investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Archive for the ‘Previously published’ Category

The Diplomat’s Cocktail Party

In Journalism practice, Previously published on August 19, 2013 at 9:29 am

In Marius Foley’s Globalized Communication and Culture course (Comm 1107) last semester at RMIT we were given an exercise called The Diplomat’s Cocktail Party in which we had to tell two fellow students about an incident – preferably true – that would reveal something about ourselves. The story we chose was to be relevant to our interest in media and communications.

I recalled a stoush I had with the 911 conspiracy movement after writing a damning TV review for The Age of a program called In Plane Site (see here).

For days after the review was published I was bombarded by conspiracy theorists from around the world, including Dave vonKleist, the producer of the program I had bagged.

The emails were abusive and generally unreasoned. I was described, among many things, as corrupt, ignorant, spawn of The Devil, a resident of the Dark Side and on the pay of the CIA and all the others involved in the global media conspiracy to deceive the world about the “truth” behind September 11.

When Dave vonKleist emailed me himself I decided to engage him and his arguments. In a series of long emails we debated the issue. I tried to get him to stand back and understand that conspiracies are not based on rational, evidence-based thinking. He countered with an avalanche of unconnected “facts” that he believed proved the involvement of the US government and existence of a subsequent cover-up.

(Some of this debate – regrettably not all of it – was post on the website of Dave vonKleist’s radio program, “The Power Hour”:

The article and my contact details had been posted on conspiracy sites around the world and readers were encouraged to contact me. My debate with vonKleist was also posted on skeptic websites whose aim was to debunk conspiracy theories and the irrational thinking that fuels them.

I was struck by how quickly news spread to the producer of the program (Dave vonKleist responded with his long email within 36 hours) and how quickly conspiracy sites from around the world picked up the issue and launched into their assault. I was also impressed that those on the other side of the debate had rallied, using the same technology, to join battle.

My “debate” with Dave vonKleist and the virulence of the response to my review sparked a continuing interest in how people form beliefs and why they find it so difficult to change those beliefs, even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. I also found the ability of the internet to rapidly spread misinformation and to connect likeminded people, whom I regarded as delusional, as a bit of a worry (if impressive).

I’m still intrigued by these issues.

Additional stuff:

> Part of the jousting with Dave vonKleist:

> A follow-up column about conspiracy theories:

> The original article:


‘Kindred souls’ exposing abuses of power: journalism in the information age

In Academic reflection, Interesting research, Previously published on June 19, 2013 at 9:47 am

An excellent rumination on the role academics might play in filling the widening gaps in journalism’s function as a gatekeeper for “truth”.


By Charles Lewis, American University

More then ever, we are awash in information. With the advent of the internet, search engines and now more than two billion people wired users globally, information “has become the modern era’s defining quality, the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world”, writes author James Gleick:

We are all patrons of the Library of Babel now, and we are the librarians, too.

The problem, of course, is that the quality of information varies widely. Much of it is utterly useless, woefully incomplete or worse, wilfully misleading. As a citizen and reporter watching those in power for more than 30 years, I am accustomed to being lied to. But it seems to have got noticeably worse in recent years.

In the United States, consider how Democratic and Republican presidents have repeatedly delayed and distorted the political truth. In 1964, president Lyndon Johnson was secretly girding for a major war in Vietnam while publicly promising not to send more soldiers. In 1972, president Richard Nixon secretly authorised a political “dirty tricks” operation inside the White House that, among many other things, effectively derailed the campaign of his most formidable Democratic foe, Senator Edmund Muskie. Both incumbent presidents breezed to their election victories in those years.

In the case of the Vietnam War (1962-1975), in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, the public learned over a period of years – with astonishing revelations still trickling out four decades later – that the rationale for direct US involvement there actually was a monstrous lie.

Instead of being attacked in a remote part of the world known as the “Gulf of Tonkin” by the North Vietnamese, as Johnson had announced, the United States government had in fact been engaged for months in various top secret intelligence gathering activities in flagrant violation of North Vietnam’s sovereign land, air space and territorial waters, including aggressive military provocations against that country.

Many of these and other lies and distortions were officially documented in the Pentagon Papers – the Department of Defense’s secret, voluminous history of the Vietnam War – which were leaked to reporters and courageously published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers in June 1971.

The publishing of the Pentagon Papers and the media’s coverage of the Nixon Watergate scandal still represent a high-water mark in the struggle between raw political power and democratic values. But even with those emblematic moments, important information about those in power took years to become known to the public.

As the then-executive editor of The Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, mused two decades later: “what might have happened had the truth emerged in 1963 instead of 1971?”

At a public lecture at Harvard University in 1991, Bradlee said:

It seems to me that lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years that we’ve all become immunised to it. What the hell ever happened to righteous indignation, anyway?

In March 2003, almost four decades after the Johnson administration escalated the war in Vietnam under false pretences, the Bush administration led the US and several of its allies to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the basis of erroneous information about “weapons of mass destruction”.

In the two years following September 11, 2001, president George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq, as my researchers and I reported in 2008. The number of these statements spiked upwards at politically strategic moments – specifically before the October 2002 congressional vote on the war, and between January and March 2003, from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations to the invasion itself.

The New York Times newspaper has brought to light many hidden truths – such as the Pentagon Papers in its history. cliff1066

The carefully orchestrated campaign about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction led the nation to war under decidedly false pretences. The cumulative effect of these incorrect, bellicose statements – amplified by thousands of uncritical news stories and broadcasts – was massive. Worse, much of the saturation media coverage provided additional, “independent” validation of the Bush administration’s misstatements about Iraq.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, reporter David Barstow of the New York Times exposed how the Pentagon had quietly recruited 75 retired military officers to be “independent”, paid consultant, radio and television analysts. In numerous meetings and thousands of emails, they were secretly coached about precisely how to make the public case for war in Iraq on the air. Many of these military experts also had significant, undisclosed financial ties to defence companies that were benefiting from the policies they were “analysing”.

The broadcast news media essentially ignored these stunning revelations, neither acknowledging their own dubious use of such compromised “talking heads” nor apologising to the public for their irresponsible propagation of the government’s propaganda.

Unfortunately, most national reporters and their news organisations were figuratively embedded in the almost impenetrable din of official disinformation. But to paraphrase Bradlee’s excellent question about Vietnam, what might have happened if the public had discovered the truth about the actual threat posed by Iraq in 2002 instead of years later? Two distant quagmires, 20 years of massive bloodshed in wars in Vietnam and Iraq, might have been avoided, and trillions of taxpayer dollars saved, if the American people had been better informed with real-time truth about the specious official statements.

But the largest cumulative loss of life resulting from propaganda and deception in the last century was actually not from Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich or any other genocidal despot. It was from monstrously duplicitous industries that manufacture deadly products. And no industry has been more deceitful or caused more human carnage than the tobacco companies.

In the 20th century, 100 million people around the world died from smoking-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization. And that number is expected to soar to an estimated one billion smoking-related deaths in this century.

In 2006, a US federal judge ruled that they had violated the federal racketeering laws, and while:

selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year…for at least 50 years or more…they have consistently, repeatedly, and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, to the government, and to the public health community.

But, of course, deliberately blowing smoke about their deadly products has hardly been limited to the cigarette manufacturers. The asbestos, coal, chemical, lead paint, pharmaceutical and many other industries have profited from the same modus operandi. Sometimes the specific subterfuge has been independently exposed by tenacious journalists, but too often years after the fact and, tragically, sometimes decades so.

This disturbing phenomenon unfortunately continues today, but now our professional ranks are fewer. Now we have a vastly reduced number of traditional truth-tellers and a growing number of well-paid poseurs who advise their clients on how to circumvent or “spin” those asking critical, independent questions, including journalists.

In the United States today, we have one-third fewer newspaper/print reporters today than we had 20 years ago. And meanwhile, according to authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the ratio of public relations people to working journalists has gone from nearly one to one in 1960 to now four “flacks” for every one working journalist. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, a disturbing proportion of daily newspaper stories today are based upon press releases.

British journalist Nick Davies labelled this lamentable practice “churnalism” in his 2008 book, Flat Earth News. In 2011, the non-profit organisation Media Standards Trust in the United Kingdom launched the website, that “lets people compare press releases with published news articles”.

The work of journalists has made a significant impact on contemporary US history. They have fearlessly exposed abuses of power, from the “red scare” demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s to atrocities during the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the various heinous excesses of corporate power over many decades. More recently, reporters have revealed the various improper uses of US power in post-9/11 America.

Since 2005, in preparation for a book, I have been conducting video/audio oral history interviews with 25 important national journalists – from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee to Seymour Hersh, Dana Priest and Daniel Schorr – who through their work effectively have stood up to power.

This multimedia online presentation at includes career and iconic “moments of truth” timelines and related reference material. It is an ongoing companion to The Future of Truth, which will be released next year, and also fodder for a multi-hour television documentary series.

I wanted to learn more about these important truth-tellers and the legions of other hearty souls like them, in part to educate future generations about the importance of this kind of reporting. In the 21st century, our finite, non-sustainable, inter-connected world is at a critical crossroads. How will our elected leaders address the most pressing issues of our time, such as climate change, the shortage of water, the growing rich-poor inequalities and related human migrations?

In the US and other democracies, any attempt at honest, effective governance, of course, is predicated upon the widespread availability of timely, accurate information. Given the profound international dimensions of what we are all facing, investigative news-gathering must necessarily widen and become more global. But even in the 21st century, most news coverage is still overwhelmingly local or national.

As there is a diminishing number of working journalists in newsrooms, the industry must find new ways to expose corruption in high places. EPA/Stefan Zaklin

We must think anew about who we are, what we do, why we do it, technologically how we do it and for whom. We must identify kindred souls who also investigate the uses and abuses of power, who also have exacting professional standards and approach their subjects with an independent scepticism and distance. They should meticulously peruse secondary and primary written sources, and then interview the relevant secondary and then primary human sources.

The fact is, thousands of academics today function as de facto in-depth journalists – from the forensic accountants to the political scientists tracking political corruption, from economists to investigative historians, from public anthropologists to those who work in data-mining, statistics, and human rights, environmental and other law-related specialties.

I have formally proposed at American University a new interdisciplinary field of study that can help to broaden and redefine the practice of journalism. I am calling it “accountability studies”.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, many intelligent, talented young people who would like to become professional journalists but can’t find a job will increasingly join the ranks of another public-minded, “knowledge worker” profession. They may instead become researchers, writers and editors at non-government organisations (there are 1.5 million NGOs in the US alone), including policy-related, specialised subject think tanks.

This is certainly not a panacea for the drop in the number of journalists – these organisations have points of view that they advocate softly or not so softly. But, for example, who covers human rights more thoroughly: Human Rights Watch, with 280 full-time employees and offices in 16 cities around the world, or the premier newspaper in the US, UK or Australia? I’m afraid there is no comparison. Virtually all of these folks are highly educated and write careful, well-documented, scholarly and more popular articles, op-ed essays, blogs and books, all accessible and published online.

Imagine if more of these silo walls came down and social scientists and journalists in individual countries and across national borders began to communicate and collaborate more about the most important issues of our time. And there are vast resources available that are not commercial advertising, but instead philanthropic foundations and individual concerned citizens who spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the United States alone to enable the publication of high quality, well-written information.

In the spirit of such confluences, I note the innovation in Australia of The Conversation website, now operating also in the UK and beginning to develop in the US, which melds the grey matter and research and writing talents of energetic academics who find the op-ed gatekeepers of traditional newspapers to be too exclusionary and limited.

And it is also in that spirit of collaboration that American University and my Investigative Reporting Workshop have jointly hired a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Washington Post. This is unprecedented and may be, I believe, the beginning of a new way forward for both truth-telling and new future economic strategies and models.

My modus operandi is that it is better to try and fail, than not to have tried at all.

Why? Because given the present circumstances, there is too little time and there are too many subjects and frankly just too many bastards to investigate in this intricate, imperilled world we live in. We must broaden our views about who is “worthy” to gather and publish information outside our profession; we can and we must adapt and play in the sandbox with others.

What drives me is a pressing sense of urgency, for the abuses of power in the world today far, far exceed our collective capacities to investigate and expose them. We – along with the other inquisitive, investigative professions – are society’s proverbial canaries in the mineshaft.

We must all work together to attempt to enlarge the public space for watchdog or accountability journalism, in the US and around the world.

This article was prepared for the July-August edition of the The Walkley Magazine: Inside the Media in Australia and New Zealand. Charles Lewis will be a guest of The Walkley Foundation at the Storyology: Ideas Write Now! event in Surry Hills, Sydney, August 6 to 9 – tickets at

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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.