investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Truth, lies and getting grilled on the internet

In Previously published on April 18, 2013 at 11:59 am

The trustworthiness of information on the internet is challenged in many ways. A few are outlined in this piece, which was  first published in The Age. Click here to view the original piece.

DANNY KATZ wrote a corker of a story last week about his personal experience of plagiarism on the internet.

It started in 1998 when Katz wrote a very funny column for The Age about the etiquette and male bonding behaviour he’d observed at Australian barbecues. It was called ‘‘Master of the Tongs’’ — “Tongmaster” for short.

In last week’s piece Katz recounted how his column for more than 10 years has been shared around the internet by email and purloined by bloggers — including a South African called Adi Badenhorst, who claimed to have written it. At least, someone on the website of Badenhorst’s family’s wine business in Swartland, Western Cape, claimed on his behalf he had written it. The names were changed to give it a South African flavour — and the word ‘‘barbecue’’ was changed to ‘‘braai’’, its South African equivalent — but in all other respects it was the same article.

Katz’s column was also turned into a comedy sketch and a couple of videos based on it were posted on YouTube. One of them had won an award at a short film festival.

Under one of the YouTube videos Katz Junior commented ‘‘My dad wrote this!’’ A little later someone — possibly a young Badenhorst — responded: ‘‘No, MY dad wrote this!’’

The second kid probably did believe his father had written the Tongmaster piece — why wouldn’t he if his dad said he had — and short of putting a cutting from October 9, 1998, fromThe Age in front of the kid’s face, you probably wouldn’t convince him otherwise. Unless you have complete faith in the institution offering the information, digital ‘‘truth’’ can only be comprehensively trumped by hard-copy evidence.

Katz was remarkably even-tempered in the face of the whole depressing business but did  lament that ‘‘anything published online belongs to everyone and my story belonged to the world now, it wasn’t mine any more’’.

This is the paradox of the internet. Never has so much information been available to so many people; but never has so much information been so dodgy. Plagiarised articles, inaccurate information, poorly researched writing, fiction presented as fact, conspiracy theories passing as history … it’s all there.

In the old days — say, a decade ago — people could take for granted that material published in a book, newspaper or magazine had gone through a process to check it for accuracy. That’s why the printed word was held in such high esteem. True, plagiarism was harder to uncover then and although we heard of the occasional case in newspapers and magazines it was probably more rife than we realised. But, overall, hard-copy content was reliable; only self-published books, brochures and magazines produced by the egocentric or amateur ‘‘experts’’ were greeted with instant suspicion by those doing serious research.

With the democratisation of media and the ubiquity of tools to publish information on the internet, those who are less than scrupulous about the information they publish — whether merely careless or deliberate plagiarists — far outweigh the guardians of accurate information. That’s not to say newspapers are perfect and bloggers are unreliable or thieves of other people’s work. But the general point applies: it’s a worry.

The problem is made worse when this unreliability of information on the internet seeps upwards, into the mainstream.

A couple of months ago my wife edited a manuscript for a kids’ book about dinosaurs. Checking the book’s research she found some worrying practices.

For some of the book’s dinosaur facts, the author had relied on a website set up by an educational software developer and his 10-year-old son, who was credited with some of the content on the site. The kid might be a dinosaur whiz — he might want to be a palaeontologist when he grows up and know everything there is to know about brachiosaurs and diplodocuses — but he’s 10, and a book published by a reputable publisher should not use him as a source.

The dinosaur book author had also taken information from, a website that publishes thousands of purpose-written mini articles on dozens of subjects; a kind of Wikipedia wannabe without the legions of readers to nip and tuck and correct the content.

The dinosaur piece on Buzzle was written by a physics students who has researched and written hundreds of articles for the website. Marvel at the astonishing range of his expertise in this small selection of his articles from the site:

Brain Hemorrhage Recovery
How to Flirt with a Girl Over Text
The Saddest Songs of all Time
Fun Facts about Potassium
Things to do in NYC
Hispanic Internet Marketing
Overactive Thyroid in Women
Bloated Stomach

This fellow might be a researching savant who can instantly get his head around diverse, complex subjects and write about them accurately and authoritatively between astronomy and nanoscience lectures. Or he might operate like the writers for some of those journalism farms that pay piffling amounts for ‘‘articles’’ cobbled together in record time after a cursory look at a couple of websites. Either way, no one should rely on his information about dinosaurs, let alone Hispanic internet marketing or bloated stomachs. A publisher of books for children certainly should not.

The upside is that a lot of these problems have a shelf life. Plagiarism, poor research and the sharing of material without giving due credit can easily happen during this ‘‘lawless’’ Wild West era of the internet, in which we’re all so excited — and often careless — when using our expanded freedom of communication.

But that’s changing. Lawyers increasingly specialise in digital intellectual property, tracing the misuse of material online for clients and suing for damages when appropriate.

‘‘Share’’ buttons on websites make it easier to distribute content that retains a link to the original author and website, making plagiarism and the anonymising of content more difficult than when cut-and-paste was how we spread material we liked.

Schoolkids are taught that Wikipedia can be a starting point for research, but real research requires a broad range of sources that should be double, triple and (in the internet age) quadruple checked. The ability to judge the reliability of sources is more important than ever.

Search engines make it easier to comb through years of content to see whether your work has been nicked, who nicked and whether they made anything out of it.

Adi Badenhorst probably never guessed 10 years ago when he claimed Danny Katz’s article as his own that the internet, which enabled his misdemeanour, would come back to bite him on bum. The post of Katz’s article was removed from Mr Badenhorst’s site in the past week, but his original posting has been cached by Google and is easily found.

There’s a lesson in that.

Emotions get the vote

In Neuroscience, Previously published on April 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I wrote this piece predicting that Kevin Rudd would win the 2007 election. The argument — that emotion, not rational thinking, rules our decision-making processes — applies equally to the coming federal election. Just swap “government” for “Coalition” in the second sentence.

First published in The Age. To see the original article click here

HERE’S my prediction. The Coalition will lose the next federal election. Not because Labor offers better arguments or more appealing policies. Not because the electorate is impressed by Kevin Rudd’s intellect or wit. Not because “It’s Time” or because John Howard is seen as yesterday’s man. The Coalition will lose because of the way the human brain works.

Backed by research in neuroscience, political psychologists argue that the thought processes behind decision-making — including how we vote at elections — are fundamentally emotional, not rational.

In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen, a clinical, personality and political psychologist at Emory University, Atlanta, writes that because emotions are intertwined with our beliefs and values, purely rational appeals from politicians don’t connect with the brain’s emotional circuitry and so are unlikely to sway us.

Aristotle knew this when he observed that a speaker who resorts to emotion can win over an audience even when his argument is weak; 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was on the same track when he wrote that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around.

Neurological research provides more concrete evidence. Brain imaging of voters shows that while they watch and listen to candidates the emotion centres of the brain light up first, not the frontal lobes, where rationality resides. From this — and a range of other research — psychologists conclude that we make emotion-based decisions that we later rationalise. Interestingly, once that decision has been made, we tend to ignore evidence and argument contrary to our conclusion.

It follows that politicians who present their positions in emotional terms are more likely to succeed. Based on his analysis of 50 years of US presidential campaigns, Westen believes that the conservative side of politics there has long understood the need to tap into voters’ “emotional brain”, whereas those to the left tend to cling to the idea that good argument, facts, and being right is enough.

Al Gore also understands the role of emotion in political discourse. In The Assault on Reason, the former US vice-president writes that “emotions have much more power to affect reason than reason does to affect emotions — particularly the emotion of fear”.

Gore notes that America’s founding fathers were aware of the importance of reason in defending against fear and tried to hard-wire it into the US constitution: “They knew that under the right circumstances, fear can trigger the temptation to surrender freedom to a demagogue promising strength and security in return. They worried that when fear displaces reason, the result is often irrational hatred and division.”

During his 11 years as prime minister, John Howard has often played on the passions, prejudices and anxieties of the electorate to win support. The fear of uncontrolled interest rate rises, political correctness, terrorism, the Opposition’s economic irresponsibility, queue-jumping asylum seekers, boat people supposedly willing to throw their children into the sea, the menace of union bosses, cultural elites and their black armband view of history — all emotional issues Howard and his colleagues have used to keep the electorate on edge and on side.

It helped that the Opposition leaders were for the most part ineffective. Kim Beazley was tarred as a waffler with no ticker; Simon Crean was uninspiring; and Mark Latham appeared erratic and risky. Still, polls show that the electorate often toyed with the idea of supporting the Opposition. Despite this, Howard has been able to push voters’ emotional buttons each time and gain another term.

WorkChoices has broken that cycle.

A briefing paper in April — prepared by the Department of Workplace Relations to inform the Government’s television campaign and featuring Workplace Authority chief Barbara Bennett — found that people believe WorkChoices has hurt working people and their families. It reported the “key emotions” of the community response to the new laws included fear, panic, insecurity, cynicism, distrust and disempowerment.

The two images that have formed in the community’s minds about WorkChoices, the report said, are of a pendulum that has swung too far in favour of employers and of the little guy pitted alone and unprotected against the big corporations and the Government. This response does not come only from “soft” Labor voters.

Polling of Howard-supporting and unaligned “battlers” by Essential Research — which has ACTU connections — shows the same antagonism to the laws.

The ACTU’s emotive anti-WorkChoice ad campaign of mid-2005 helped create this perception. By the time the Government responded, it was too late: the characterisation of WorkChoices as unfair, bad for workers and good for big business was cemented and nothing the Government has said or done — no matter how many facts and figures about increased employment or real wages it attributes to WorkChoices — has changed that impression. Labor’s standing in the polls shot up and has never looked like falling — and this was 18 months before Kevin Rudd became ALP leader.

In the electorate’s mind, Howard and the Coalition are now the thing to be feared and, by presenting himself as the safe, non-threatening, conservative alternative, Rudd will win the election. It’s the emotional side of our brains at work.

To have any chance, the Coalition must make Rudd and his team seem more a threat to the electorate’s interests than WorkChoices. Without scrapping the laws, it is difficult to see how this can be done, which is why we’ll see the mother of all emotive scare campaigns waged against every name on the ALP’s ticket.

It’s also why Labor and the unions will reinforce the electorate’s fears about WorkChoices at every opportunity.

And you can bet neither side will let facts get in the way of a good emotion.

Don’t Get Caught in the Web of Conspiracy Truthiness

In Previously published on April 10, 2013 at 10:19 pm

This article was first published in The Age on November 5, 2010.
To see the original article click here


ABC Melbourne broadcaster Jon Faine got into a stoush a couple of weeks ago with the  September 11 conspiracy movement. It was entertaining talkback radio, but the phenomenon of large numbers of people willing to believe dastardly things — even in the face of solid, contradictory evidence — was scary and depressing.

(Conspiracy sympathisers: please read to the end before you unleash the flame campaign.)

Here’s how it unfolded: while locking horns with Faine on some other, now-forgotten issue, Kevin Bracken, president of the Victorian Trades Hall and secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, let slip that he didn’t believe the official version of what happened on September 11, 2001.

Faine leapt on Bracken like a barracuda on a sprat. And quite rightly, too: 9/11 conspiracy theory is a load of twaddle. Some of it is laced with malicious intent; some is fed by ignorance; and much is the embodiment of natural anxiety voiced by well-meaning folk who worry that they can’t trust their government or media to tell the truth.

A barrage of calls followed during talkback and continued for several days (many more, I understand, didn’t go to air). Furious conspiracy believers accused Faine of censoring the truth about September 11 and of complicity in the cover-up; some callers said conspiracy believers are stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to poison the airwaves with their idiotic ideas because they’re dangerous; others said conspiracy believers are stupid but should be allowed to fill the airwaves with their idiotic ideas because we still live in a democracy.

Several callers claimed that 50 per cent of people in Australia and the US do not accept the official account of what happened on September 11. If true, that’s a huge number, and we have to wonder why and how people’s trust in the established organs of society can become so warped.

My theory is that it has something to do with how the brain works and with how internet search works.

Scratch a conspiracy sympathiser and you usually find a natural cynic, a person who likes to think of themselves as a free-thinking individual, or someone with a deep-seated anxiety about the world. Sometimes they are combinations of all three. This is because their intellectual approach to the world is shaped by their amygdala — also known as the ‘‘lizard brain’’ — the oldest and most primitive part of the brain that controls our survival instinct. When the amygdala kicks in, emotion overrules reason and rational thought leaves the building.

The amygdala punches above its weight and has an excessive influence on our behaviour and beliefs. This makes sense in evolutionary terms: out on the savanna it’s in our interests to recognise every potential threat, otherwise that tawny shadow creeping through the long grass might be the last thing we see.

The downside is that it’s much harder to undo opinions that have fear at their core; they are immune to reason and facts. (These effects of the amygdala can become ingrained in cultures and societies, not just individuals. It plays a role in everything from racism to the strife in the Middle East.)

When our lizard brain takes over it puts us on edge, makes us want to find the threat, expose it and fight it — to the death, if necessary.

And that’s why there’s often a whiff of the manic in the voices of those presenting 9/11 conspiracy theories: the conspiracist believes that at some level, to some degree, their survival is at stake. And when politicians and media don’t give them voice they feel more threatened, more suspicious, cornered, helpless; and so they go on the attack.

Naturally, those wired with a predisposition for cynicism/anxiety/independent thought find comfort in theories of the world that reinforce how they feel. Here the internet plays a role.

Search results for information about conspiracy theories are distorted — distorted by fear (which shapes the approach used by the person searching) and distorted by the paradigms used by search engines.

A Google search for ‘‘9/11’’ brings up 115,000,000 results. The first is a Wikipedia entry about the attacks. The second is a Wikipedia entry about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Next come links to YouTube videos ‘‘exposing’’ the truth about 9/11; then entries for websites dedicated to archiving ‘‘facts’’ about the events of the day, links to various branches of the 9/11 Truth Movement and so on. That fills the first page of results and countless more pages filled with the same kind of results follow. The report of the 9/11 Commission — the official account of the events, which took three years to compile and is based on thousands of interviews and examination of evidence — doesn’t get a look-in.

The problem is that the high ranking of conspiracy theories resulting from a search is mistaken as authority when all it indicates is popularity of the search term and the websites visited. Just because something is widely believed doesn’t mean something is true; and just because conspiracy theories about 9/11 rank high on search results only means that lots of people are curious about them. Search engines tend to look for what other people are looking for and to throw those result higher. After a certain tipping point a topic’s popularity becomes self-fulfilling.

People too often use the internet to reinforce their ‘‘feeling’’ that something is true. (To describe this flawed kind of reasoning, American comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term  ‘‘truthiness’’ — the ‘‘truth’’ a person claims to know intuitively ‘‘from the gut’’ without being based on evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. Truthiness is the amygdala in action.) The internet’s democratic nature — with its widespread tools for communicating and organising — means fringe ideas can coalesce and find traction when they might not have in previous times. The internet then becomes an echo chamber for crackpot ideas and misinformation, creating ghettos of poorly reasoned opinion. Contrary ideas that wander into these ghettos are bashed and abused, tarred and feathered and dumped on the outskirts of town. Look like us, sound like us or get the hell out of here. It’s an unfortunate but widespread kind of human behaviour.

And so it is with 9/11 conspiracy theories. Never before has bad information been able to be distributed so far, so quickly, to such a receptive audience.

To properly understand an issue requires an open mind, willingness to look objectively at both sides of an issue and good judgment to assess the information found. The internet too easily steers those who’ve already made up their minds in directions that confirm their biases, and to the exclusion of alternative ideas.

To get useful answers to legitimate questions requires a rigorous, honest approach on the part of the investigator. My advice:

* When researching anything on the internet, don’t go looking for information that simply reinforces what you already believe (or ‘‘feel’’) to be true.
* Don’t mistake questions about an event for proof that something dastardly happened.
* Don’t think that the number of hits on a subject makes it more authoritative than another.

On that last point, consider this: a Google search for ‘‘9/11 conspiracy’’ yields 4,660,000 results. A search for ‘‘the earth is flat’’ throws up 56,500,000 results.

I’m just saying.

Twitter isn’t about to fall from its perch

In Previously published on April 9, 2013 at 11:42 am

First published in The Age, February 9, 2010

For original story click here



HANDS up if you have a Twitter account but rarely use it. Or don’t use it at all.

Congratulations, you’re part of the significant percentage of the 75 million people who have signed up for the service but barely give it a passing thought.

Roughly two-fifths of Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet, according to analysis by RJ Metrics, and a quarter of those signed up have no followers. Further, 80 per cent of all Twitter users have tweeted fewer than 10 times and only 17 per cent — not quite one-fifth — tweeted in December.

Seen in isolation, these are sobering numbers for fans of the micro-blogging platform. But numbers can be misleading. In fact, this decline is good news indeed.

Twitter took the world by storm this time last year, boosted by enormous mainstream media exposure for being the first outlet to report the crash of US Airways flight 1549 into New York’s Hudson River and by the trend for celebrities to talk about it every chance they got.

After the boom came the bust: from an adoption rate high of 13 per cent (per month) last March, Twitter’s growth has slowed to about 3.5 per cent today.

Has it peaked? Possibly. It will, eventually. It must. Like any time-hungry activity, when intention and attention meet the time constraints of reality, something has to give. (Like gym membership.) This is the way of fads.

The same is true of Facebook. How many Facebooks users — the nearly 400 million people around the world who have posted pictures of the family, sent messages asking people to be a friend and accepted requests from others to be their friend — are still active daily users?

My guess is many members would return to their Facebook wall today after a long absence to find litter gusting around the sneakers of a couple of kids going hell for leather with their spray cans. LOL. Word.

The interesting question for Twitter is how it settles into its niche function, its point of equilibrium — or whether it is pushed aside by some new micro-blogging platform.

(There’s a theory that charts this. Look up Gartner’s Hype Cycles for Emerging Technologies report, which tracks the life of new technologies as they hit the public eye.)

Significantly, the RJ Metrics data also suggest that even if few people tweet, those who do are doing more of it. And the average number of followers is rising.

So while there may be fewer people active on Twitter than the number of account holders suggests, it is also clear those who use it are using it more intensively. This is backed up by a finding by social media monitoring company Sysomos that the most committed 5 per cent of Twitter users account for 75 per cent of tweets.

This suggests the platform is moving towards the few-to-many model that typifies all other information media. Think about television, newspapers, radio, blogging: the audience is always considerably greater than the number of producers of the content being consumed.
To be surprised that very few people tweet and that most have few followers is the same as being surprised that most people don’t have their own radio show or newspaper column. The majority of Twitter account holders who never tweet and have few followers are the equivalent of other media’s silent audience.

This is where Twitter is heading. Once the short-term trend-followers and the rubber-neckers disappear, once the loudmouth online hawkers see their message is being ignored and drift to the next money-spinning opportunity, Twitter will settle into a useful everyday sifter and disseminator of online information. It will become the filter of choice of those who want to be fed media, technology, business and political news.

In the meantime, treat reports of Twitter’s death with caution.

Trust me, I’m an online review

In Interesting research on April 7, 2013 at 6:22 am

Trust me, I’m an online review

The scourge of fake online customer reviews. So much for trusting “social authority”.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

In Gallery on April 6, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Kahneman’s book provides great insight into how our brains use false logic (and other substandard tools) when creating opinions and beliefs.

Internet credibility fail

In Gallery on April 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Internet credibility fail

This is no laughing matter.
(Source: Unknown. Couldn’t track it down. The links ran dry. Please advise if you know…)

Trust me, I’m a newspaper poll

In Gallery on April 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Trust me, I'm a newspaper poll

Sometimes it’s not the numbers that don’t add up.

Lincoln on online

In Gallery on April 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Lincoln on online

Abe knew a thing or two about the internet. Smart bloke.

My life as a journalist: a confession

In Academic reflection on April 4, 2013 at 8:54 pm

A Public Self-Criticism

Early in my professional development I stood on the True Path that led to the Higher Purpose of Academia. I was young and my instinct was to seek to serve that Greater Good and its Pursuit of Truth. But I was weak.

One day, I came to a fork in the road: on one side the path continued towards Glorious Truth; on the other lay the cracked and crooked road to Journalism. I was tempted, and I succumbed.

When I stepped off the true path I left behind the History and Philosophy of Science; the great, unmined riches of the Annals School of History; and the unfathomable depths of a thousand schools of Chinese thought. Pursuing these interests might have filled ten lifetimes with intellectually rigorous investigation. Instead, I was drawn into a false and superficial world populated by shifting shadows, moveable ethics and impure motives.

I convinced myself that Journalism had value and that by practising it I could serve a Public Good. For more than 20 years I believed I was serving the ideal of Quality Journalism by applying the noble art of Research to inform a knowledge-thirsty readership. But my eyes were recently opened to the Glorious Truth by the Honourable institution of RMIT and the School of Media and Communication.

Thanks to the re-education I received while absorbing the clarifying philosophy of Professional Research Methods and Evaluation I now understand the enormity of my crimes. As a journalist I perpetrated a fraud on the people and institutions that trusted me: my family, my colleagues, the Honourable Public and even Democracy itself. What I did was not Research. At its least damaging it was a shallow pretence; at its worst an evil approximation that distorted Truth and misled weak and gullible readers unwittingly indoctrinated by the tricks and deceptions of the mainstream media.

The “research” perpetrated by journalists is an abasement. Mainstream journalism uses a catch-all approach to gather “facts”, crudely meshing them with the words of “experts” and/or “witnesses” (usually obtained at short notice, via the telephone, with no opportunity afforded for reflection or consideration!) and publishing them under the constraints of time, space and relative importance in a news agenda defined by commercial parameters. Mostly it is primary material, occasional “informed” by secondary sources. But it is almost always dashed off, stitched together to last just long enough for the next news cycle to sweep it away. Thus is worship of Objectivity and Eternal Truths slyly and carelessly supplanted by the creeping menace of Subjectivity and Ephemeral Interest, a process rarely admitted to by the perpetrators.

Driven by commercial imperative, most mainstream media rely on and also take advantage of weaknesses in human psychology. Like bowerbirds, we are compulsively attracted to shiny things; like kittens we cannot look away when something intriguing catches our eye. Thus coverage of even the most serious issues – those “boring” but worthy subject areas that deserve deep and considered analysis – must compete with the populist appeal of sport, manufactured political soap operas or the birth of an achingly cute baby elephant at the local zoo.

True Knowledge does not lie on the ground in convenient nuggets to be picked up and thrown in a sack, then taken to the market place and turned into bankable cash by the seller of metals. Yet this is what the media do. It is what I once did. The glittering clumps the media gather are Fool’s Gold – Fool’s Knowledge, you could say – useful to catch the light for a moment to attract the easily amused, or be used to decorate the fringes of some item of passing popularity, fadsome concerns alien to Deeper Understanding.

True Research takes time. It requires structure, careful thought, rules and parameters of practice to ensure consistency of application so that standards are maintained across and within all fields of Academic Inquiry. Standards are correctly kept high and maintained by the selfless gatekeeping process of Peer Review. The sacred mantra of “Problem Context Method and Outcome” is a beacon to Illuminate Truth. Journalism’s guiding trope of ”Who What When Where How and Why” suggests a fine ambition but it is one that always falls short because it is inconsistently applied and too easily bent out of shape such as to be useless.

I confess to such practices and confess to being a ringleader. As an editor at The Age I recruited and groomed others to similarly debase their intellectual energies.

For this, and for all my crimes against True Academic Research while a member of the Gang of Mainstream Media, I am ashamed and I apologise.

Signed …