Evidence and trust in a post truth world

Polling station by Mark Fowler

Talk by Nick Poole, CILIP Chief Executive, at the ISKO (the International Society for Knowledge Organisation) UK Conference 2017.

Speaking in August last year to the new intake of Freshmen students, Peter Salovey, President of Yale University said:

"Advocates on any side of a question can be tempted to exaggerate or distort or neglect crucial facts in ways that serve primarily to fuel your anger, fear, or disgust.

An important aspect of your education here will be learning how to recognize and address these kinds of accounts. In the course of that, you should pay especially close attention to the narratives that seem to align best with your own beliefs.

To the extent you hold strong political or cultural or religious or economic beliefs, you will simply be like all the rest of us if you gravitate toward explanations that seem to provide confirmation for those beliefs or to demonize those who hold different ones. All of us are strongly predisposed to accept accounts that align with the opinions we already hold, and to ignore or dismiss those that do not."

Salovey is a professor of 'social psychology' - the study of how we interact with each other on an emotional level. And I think it is to our emotional, rather than our rational, selves that we must look for both the causes of the proliferation of false narratives and the solutions.

It is perhaps natural in a divided society, where our sense of identity is constructed from what we post and share, that we seek out narratives which reinforce and affirm our views and share narratives which undermine the views of those who disagree with us.

Not to suggest that this situation is new. One of the most effective tools in combating misinformation online comes from Socrates' 'test of three' (somewhere between 469 and 399 BC) - an allegory in which Socrates is brought some juicy gossip and asks the person to consider whether they know the information they want to share is true, whether their intention in sharing it is good and whether knowing it will be useful to Socrates.

But this use of information as a way both of constructing our sense of self and of attacking those who we perceive to be a threat to that identity, has undoubtedly been accelerated and facilitated by technology. As a good friend who works in the technology sector said to me recently, "around 8 years ago (the birth of social media), we invented telepathy. And now we wish we hadn't".

So we as individual users of information have allowed our emotional selves to reinforce divisions in society. And partly in response to this, Governments and companies - seeking to appeal to us as voters and consumers - have further exploited those divisions.

In my view, fake news is not the product of nation states and the media moguls seeking to rule through misinformation - it is the product which we have demonstrated is effective in securing our clicks and our votes. It is striking that according to research conducted by Buzzfeed, between August and November 2016, real news stories about the US Election generated around 7.3m shares, likes and impressions on Facebook, whereas ‘fake news’ stories in the same period generated over 8.7m shares, likes and impressions.

In other words, through our clicks and our shares, our networking behaviours and consumer behaviour, we are actively asking to be lied to. By using information against our perceived adversaries, we are actively contributing to the devaluation of the currency of truth.

Accuracy costs. Corroborating sources, verifying facts, undertaking additional research all carry significant costs in terms of time and effort. As the economic impact of the Internet brings the price-point of knowledge every further towards “free”, we as consumers have been reluctant to pay the price of truth – evidenced in the challenges facing the news media.

So if we want to combat fake news, if we want quality reporting, quality information, professionals and experts, we are going to have to be prepared to pay for them. We’re going to have to build public libraries and ensure that every school has a professional librarian at its heart.

Librarians and information professionals are committed to the principle of universal freedom of access to information and freedom of expression. In pursuing this principle, we adhere to a code of professional ethics which seeks to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that we are impartial in the way we help people find the information they need.

Our mission as librarians is to help people live successful lives in an increasingly information-rich, technology-enabled world. So this gives us a particular interest in helping information users to navigate the post-truth agenda.

To fulfil this, we have been running since before the last General Election, a campaign called #FactsMatter. The purpose of #FactsMatter is to reassert the central role of evidence, verification and authenticity in public life.

As information professionals, we see a central role for ourselves in helping society to navigate this ‘post-truth’ environment.

Firstly, we ought not to aggravate the problem. We must use our best endeavours to meet the ethical principle of impartiality, set out in our Ethical Principles:

“Impartiality and avoidance of inappropriate bias in acquiring and evaluating information and in mediating it to other information users.”

It is important to acknowledge that impartiality does not mean ‘neutrality’. It means being transparent and accountable in the provision of information and actively being aware of and guarding against our own biases in the process.

Secondly, we must not allow the professional skills and ethics of knowledge organisation to be automated out of the process of providing information. We have the tools to aggregate, manage and analyse data and information a scale which Socrates and his peers could only have dreamed. But the tools of machine learning, algorithms and data analytics are only going to be useful if they are in the hands of people who understand them and – critically – have an understanding of the underlying structures in the information they manage. We should not abdicate responsibility for the implications of using data to make decisions that impact on peoples’ lives.

And in the process, I also think we need to guard against being too quick to embrace the Emperor’s New Clothes – big data and data science are not a panacea for the original challenge of providing mediated access to structured information at scale, any more than any other knowledge organising system.

Thirdly, we can – and must – educate the users of our services to value facts, evidence and authenticity, to guard themselves against misinformation, to question and to challenge and not to contribute to the distribution of false narratives. As one tweet from @BeffernieBlack earlier this week read:

“Media studies is pointless – just watching TV innit? (entire generation gets tricked by not being able to judge real news from fake news)”

We have to prioritise information literacy – the ability to think critically, to apply discernment to all types of information – as a key skill which we foster in our children. And it turns out that many behaviours we want to see in information-literate people – corroboration, verification, checking bias, considering the source – are the behaviours of professional journalism.

In this process, I think we should take this opportunity to formalise the language we use as a society about these phenomena. We need an ontology which allows us to manage the relationships between fake news, false narratives, clickbait and the menagerie of misinformation which runs from state-sponsored propaganda to sharing memes on the Internet.

Fourth – we must proactively promote the importance of evidence in public life, including in our media and our politics. And we have allies in this – in the UK, organisations like Full Fact, the Electoral Commission and the Royal Statistical Society hold these principles in common and stand foursquare with us in this agenda.

We have recently been reviewing the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and making representation to our Office of National Statistics for how we need to ensure accurate, impartial evidence which allows us to track our progress against them. Evidence is the bedrock of democracy and as information professionals we are responsible for ensuring that it is not undermined.

Finally, we must be clear about where our boundaries lie. Many of us have the enormous benefit of having lived most of our lives in relative peace and liberty. Information professionals around the world find themselves asked to use their skills to misinform, or to support policies which undermine empirical evidence to promote ideology. These are not simple decisions to make where your livelihood and welfare depend on the regime you work under. Which is why I believe we must stand together as a global community to say that facts matter, truth matters, evidence matters and that we will use our skills to uphold these values.

As I say, none of this is new. Misinformation has existed throughout human history and each advance in the recording and transmission of information has brought new opportunities to present false narratives – either for propaganda, or personal gain, or sometimes just for the hell of it. The latest leap forward in the mass-distribution of knowledge has not been accompanied by an equal leap in our faculty to know truth from fiction. That is why we, as ethical librarians and information professionals, must do everything in our power to help information users embrace the opportunities while protecting themselves from the risks.