Countering Disinformation

I’m not an engineer, but I think like one. I’ve disciplined myself to be analytical and logical and to distinguish between assumptions and known facts.

Humans are not naturally rational. We must train ourselves to consciously construct a theory about the nature of reality, and then test our theory by experimenting and observing. Absent such scientific practices, we instinctively invent stories to explain patterns we observe. These stories need not be accurate representations of reality to serve as an organizational tool or a memory device. We may call these stories “hunches” or “intuition” about what’s beyond our certain knowledge.

Our stories may influence our behavior more readily than our reason. But stories are inherently fluid, and unlike the laws of physics or chemistry, they can be manipulated. People can lock on to a narrative (story) and act upon it without deliberation. Bad actors exploit this human tendency to their advantage and gain, often to the detriment of individual wellbeing and the common good. We get played and duped by persuasive narratives designed to harm–disinformation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has come to understand how disinformation and misinformation can overpower factual contrary evidence. People will continue to trust and rely on stories that have been thoroughly debunked by rigorous scientific research to establish a true perception of reality. We need only look at the anti-vaccination movement, the false narratives asserting that global warming is a hoax, or the denial of the risks of smoking tobacco to verify the power of disinformation and misinformation.

Science Rising and UCS have produced training materials that are intended to help science advocates push back more effectively. On Sunday October 16th at 9:45 am, I spoke on the topic using UCS materials as the core of my presentation. The bibliography of all my sources is below.

Bibliography

Video of October 16th Presentation

Here is a video recording of the presentation done on 10/16/22 at Newtown Friends Meeting Adult Firstday School.

TREEMONISHA

an Opera by Scott Joplin

Houston Grand Opera Orchestra

with an all-black cast of singers and dancers

Online Links

For those who would like to share this remarkable experience with off-campus friends and relatives, here are the YouTube links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6ynOUAFIG8
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHG6PMUUHOA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sr5AokEGGg

The libretto is also available both in document form and as a slide show keyed to the sound track:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ecgr5ViF-Xc

http://www.pegopera.org/operas/treemonisha/lib_a4.pdf

http://en.opera-scores.com/D/VocalScore/5310/191737.html

It’s Rare

Beyond any reasonable doubt, voter fraud is rare. In isolated local cases where it does occur, it doesn’t usually affect outcomes.

You probably already know that. Those who don’t wish or choose to believe it’s vanishingly rare don’t read this sort of post. I’m posting this article by Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post because we need to see the facts to avoid the corrosive effect of persistent malicious disinformation that fosters doubts.

The GOP’s big lie strategy is intended to gaslight their base and rationalize a bundle of voter repression initiatives. They manufacture the controversy and use it to justify making it more difficult to vote if you are marginalized by poverty or ethnicity.

If you value facts and analytical thinking, read this:

voter-fraud

Delusion and Self-deception

A delusion is a belief that is contrary to objective reality. It’s different from the self-deceptions that most of us indulge in. A growing number of observers are taking a hard look at the extremism in our political parties. It’s not merely a difference of viewpoint, or interpretation of objective fact. We are witnessing solidarity among partisan politicians who choose to believe things that are manifestly not real. Election deniers and climate deniers are the foremost examples.

Robert Draper was an insider to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. In this talk, he explains how his view of the GOP and the seeming willingness of rational people to ignore evidence and assert false perceptions and beliefs. He speaks about Weapons of Mass Delusion, “The disturbing eyewitness account of how a new breed of Republicans—led by Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn—far from moving on from Trump, have taken the politics of hysteria to even greater extremes and brought American democracy to the edge.”

When asked how this delusion can be overcome, he suggests it may only end when the supporters fail miserably at governing — which he characterizes as a dangerous experiment.

Dangerous indeed.

Rumors

Some of us think of rumors as the idle speculation of a social gossip–just superficial trash talk, not to be taken seriously. If someone characterizes our conversation as gossip, we are offended.

Rumors are a serious and lucrative business these days. They have been weaponized and are tools for social and political manipulation. Rumors are a favorite ploy of those who manipulate because they are cheap and effective. Once seeded, they take on a life of their own, traveling with dazzling speed and persisting for months or years. They bypass most people’s skepticism because they often come from a friend or relative–a person we trust.

Frequently the seed is a photo, a video, or a fake news item that is cleverly crafted to look authentic and launched in a context that lends credibility. It’s easy to be fooled.

We can train ourselves to recognize the seeds of disinformation so that we don’t contribute to the spread. None of us wants to be dismissed as one who gossips. To learn more, check out RumorGuard.

Benefits of Community

Today I received a remarkable fundraising letter. It came from Holy Cross Monastery, a community of Episcopal Benedictine monks that Marguerite and I have been close to for more than 40 years.

The letter is remarkable for its intimacy and for the splendid way it captures the essence of the enlightenment members of the community have found together. Guests get it when they visit by experiencing the energy of those who live there in community with one another.

Read it for yourself here:

HCM-on-Community

Organized religion and the practice of communal faith are on the wane in the United States. Spirituality in the form of individual practices like meditation is very popular. Still, individual spirituality doesn’t confer the benefits of a community of seekers with a lively mutual interest in spiritual and personal growth.

Covid-19 forced us into isolation. Many of the ordinary ways we experienced community were put on hold. Brother Robert alludes to this in his opening paragraph and shares how the monks gathered for their annual meeting spent time in small groups to recapture what was lost for three years. As in a marriage, living in an intimate community is work. He observes, “The soul proceeds by expansion and inclusion.” One’s spirit is diminished by isolation.

There is much wisdom packed into these seven paragraphs. I’m prompted to ask, “How do the communities that I participate in feed my soul and nurture my well-being?” And how do I reciprocate?

What Women Want …

Storyteller Susan Klein tells a wonderful fairytale in which the prince must guess what all women most earnestly desire. It continues for some time, and she keeps you guessing to the very end. (Spoiler alert: to make my point here, I will need to reveal the secret — but not just yet.)

The guesses that male listeners make are usually far off the mark, and some are transparently egotistical when they venture into romantic fantasies. Men have “implicit bias” that blinds them, me included. They can’t see what’s missing that is so much to be desired from a woman’s point of view because they do not experience such a lack as men.

Yet when the reveal in the story comes, it’s a forehead slapper. Listeners say, “Of course!” and “Why couldn’t I see that?” The wonderful art of Susan’s telling of the story leaves a lasting impression, and possibly an awakening.

Lately I have been thinking that something similar is going on with Trumpists and the rest of us. What is it that Trump’s followers most earnestly desire? What can’t we get about them?

I’m not thinking about political opportunists, those who exploit that earnest desire. I’m thinking about the rank-and-file follower. The men and women who buy into conspiracy theories, whose outrage is always just under the surface, who are angry and see Trump as a tarnished knight, a tough guy who speaks their mind.

In Susan’s tale, what women most earnestly desire is “agency.” They want to make their own choices and not be owned or told. Women have long been identified as “the weaker sex” and subordinated to men. They fought for two generations to get the vote and continue to fight for equality and justice in civic, employment, and domestic life.

Could Trumpists be fearful of losing their agency? Do they believe they have already lost some precious agency to the “elite” liberal class, to overreaching government, to rising minorities, immigrants, coastal progressives, the deep state, and Antifa? That’s certainly what the manipulators are plugging. Is Trumpism about the loss of agency?

How do we assure Trumpists that their agency isn’t diminished if others gail agency. How did most men come to recognize that a woman’s newly won agency does not diminish their own? On the contrary, both men and women benefit.

Blackout Averted

Imagine! People act in service of one another to avert a disastrous problem. Californians did just that.

Blackout

California deftly avoided rolling blackouts this week amid an energy surge through a novel innovation in the green energy space that researchers are calling “text everyone in the state and ask them to cool it.” It worked phenomenally well. At 3:20 p.m. on Tuesday, power demand hit a new record of 50.6K megawatts, and at 5:50 p.m. the state sent a text message alert mentioning that heat is straining the energy grid, and that there might be outages unless people turn off nonessential power until 9 p.m., please. It worked pretty much instantly. Power demand dropped 1.2 gigawatts within five minutes, immediately mitigating the issues, and by around 8 p.m. the emergency level was cancelled without a blackout. Wow, it’s almost as if slight collective action can have a meaningful impact addressing the ramifications of climate change if a state is willing to intervene; who could have possibly seen this coming.

Dan Murtaugh and Brian Eckhouse, Bloomberg

One of the advantages of digital networking is the possibility of instant notification. Since the 1950s, the US has had a nationally coordinated system for sending emergency communications to radio, TV, cable, and other FCC-regulated public media. It started as Conelrad during the cold war and morphed into the Federal Communications Commission’s EAS (Emergency Alert System). That raucous buzz you hear on your radio, TV, and cellphone just before a weather warning is the digital data burst that allows such messages to propagate from a single source to virtually all electronic public media in mere seconds.

Now, with mass text messaging to mobile phones, written alerts can be communicated to private and public networks with even greater speed.

It’s heartening to see California’s example of large numbers of people taking the trouble to cut their energy use so that there would be enough for all with nobody left out. Perhaps there is a moral lesson here.

“The GOP is sick” — Milbank

Dana Milbank documents the decline of ethics and morality that characterizes the Republican party and now threatens democracy itself.

The essay echoes a theme in my observations of political leadership on the right. There is a long tradition of political scheming and distortion of the public’s perception of reality. Lee Atwater said “Perception is reality,” and he actively employed that principle to create negative political memes. Manifort, Stone, Gingrich, Rove, and many other GOP political operatives have risen to power and influence manipulating perception without concern for fairness or truth. They seek to win by any means.

One's identity is far more than one's profession.