OPINION: How to deal with fake news


Opinion: Famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

The point he makes is neither truth nor science gives two shits about my or your opinion if it can’t be proved beyond reasonable doubt by a body of authentic, peer-reviewed scientific research.

These days, however, when we power up our devices we are bombarded by opinions masquerading as facts, cherry-picked statistics and people’s contradicting analysis of them, not to mention clickbait scams using celebrities’ images non-consensually to sell the latest get-rich-quick pyramid scheme.

The internet has given everyone a voice but it has also made knowledge a popularity contest. The most clicks win, the most well-presented or paid-for argument can lead public opinion on a massive scale.

Fringe special interest groups and conspiratorial ideas can glean legitimacy by presenting a polished online facade and gathering impressionable supporters to their cause with doctored out-of-context videos and misleading articles.

These groups are the new populists, using fear and misinformation to lead waves of public angst and mistrust against everyone from the medical community to governments.

Sometimes questions need to be asked and the scrutiny is in the public good, other times it’s dangerous and spreads misinformation that puts people’s lives at risk.

Historically the bar for publishing knowledge was high and the distribution of this knowledge extortionately expensive. In today’s hyper-connected world this bar is exceedingly low and distribution can be free. Traditional censorship models lack the ability to exhibit much control in this sphere.

It would seem that people finally have the ultimate right to consume any information they choose and form their own views, which is something generations have fought for, over centuries.

So have we achieved the ultimate freedom of speech and expression?

Well maybe not to the extent we think.

The online world has proven to be highly manipulated, take Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica schmozzle and other recent scandals.

The internet is also becoming less open, according to US NGO Freedom House, with countries such as China exhibiting ever-strengthening control over online information. So be careful what you believe out there.

And what to do with fake news?

Well, offline, at least in New Zealand, we have a little protection from our censors and the likes of the Advertising Standards Authority, which recently ruled that a campaign of adverts by special interest group Fluoride Free NZ were misleading and socially irresponsible.

Online, however, we are buggered.

Despite social media giants making improvements in the mechanisms for making complaints and Apple boss Tim Cook decrying that fake news was killing people’s minds, we are still left largely to make up our own minds, and from what I’ve seen some of us are doing a pretty shocking job at it.

Be it fad diets, fluoridation, 1080, or vaccinating the kids, people have been swooped up by the falsehoods of misinformation and have started to lose sight of what is opinion and what is fact.

For example, a recent study by Motta, Callaghan and Sylvester on vaccination showed a third of non-trained respondents thought they knew more than doctors and scientists. Classic Dunning-Kruger effect (do Google it).

It seems unfortunately our level of trust in mainstream science, medicine and government seems to be eroding, probably to our detriment.

So some tips for the week to avoid getting carried away with fake news:

–The government might be useless at times but it isn’t out to poison you, rob you or ruin your business … well at least not on purpose.

–Doctors and scientists know a boat-load more than you do about vaccinations, immunology and health, you should trust them.

–DoC doesn’t want to wipe out our native birds or poison our water, so while 1080 might suck big-time, unfortunately it’s the best tool we have for now.

–And lastly, some things are true whether you believe in them or not.

*Democracy under threat from ‘poisoned’ internet report says Newshub, Nov 1, 2018)

Anti-fluoride advert ruled ‘socially irresponsible’Newshub, Nov 3, 2018)

Fake news is ‘killing people’s minds’, says Apple boss Tim Cook Guardian, 11 Feb, 2017)

Knowing less but presuming more: Dunning-Kruger effects and the endorsement of anti-vaccine policy attitudes Science Direct, August 2018)

Mark Wilson is a Queenstown marketing consultant who won’t be appearing on Fox News any time soon