The Etruscan shrew (Suncus etruscus) is the smallest mammal weighing in at a measly two grams or less.
There are 907185 grams in a ton, so the blue whale at two hundred tons, weighs 90,718,500 x as much as the shrew. Yet they both have spines, a brain, a liver, intestines, breathe oxygen, eat food, have a beating heart, etc. They mate, nurse their babies, raise families, just as we do!
First, there is huge variation — but at the same time, a lot of similarity — among mammals. We naturally have a curiosity about the largest, smallest, tallest, fastest that is possible. This curiosity is not limited to our culture or our time. Indeed, it seems to be true of animals, in general. In fact, our nervous system is fundamentally tuned to changes, boundaries, and extremes. For example, if you walk into a kitchen, the aroma of freshly baked cookies seems to fill you with pleasure. It can be very strong. But after a few minutes, you may barely notice the smell. If the fan in the kitchen is on, it may at first seem pretty loud. But after a few minutes, most people will no longer notice. There are limits of course. If the smoke alarm goes off, you will continue to notice it. It is designed to be loud enough to annoy you forever. Just as our ears are mainly attuned to changes, so too, our visual system is attuned to edges. This is why, for instance, a cartoon “works” to depict something that is actually much more complicated. Given that neither humans nor any other animal has an infinite brain, it is a useful general heuristic to especially note changes, edges, and the “extremes” of our experience.
The second thing to note is that, since life is complex and complicated, there are many astounding facts. It is interesting and exciting to know about the “edges” of experience in many different dimensions. This is not a “bad thing” but it does make us susceptible to being “suckered in” by things that are astounding or sensational even if they are not particularly useful. Some people take advantage of this tendency and use it to manipulate us into buying toothpaste, drugs, and candidates.
When I was a kid, there were certain newspapers (which still exist) which “everyone knew” were absurd attempts to capture people’s attention with “fake news.” Photographic evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, BigFoot, Aliens from Outer Space, people rising from the dead. Amazing! Too good to be true! Well, they weren’t true. Now, it is much easier and cheaper to “publish” fake stories than it was in the days of print.
There is a much subtler and more virulent change as well. Fake newspapers lay out on the checkout stands at drug stores and grocery stores for everyone to see. Most people knew these stories were fake, but some people would fall for it. Everyone could see the headlines: “New Hope for the Dead!” and pretty much dismiss the entire magazine on that basis.
The Internet is has become worse that tabloids because if you’re like most people, there are traces of your behavior all over the Internet. Fake news doesn’t have to concoct one common story for everyone to swallow. They can analyze your personality, your likes and dislikes, your background, your political affiliation from what you look out, how you comment, what you buy on line and so on. They can *target* stories that you are especially likely to believe and that are particularly likely to sway you in your buying or voting behavior. Of course, it isn’t perfect. But it doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective. Whether there was any collusion between the Russian intelligence agencies who were and are doing this and the Trump campaign is still up in the air. However, that they were doing such things is clear. They’ve been doing it for a long time and they are continuing to do it.
Why would they bother? The USA has, by far, the mightiest military in the world. Direct military action against us is absurd. Much better idea: weaken us from within. The greatest strength of the US is its diversity. Use that to push and prod at all the rifts between people whether based on sexual preferences, religion, dietary habits, what kinds of sports you like, your preferences as to how and when you celebrate Holidays, your skin color, your country of origin, whether you think pot should be legalized, whether you favor more lax or more stringent gun regulation, the music you like, the clothing you find attractive. Anything on which people differ can become a battleground if the people are properly played.
I can easily imagine people from different backgrounds or beliefs, when faced with a real world problem, taking the time to understand each other’s concerns and come up with either a compromise, a vote, or even a transcendent solution. You can probably imagine that as well. Humans have been doing this for a hundred thousand years. We humans don’t always resort to violence every time there’s a difference of opinion.
Let the media notice the disagreement and it will get worse. Let the fake news decide it’s an issue worth making people hate each other over, they will zoom in on that disagreement with more passionate love than house flies buzzing toward a forgotten turkey carcass in the garbage. They will make a fake story sure to inflame the passions of one side. They will generally create an inflammatory headline first that is a complete lie. Then, they will “back it up” with vague statements, lies, or half-truths, and generally with a combination of all of those.
To see how this might work, let’s imagine that there is an island where there are two species of birds that look identical. Squeakers live on one side of the island and the Squawkers live on the other side. The squeakers like to squeak, need I point out, while the Squawkers like to squawk. No big deal. Then, one day a very rich human arrives on the island and offers to make them all very very rich. He claims he is going to buy a tiny piece of their lovely island for sunbathing. He just wants to make sure his investment is safe so he needs to know which bird is going to speak for the entire island. Need I point out that the squeakers and squawkers are now all at risk to become squabblers. As a matter of fact, it may not even matter whether the bird who “speaks for the island” is a squeaker or squawker. Nonetheless, there will be argument and counter-argument. But at long last, this dispute will almost certainly be settled without bloodshed. That is not a guarantee, but it is likely.
Now, let’s first inject a legitimate TV news crew into the picture. They hear about this deal the rich man is offering ahead of time. So, they go and do a report. You might well hear this on the news or read it in the newspaper: “A rousing controversy is brewing tonight on the normally peaceful island of “Ang-Grebe-urds. Multi-billionaire business tycoon, Lance O’Latte has offered an undisclosed but sizable sum to the natives of “Ang-Grebe-urds.” However, to collect this handsome sum, the Ang-Grebe-urds must choose a single spokes-bird. Who will it be? No-one yet knows. Indeed, that is where the process seems to be stuck in the craw of the Ang-Grebe-urds. We’ll keep you updated on this breaking story as more details unfold.”
That’s not all. They scan the environment for particularly nasty things that one side says about the other.
Imagine this hypothetical interview: the reporter asks one of the prominent Squeakers how they feel about the head of the Squawkers. The interviewed Squeaker might say, “Oh, I’ve known Mr. Squaw-Squawk for ages. We are both big fans of soccer. He was our top speller in high school. Also, he did a great job as quarterback on the high school football team. I don’t particularly like him in the way he squawks all the time though.”
What will reported? No way to predict for certain, but my money is on this quote: “I don’t particularly like him…he squawks all the time….” Publishing that statement is really not going to help the Ang-Grebe-urds come to consensus. But it probably still won’t prevent it. Newspapers are still largely paid for by subscriptions. This is important. Because the newspapers are not completely paid for by advertising, it tends to make them more likely to stick to the truth. Individual reporters may exaggerate or hype the conflicts but they very seldom make things up. If they did that, many subscribers would stop doing so. Even some advertisers might shy away from the newspaper that sold papers on the basis of lies. Advertisers do look at readership and people are more likely to pick up a newspaper if the headline is: “Famous Squeaker Complains that Squaw-Squawk squawks all the time!” She said, “I don’t particularly like him…he squawks all the time….” But, there is still a “brake” on complete fabrications. Companies who care about their brand (e.g., Coke, Pepsi, IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, Disney) will not want to be associated with news organizations that only lie, Subscribers too will fall off if they become suspicious that they are being lied to.
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Now, let’s see how this situation worsens with stories that are presented on-line. Being on-line is an important detail. Because it is on-line, the media outlet need not have one single actual artifact (such as a printed newspaper) that everyone can point to. Instead, stories can be slanted to different readers. A Squeaker who is pretty much a decent old bird but hates onions, for instance, can get a fake news article that claims Squawkers love onions. Furthermore, the fake news claims, there are secret plans, if a Squawker is elected, to make onion-eating required.
In reality, Squeakers and Squawkers mostly don’t care much one way or the other about onions. Rather, both Squeakers and Squawkers each have about 10 percent, both equally divided about whether onions are: 1) completely wonderful to add to any dish or 2) the invention of the devil to torment Ang-Grebe-urds. Many on-line sources are not paid for by subscribers. They are paid only by advertising.
Furthermore, while the newspaper advertisers only know the circulation of the newspaper as a whole, by contrast, the on-line advertiser can measure how many clicks they get for particular ads and stories. This is a huge difference. It means that every single article for on-line media is pushed toward sensationalism and conflict. Furthermore, the on-line sources can republish many different versions to many different selected sub-audiences to maximize clicks. If, for example, there are some Squeakers who feel football is too violent, the interview reported can be: ““I don’t particularly like him…quarterback on the football team…he squawks all the time….” No need to include that phrase if you are presenting the article to football fans.
These kinds of “fake news” stories are designed to make money out of advertising of course, but beyond that, they are not only meant to grab your attention but are often designed to set you at the throats of your neighbors and countrymen. Of course, in our hypothetical example, that’s precisely why the rich business tycoon set up this situation and then kept using fake news to jack up the emotions of the Ang-Grebe-urds until they killed each other off. Now, he can not only have his sunbathing cove; he can have the entire island. For free. Well, free for him. The Squeakers and the Squawkers paid with their lives. They will rest forever in total squilence. Differences in preferences and slight variations in behavior were driven into hate and violence by targeted messages. While the Squeakers and Squawkers thought they were enemies of each other, in fact, they were both being manipulated by the Takers. The Takers are birds of an entirely different feather. They don’t actually give the slightest damn whether birds prefer to squeak or squawk. All they care about is buying real estate cheap and selling it dear. Some may have actually enjoyed watching the Squeakers and Squawkers kill each other off, but that’s just the icing on the cake.
What about citizens in the US, the UK and Europe and other countries that are currently democracies like Canada and Australia? Know what? We are under attack. I’m not trying to be sensational. (I’m not paid by subscribers or ads). I’m just trying to put it out there for your consideration. While it is not yet clear how much, if any, collusion existed between Russia and the Trump campaign, it is clear that Russian interests worked fake news stories into the discussions and debates leading up to the US election as well as the Brexit vote. These stories are not only meant to sway elections but also to foment discord; to make people in one party or part of the country distrust others; to make people doubt science and more objective media. (After all, if you can’t trust “experts” and “scientists” and “the mainstream media” then, where are you going to go for information? You guessed it: social media and on-line media become even more popular.
Back in the days of mostly local newspapers, normal checks and balances pushed owners, editors and reporters toward printing news that was truthful. They would tend to be motivated to say things about the community that were useful, kind, and true because otherwise false stories would negatively impact their own community. In addition, if they were “found out” they would definitely experience social ostracism that would likely be extensive. A false story about a coming plague might sell a lot of newspapers in the short term, but when it was discovered to be a lie, the entire newspaper was in danger of losing its readership.
By contrast, a very large national newspaper chain might be headed up by someone who cares very much or little about social ostracism and probably lives in a “community” completely divorced from the people he or she lives and works in. The CEO might well be only interested in profits which in turn means pushing stories based on how they impact readership, not based on what it means for America as a whole. Nonetheless, there is a still a tradition in newspapers of long standing to tell the truth and to verify stories. There may also a sense of long-term commitment to the company. For example, the people in a traditional newspaper want to be able to hire the best people for their organization. To allow that to happen, it is vital that they have a reputation for telling the truth and for responsible reporting. As I’ve mentioned, newspapers who lie regularly are at risk of losing both their subscriber base and their advertisers.
By contrast, when it comes to on-line news media, because they are new, there is little tradition; they don’t depend on subscriber dollars; their advertisers tend not be companies like IBM and Disney who care about their reputation, but instead unheard of companies who want to sell you miracle cures and self-adjusting tea cozies.
Know what? These on-line media are doing this to us now and even when we retweet or argue about the truth of divisive news, it’s still divisive. Then, we often disagree on social media about whether it’s true and that’s also divisive. Is nothing to be done? I do think that there are some principles and guidelines than can help distinguish real news (which does also appear on-line) from made up manipulations to make you angry. Next week, we will explore what some of those principles and guidelines might be. Meanwhile, I personally like onions. But I don’t insist you do.
Know what? We are all now “Citizen Soldiers” in a war of words. Most likely, you were never trained as a reporter and most likely, like me, you aren’t making a penny out of your use of social media. But social media grows ever more important in people’s understanding of what is true about the world. Like it or not, your Facebook posts and tweets either exaggerate the impact of fake news or dampen it out. You might consider a reporter’s questions: What, who, where, when, how, and why. You might also consider these before sharing a story: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?”