Facts still – despite ‘fake news’ – remarkably robust

Facts, despite all the talk about ‘fake news’, are still remarkably robust.

Surprisingly, perhaps even counter-intuitively, part of the evidence for this can be derived from Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is the bane of academics and the delight of firms making plagiarism detection software it provides a consistent fact base for online searchers.

The blog hadn’t thought much, other than with some scepticism, about Wikipedia as a reliable fact base until it heard Dr Heather Ford give a lecture at the Melbourne Networked Society Institute at University of Melbourne. Dr Ford is a Fellow at Leeds University in the School of Media and Communications and is in Australia on sabbatical and the Networked Society is not a career ‘networking opportunity’ but rather an offshoot of the work of the Melbourne School of Electrical Engineering.

Her PhD research was partly inspired by her study of Mary S. Morgan’s work, which has involved a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional project resulting in the report How Well Do Facts Travel? Details can be found in a Leverhulme Trust Grant summary report which ranges across some linguistic, philosophical and scientific issues as well as some diverse case studies ranging from the famous longevity claims about the 17th century figure “old Thomas Farr” to a Tamil Nadu farming project. There is more detail in an edited essay collection in the Cambridge University book with the same title as the report.

Dr Ford’s research focussed on the way Wikipedia reported/described the 2011 Egyptian Revolution starting with a short post regarding the first protests. From there the Wikipedia entry grew and grew to the extent that it is pages long and contains some 408 references. Dr Ford’s research tracked how it grew, how it was edited and how the entry title changed to the 2011 Revolution. The blog had little idea about how Wikipedia was edited suspecting it was a bit anarchic. But what this case study demonstrated was that the editing process is quite sophisticated and constantly refines the content for accuracy thereby establishing a secure fact base. Duh! you may well say, but news to the blog and many others.

The blog, like everyone else, regularly uses Wikipedia but without thinking much about it beyond it being a convenient short cut towards establishing some basic facts and pointing towards other sources. Its ubiquity fosters a complacent view about it just being there and encourages us to take it for granted. The blog never thought of it as emerging as a significant test for the robustness of facts even though research has indicated it is much more reliable than Britannica. After the lecture the blog Googled a series of diverse topics and realised that on almost any subject Wikipedia always comes up in the top one or two results. Everyone experiences this but just accepts it to the extent that you virtually don’t notice.

The implication Dr Ford draws is that, despite the social media silos which encourage polarisation, facts still matter and that the average online user will actually come across broadly accurate information when they type a topic into a search engine.

Dr Ford, as befits a scholar of social media, tends like many people to put the Egyptian Revolution in the social media context. The blog, in the discussion after the lecture, raised the issue which tempers the enthusiastic social media explanation of the revolution – the subsequent election results when the Muslim Brotherhood profited from years of grassroots community and face to face campaigning and community building. The hipster West wanted to think that social media revolutionised revolutions only to discover, as in the Trump election, there is no substitute for old fashioned grass roots organisation – facilitated by social media but spearheaded by personal contact as shown in the Labor campaigns in the Sydney western suburbs in 2016 and the last Victorian election. Signing a social media petition makes many people feel good but how much does it actually change? Probably much less than Australian conservatives who want to nobble Get Up and others think. The proof of this is the Joseph Kony saga.

Ford summarised the Morgan thesis in terms of the capacity of facts – understood as ‘pieces of reliable knowledge’ – to travel well when they: have sufficient integrity to be acted upon as facts; prove fruitful with multiple uses; travel in ‘good company’ such as reliable endorsers or chaperones; have a character which gets them noticed; and, unlike gossip, tend not to be corrupted in their travel beyond where they originated from.

The process Morgan describes, as Dr Ford suggests, is rather like Wikipedia. As she said at the lecture: “History is written by the victors, but those who write the first draft or the subsequent version of history are no longer in charge. Those who summarise and codify it are.”

Nevertheless, those currently worried about fake news have a point. The late wonderful Shirley Hazzard in her last book, We Need Silences to Find Out What We Think, summed up the problem by citing the Spanish philosopher, Ortega Y Gasset, who said: “without a margin of tranquillity, truth succumbs”. On the other hand she also reminded us of the physicist Richard Feynman’s injunction: “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

And on the subject of Professor Morgan- she holds the Albert O. Hirschman Professor of History at LSE. It was a blog article on the biography of Hirschman for crikey, butchered by the sub editors, which prompted the decision to quit crikey and launch this blog. You can read the un-butchered version on the site.