Let me start with the bad news before moving on to the worse news.
Currys PC World isn’t handing out 100 Samsung TVs that have minor imperfections in them if you just share and comment on the post.
Range Rover aren’t randomly giving away a top of the range SVAutobiography DYNAMIC that was previously claimed in a competition by someone aged 17 and thus was too young to claim the prize.
Steve Jobs didn’t say “non-stop pursuit of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me” on his death bed.
No amount of “by the power of Greyskull” type statements you post on your timeline about your data will alter your terms and conditions with Facebook.
So why do I see this stuff on my social media feeds multiple times every day?
The examples above are quite insipid, relatively unimportant and broadly harmless. The worse news, promised above, is that there are a hundred other examples just like them expressing views to do with COVID-19, extreme politics on the left or the right, or other matters to do with health which are a very real threat to the vulnerable, and to democracy.
You won’t need me to tell you that we have a major problem with fake news. And with the American general election scheduled for autumn of this year the problem seems unlikely go away any time soon.
As if this isn’t depressing enough, it turns out the spreaders of fake news are your friends and my friends. Russian bots and Chinese click-farms may start the chain, but they rely on hearts and minds of the mindless to slavishly continue it.
I am sure I shouldn’t, but recently I have started calling people out on social media when they post or share fake news. I try to be gracious, posting up news articles which contradict a claim, or asking for a source, or requesting a citation. Not uncommonly it eventually ends up with the original poster replying with an acknowledgement that “it isn’t strictly true but” however “it’s the kind of thing that could be true.”
It is this second response which I find particularly sobering. It is startling to consider that the veracity of the story is a secondary consideration to its narrative. It is an exquisite example of starting with a conclusion and looking for a plot or story or claim which fits your predisposed position.
The dangerous power of narrative building reminds me of DNA technology when it initially appeared and its impact on previous convictions, particularly for the most serious of crimes – rape and murder. When the technique was first approved as admissible in criminal investigation and prosecution, it should in theory have offered great news for the thousands of people who were behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, as it allowed law enforcement and legal practitioners to gather new evidence and retry people who were protesting their innocence. Its arrival unsurprisingly caused a tidal wave of appeals and retrials in the mid-1980s.
You would think that the legal profession, including prosecutors would welcome this, wouldn’t you? That people who had devoted their entire professional lives to putting the right men and women away for their crimes, would be delighted that they have another tool in their armoury?
Alas not. Many prosecutors were wedded to their original view, and couldn’t tolerate any new data which challenged it. A depressingly high number of cases followed the same pattern, as illustrated in many of the rape re-trials (warning – direct language of a sexual nature):
The defence team was denied access to the evidence.
Then they were told the new evidence wasn’t collected with the right process.
Then the prosecutors claimed that the evidence pointed to something else, e.g. in the case of sexual crimes it pointed to consensual sex with another person.
For this to make sense, in the absence of evidence putting the prisoner at the scene, the prosecution had to claim that the rapist must have used a condom.
Defence lawyers got so tired of this farrago, they coined a phrase in court to jump to the end when someone else’s DNA was placed at the scene – “the un-indicted co-ejaculator.”
To put it in the language of fake news, the suspect “looked like the kind of person who would do this kind of thing.”
If we start with a conclusion and spend our lives looking for evidence to back it up we are merely narrative building – going in reverse. We need to start with the data and work forward. In the free societies we are privileged to live in we are entitled to our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts.
This article has been amended from the original, posted on 10.07.2020, removing a comment regarding how female prime-ministers are leading COVID-19 vs their male counterparts, in light of an academic study “Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?“ which was shared with me after publication.