, “Researchers in Russia are focused on what we call in psychology identity motivated reasoning.” The idea is that we all have a preconceived notion of how the world works, and that we will go to great effort to achieve and support our preconceived notions. “We find it hard, sometimes, to defend ourself against… reason”. The audience laughed.
He reached for an example: “Recently, I went on a date with someone,” he said. “And it turned out he was a flat earther.” He waited for the laughter to die down, then explained how this person had a complex set of justifications and answers to every single objection that he had. These people have done their research, he said. The moderator jumped in: “was the date good aside from that?,” he asked.
Obviously, it’s not just people spending too much time on YouTube who are susceptible to misinformation. Wylie is the Research Director at H&M now, and he says it’s not far from his role in tech. He says fashion is not the benign social influence we think it is (“although to be clear, we don’t do any shady things at H&M,” he says— “we’re into fashion, not fascism”). But the fashion industry is a venue for misinformation. Cultural industries touch on people’s identities sometimes in a much more potent way than even politics. And it’s being used by malicious actors. Alt-right online activists seeking to cause discord amongst African Americans are using brands to spread hate. Misinformation, he drove home, is not caged within political discourse. “And my personal theory is that they are targeting brands because we don’t talk about it [fashion as dangerous].”
How bad is disinformation really?
The panel got to talking again about anti-vaxxers, which Frum says were proliferating long before the age of social media. But Wylie quickly brought the conversation back to how exactly we are being fed misinformation now and why we should be more concerned than ever.
At Cambridge Analytica, he says, his boss would brag about his relationships to Russian intelligence agencies and researchers. And, he said, Russian researchers were working to identify Facebook profiles that expressed what are known as “dark traits.” Dark traits include narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, and are called ‘dark’ because of their malevolent qualities. Russian researchers profile online trolling behaviour to spread bad actions quickly through social networks.
But Russian researchers were not the main target of Wylie’s criticism. “Let’s step back and look at Myanmar,” he says. A side note: In Myanmar, Facebook is the only way that the government communicates with its people. The importance of Facebook as a communication tool in Myanmar cannot be overstated — cell phone plans in the country omit Facebook use from data charges. Not only is Facebook free to use, it is the only place to get information. So, when bad actors including the government of Myanmar spread disinformation about the Rohingya Muslims, hatred quickly spread. To date, 7000 people including 730 children have been murdered because of Facebook’s inaction regarding hate speech on their platform.
Sri Lanka, too, Wylie says, has experienced an increase in anti-Muslim hate speech on Facebook, which has led directly to violence against families. And after listing these two atrocities, Wylie says something that makes the audience quiet with thought: “If ethnic cleansing isn’t making Facebook change their behaviour, what’s the line?” That’s a good point. Our little Canadian elections aren’t going to be on the list.
And he doesn’t just call for leadership at tech companies to give their heads a shake. Wylie proposed that anyone working in tech be held to a high standard of conduct. “We should have a higher ethical standard for people who make technologies, just like lawyers, doctors, teachers. The standards should be that anyone who works in tech has to adhere to a doctrine of ethical standards. And, this should happen at the ideation stage of software products.”
“Imagine, if you will,” Wylie goes on, “that we have to use a new type of building,” he says. “And this building doesn’t have fire exits, you know, because it’s not a good user experience to have them.” [the crowd laughs]. “Then, imagine that inside the buildings, it’s very difficult to navigate. In fact, it’s a maze, because the architect wants people to engage more with the building. But, it’s all ok because there’s a terms and conditions agreement at the front.”
This is the challenge, he says. The architects are to blame. They track you and change your behaviour based on what someone else has decided for you. “These technologies are at the hands of people who ultimately do nothing about ethnic cleansing on their platform,” he finishes. It’s a big, big problem.
So, what can individuals do to counter disinformation?
Frum had a message from media to relate to the crowd. What can we do about disinformation in our own lives? He had four steps:
- Pay for subscriptions to real news.
- Acknowledge that you are a publisher. Be responsible about what you publish.
- Be mindful of how information gets into your head.
- Every once in a while you have opportunities to help someone, to help someone get better information. Be a little source of information.
Sue Gardner countered. “I believe in structural solutions to structural problems,” she says. We can do what we can as individuals, but we must do more. The EU regulations, and particularly Germany, are showing leadership on data. So far, the Canadian government has been woefully uncritical. She and Wylie concurred:
- Call your elected representatives, and
- Call Facebook. Make sure they know that you’re concerned.
Gardner concluded the panel discussion: “The landscape is changing pretty quickly. We speak as though we know, but we don’t know. We need more education. A big thing is happening to our world right now. It has a lot of implications. It’s worth paying attention.”