Mark Zuckerberg caused a row last week about, because in an interview about censorship and fake news, he said he does not wish to remove holocaust-deniers from Facebook. It’s almost funny that the man who gave rise to the biggest social platform in the world, isn’t very socially versatile himself. Funny, if the issue at hand wasn’t so important.
Shopping for truth
Let me first say that I am not a holocaust denier. It’s hard to be one in Europe, I’d say, where there are monuments everywhere for people killed in concentration camps, and we have enough documented proof that you could fill a library or two. Thinking that’s fake is pretty insane. But insanity is the norm these days, unfortunately, and truth is under siege everywhere.
I think problems started when business decided to marry marketing and science together. At first it was innocuous TV commercials with ‘scientists’ claiming their detergent was better. Then came the far more ugly — and ongoing — tobacco industry scandals, followed by car manufacturers now poisoning the world by working the numbers. Politicians got wind of the approach, and now it seems the concept of ‘truth’ has been cast adrift.
During Brexit, Michael Gove once said ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. The idea has caught on. Anybody who can operate a keyboard can create a website and claim to be an expert. Scientific studies can be bought, and with some shady math, you can claim anything. And if you can prove anything, how can be certain anything is true? Isn’t it better then, to claim whatever feels right to you as ‘your’ truth and let everybody be with their own truth?
Unfortunately, facts are still facts. Climate change will kill your children, whether you believe in it or not. You can choose your own ‘truth’, but that doesn’t mean the real truth won’t still apply to you or that you are no longer responsible for it if you turn out to be wrong.
Dunning-Kruger and echo chambers
With the internet, everybody has a megaphone, and everybody can link to whatever nonsense they choose. And so, truth seems to have become a fluid concept. I say ‘seems’, because facts are still facts. Unfortunately we are terrible at judging the worth of real and fake facts, and think we know more about things the less we actually do.
This effect is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This effect is the explanation for things like anti-vaxxer sentiments, which are of course far into the fake news zone.
To aggravate the problem, social media have connected people in a way that wasn’t possible only a few decades ago. People have a tendency to form groups of like-minded individuals. The Internet allow vast world-wide groups of anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and alt-right people to exist.
And if Gamergate has shown us anything, it’s that these groups sometimes cross lines we do not want crossed. This problem has become widespread enough that is starting to destabilize the world order.
So what to do?
There is a growing cry for social media to stop fake news dead in its tracks. Of course, this reeks of censorship. The point –I think — that Mark Zuckerberg was trying to make is that gagging people with censorship because they say stupid things is a bad idea. His example is terrible, but his point isn’t: those people saying stupid things think they’re right. If we start censoring all our social media, who gets to decide what is right and what is ‘fake news’?
Science is built around the idea of discussion and proving things are wrong. You can’t actually prove that things are fact. The idea behind science is to come up with conflicting theories and then create experiments/observations to prove which is better. Something is only right until somebody comes along with a better theory. As an example, we all believed in Newtonian mechanics until Einstein proved that they are only an approximation that holds at low speeds.
I disagree with anti-vaxxers and holocaust deniers, and I agree organized groups hurting people because of fake facts should be stopped. However, should we start censoring them? I think some pharmaceutical companies would love it if they could prevent bad press. Trump would probably enjoy removing all ‘fake’ news about him.
Censorship is a form of control. As Russian meddling in the US elections and Brexit has shown, controlling social media is a form of power. We need to have a discussion about who gets to wield that power. And it definitely should not be Zuckerberg wielding it, or Trump for that matter. And as a Dutch Citizen, I wouldn’t want my social media censored by a US judge either, even if they’re probably preferable than Chinese or Russian ones.
I don’t have an answer for this conundrum either. I honestly don’t know who should wield this censorship hammer. Maybe Zuckerberg is right, and nobody should wield it. If you look at the picture above this article, it shows the Philae temple in Egypt. The hieroglyphs show pharaoh Ptolemaeus XII killing his enemies. In reality, he had a lot of help from Rome to kill his enemies. It’s propaganda, or ‘fake news’ if you will. So fake news has been around for a long while already, and we’re still here.
Maybe we should allow all that nonsense to still exist. The question becomes: how do we help people sift the truth from the lies? Because those lies are still deadly if enough people believe them.
People attacked Zuckerberg, but honestly, he made an important point. If we have to have a media storm, make it about that point: who gets to say what should and should not be censored?