Fake news and Gresham’s Law

At the recent Adelaide Writers Week an authors’ panel, sponsored by the Copyright Agency and moderated by its current CEO and former blog colleague, Adam Suckling, discussed the books that had changed their lives.

Interestingly all the speakers nominated a variety of books but were unanimous when asked about indigenous influence – nominating Sally Morgan. This may be a generationally-determined answer because when the blog tested the indigenous version of the question on a friend a few days later she nominated Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) who was more influential for her and the blog’s generation.

The blog pondered what books changed its life question for a few days and came up with an answer which was so terribly boring – Lewis Namier’s 1929 work, The Structure of Politics, about British government in the 18th century – that it would have been embarrassed to confess to it on the platform at the Pioneer Women’s Garden in Adelaide. The book provided a radical new interpretation of 18th century British government. It gave the blog a lifelong love of history which, while it would never have provided the blog with a living, does give it great pleasure and does tend to skew its view of contemporary events such as the controversies about fake news.

That skew lurched into action recently when a paper – The spread of true and false news online – by Soroush Vosaughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral (all of MIT) – generated widespread comment and much discussion. The blog’s friend, John Spitzer, sent it a copy of the Science (Science 359, 1146-1151 (2018) 9 March 2018) article on which the coverage was based.

The study’s sample size was significant and it “investigated the differential diffusion of all the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise – 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times” – with the true and false ratings based on six independent fact-checking organisations’ classifications. The authors stress that they make no claim about the purveyors of the information but merely focus on things which have been verified as true or false. The authors deliberately avoid the term ‘fake news’ preferring true or false news but why would you read this if the blog hadn’t used it in the headline? Moreover, they make no judgements about ‘news’ on the basis of institutional sources and define “news as any story or claim with an assertion in it and a rumour as the social phenomena of a news story or claim diffusing through the Twitter network.” Defenders of the Fourth Estate model of the media will find their methodology challenging but it seems to the blog pertinent given the state of much of the media such as Fox News, the Daily Mail et al.

There have also been studies of the spread of single rumours about the Higgs boson, the Haitian earthquake and multiple rumours about the Boston Marathon bombing as well as a lot of work on rumour diffusion, detection and credibility. The authors’ references and notes are a quick guide to this literature and the methodologies used to look at the diffusion in these cases.

The MIT authors found that: “falsehood diffused significantly further, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information”. Novelty appears to be a factor in the tendency to retweet and false news is more likely to be perceived as novel. Interestingly, using state-of-the-art bot-detection algorithms they found that although a bot “accelerated the spread of both true and false news, it affected their spread roughly equally.”

The authors suggest further research – what academic paper can conclude without such a suggestion? – is needed into the intent of news purveyors and emotional responses of recipients.

But what of the book that changed the blog’s life? Increasingly as the fake news debate has raged the blog has turned more and more to history and, specifically, the history  of Gresham’s Law and its predecessors to understand it. Gresham’s Law – formulated in the 16th century – is simple and time tested: “bad money drives out good.” Choosing an historic example to validate the currency theory is easy, although how it fits with the modern day case of bitcoin only history will tell,and there might be  case by case studies which influence the outcome. If you were a Venezuelan or a Zimbabwean, for instance, bitcoin might look attractive although the pair who didn’t make billions out of Facebook look as if they may not make billions out of their new bitcoin project – unless they got out early.

Over the years many historians have reminded us that: Copernicus came up with the phrase “bad money drives out good” in a commentary on the Polish currency in the 16th century; in the 14th century Nicholas Oresme put forward similar views; as did the 14th century scholar al-Maqrizi. But the earliest known predecessor was Aristophanes (446-386 c. BCE) in his play The Frogs. In this case he argued that “coins untouched with alloys, gold or silver” are spurned for ‘Sorry brass struck last week and branded with a wretched hand.”

Most pertinently Aristophanes wrote for the Frogs’ chorus comments on the political aspects of the phenomenon: “The course our city runs is the same towards men and money. She has true and worthy sons…… So with men we know for upright, blameless lives and noble names. These we spurn for men of brass.”

The blog is sceptical about talk of the relevance of the classical world to modern life – partly because of Steven Pinker’s work  and despite the common themes of slavery, oppression of women, constant warfare, coups, etc etc etc today and then. But those who claim the relevance of Gresham’s Law, Copernicus, Oresme, al- Maqeizi and The Frogs and other classical texts to not only money, but also politics and society, do have a powerful point. A most apposite point in terms of the prevalence throughout history of fake news.