Post-truth: how BS conquered the world – LSE seminar






By: Esme Banks Marr

Last week I attended a talk at London School of Economics given by James Ball. Ball has worked in political, data and investigative journalism in the US and the UK for BuzzFeed, The Guardian and the Washington Post. He worked with Julian Assange in 2011 and his reporting won him the Pulitzer prize in public service.

His opening remarks were “You have this overwhelming sense of ‘who can you trust’ and ‘what can you believe’ – right?”. He then went on to explain that the past 10 years have been a very interesting time in journalism, honing in on the fact there is a very real bullsh*t problem going on, and it needs dealt with.

Ball begins by mentioning his first encounter with fake news, when reading that the ‘U.S. government purchased a stockpile of 30,000 guillotines’ … to execute second amendment supporters. This story was shared and shared over the web and drew attention to the fact that people distrusted their government so much that they believed something so fantastical. Ball is a thorough man; he explained how he decided to research this story in depth to prove it was completely fabricated back in 2013.

He draws on the philosopher Harry Frankfurt and his surprise best-seller ‘On Bullsh**’, explaining the difference between a liar (who tends to have respect for the truth, but avoids it), and a bull-sh***er (who has no regard either way). I particularly liked this aspect of the talk and could’ve pondered on it for much of the evening – but alas, there was no time…

Enter President Donald Trump. No, not really. He wasn’t invited to LSE on this occasion. There was however a large GIF on the screen, staring down at us all.

Ball said that the best way he could talk to us about the subject was to introduce ‘two blondes on a bus’ … Trump being the first. You may have already guessed who the second might be. But more on that shortly.

As with anything of late, there aren’t many heroes in this post-truth/fake news saga (yet). Ball explained it as a very ‘2017’ conversation we were having – which is pretty depressing if you think about it. The title of the talk was ‘Bullsh**’, not ‘Lies’. He explains how it is BS that has conquered, not lies. Lies suggest someone knows what they’re doing. BS suggests they don’t always know. It can just be down to ignorance (this got me thinking of some headlines I’ve heard exclaimed out loud in horror / disbelief over the past few years). News outlets may choose to run a story without checking its sources, believing it to be true. It’s the sharing and believing of such stories that create the mass pile of BS.

So, here we all are, a lecture theatre full of people, trying to come to terms with the consequences of the web, where there aren’t any security guards or gatekeepers insisting you pay the price of accuracy before publishing. Acknowledging what we’ve known for a while, that unfortunately, lies are given the same status as truth nowadays.

There was no time to really delve into why we believe lies. This brings up a lot of questions about human psychology and even history – things that aren’t a result of events in recent years, or began with the invention of the internet. We were given a run-down on cognitive biases though, and how recent history has seen the breakdown of faith and the ‘order’ of a ‘rational’ society.

Ball tried to explain how the economics of the internet is destroying the possibility of financing ‘serious’ news. He continuously raised the question of whether consumers want a cautious fact-checked article, when it is cheaper (and much more profitable for the sites) to follow the less reputable (and often highly entertaining) sources, who are speedy with their headlines and tell us things we might all dream (or have nightmares) about.

It was at this point we were reminded of our unconscious biases and the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman. You see, we tend to believe things we already think could be true. If we distrust something or someone, we are wary and we don’t question claims quite as much, as they back up our biases.

My issue is that reporting means reporting what has happened; and when the things that have happened, or have been said, are fabricated, like Trump completely making up figures relating to how many Syrian’s President Obama let into America, the BS starts at the source. So the reporting may be correct, in as much as he really did say that. Is the onus then on the journalist to do Trump’s work for him? Find the correct figure and post a story with the headline calling the President a liar who can’t do his homework?

Here’s one that isn’t necessarily ‘fake’ – or I wouldn’t call it such – but it is BS. US unemployment figures are quite shocking, or so we’re led to believe if we read or watch the news. The things is, they don’t take into account the elderly, wealthy heirs or stay at home parents (who are happy being stay at home). Yet these people make up the figures too. If you count everyone it doesn’t really add up and it gives us a pretty meaningless number. But it does give us headlines, that people will read, and scorn at and tut and shake their heads at…

Enter re-tweets, clicks, shares, uploads…

Of course, the second blonde on the bus was Boris Johnson (sure enough, a large photo of Boris dangling from a crane with union jack flags covered the screen). Just a tiny bit of background; Boris started off as a journalist. His first job was at The Times, he was fired for fake news reporting… his first front page was on the discovery of a new royal palace. He roped in a relative who was a professor in history, and ended up wrongly attributing a fake quote to him. Hmmm. He was then EU correspondent at The Telegraph.

It’s hard to trust the real news, when fake news is run as real news. Some news website run deliberately (apparently, it’s ‘funny’) fake stories alongside ‘real’ stories. I bring you back to Ball’s opening comment. It’s hard to know who to trust and what to believe. Too many news outlets merely want to hit the top of Google, and the top of all our social media feeds, running stories to get the hits while they can. Many will run a fake story for a few hours and then later issue a debunk. The Daily Mail, for example, changes the headline of a story, as traffic trails off. The main problem seems to be that it takes an exhausting amount time and energy to take down such ridiculous claims.

This post has already pushed the word count for a blog, but there is a lot more to say, and a lot more examples and anecdotes. If you want to know more, ask me, I have heaps of notes! Attend as many LSE lectures as you can – the public lectures are free and they attract some of the best thinkers. Or buy the book.

No, Magenta doesn’t have a retainer with James Ball or LSE (sadly). It was just a really, really interesting discussion, and a conversation we should all be having louder, and on a more regular basis.

Ben Keeley