Facts, fact checking and perceptions

The last blog post focussed on the resilience of facts and how online search can generally uncover them. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between searching for facts and how facts and news are received.

The distinction is important when it comes to how people respond to online news feeds, how they select them, and how effective the various fact checking services attached to some of the services actually are. Arguably, however, while these issues are important they are neither new nor are they simply the product of the proliferation of online media.

After all the 17th century British Civil War pamphlets war represented opinions even more polarised than those in the recent US Presidential election. Resistance to facts is not new either. Despite people knowing for more than a millennium that the Earth was not the centre of the Solar System Galileo couldn’t convince the Pope nor the 25% of Americans who currently believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. And during the Thirty Years War confessional allegiance not only defined faith but also determined fate. Ironically, Christians opposing same sex marriage are now arguing from the stand of religious freedom despite humankind’s centuries of devastation, torture and persecution because Christians (and other religions) wouldn’t accept other sects or the principle of freedom from religion. More recently psychological research has explained phenomena such as cognitive dissonance which distorts the way people perceive information.

Theoretically modern fact checking services (if not as effective as the Inquisition or the ayatollahs in insisting on what is true or not) should modify the impacts of online news feeds. However, a recent paper, Trust and Distrust in Online Fact-Checking Services in the September 2017 issue of Communications of the ACM, demonstrates the fact that however thorough the fact checking service is, the conclusions still come up against strong preconceived ideas and positions.

The authors, two Norwegian scientists – Pette Bae Brandtzaeg and Asbjorn Folstad, turned the problem on its head and focussed on how people’s beliefs and attitudes change in response to facts and fact checking that contradict their pre-existing opinions. There are around 114 active fact checking services around the world and Google News has, since last year, allowed news providers to tag news articles with fact checking information “…to help readers find fact checking in large news stories.”

The researchers focussed on three fact checking services and then used a social media monitoring service to crawl through data from social media conversations in blogs, discussion forums, online newspaper discussion threads, Twitter and Facebook. The data search was limited to Facebook pages with 3,500 likes or groups of more than 500 members. The comment/discussion data base was small – 1741 – but then any researcher who has the fortitude to look at more than two or three social media comments deserves a massive boost in funding for their next research grant application. Regular readers will know the blog doesn’t have a comments facility, not because it can’t be bothered moderate comments, but because many of those who post on sites are demented, abusive, prejudiced, fanatical and frequently all four.

The researchers found that with the two US fact checking services in their sample a clear majority of comments questioned the trustworthiness of the service generally because of “perceived bias due toward the political left” and elicited comments claiming they were funded by George Soros as part of a larger left liberal conspiracy. The Ukraine-based fact checking service, set up to debunk Russian propaganda, received more positive responses – perhaps because the Russian hackers were taking a break during the data collection period. A sidelight of the research is that positive posts about the fact-checking services tend to focus on the usefulness of the service rather than its trustworthiness.

The authors suggest that: “Though fact checking services play an important role countering online disinformation little is known about whether users actually trust or distrust them” and suggest that “To strengthen trust, fact checking services should strive to increase transparency in their processes, as well as in their organisations, and funding sources.” Up to a point thinks the blog. Most probably the services’ levels of transparency would have little or no impact on trust although some may find that useful.

The reality – throughout much of history – is that ignorance and prejudice have always shaped the way facts are perceived. Fake news is worrying, mainly because it reinforces ignorance and prejudice, but on the other hand we can celebrate how far we have come in ensuring that the natural world, sacred texts and ignorance have become subject to the power of rationality and evidence. But then the blog is generally an optimist. Indeed, with a perhaps Candide like optimism, the blog would propose an example of this progress –  many people in the world are already sufficiently enlightened to realise that the apocalypse, if does come, will be the result of humans rather than gods.

The Communications of the ACM article were drawn to the blog’s attention by its friend John Spitzer as was the Dr Ford lecture discussed in the last blog.