How to not be gullible: 2020 edition (it’s hard!)

We will all, almost certainly, encounter some manipulative disinformation or propaganda today, and every day. We most probably won’t recognise all of it as what it really is. Foreign authoritarian regimes using manipulative online tactics have smartened up their game since 2016, so to not be gullible now is even harder. Even I can’t guess every troll account correctly.

Test yourself. What you should get from this is a sense of wow it’s hard!, and that this sort of method of checking whether a social media account has an authentic individual human being behind it is inevitably unreliable — they could only determine that most of these accounts belonged to trolls using social network analysis techniques, not by relying on content level analysis.

Disinformation is rarely simply 100% false. The popular media malapropism ‘fake news’ is misleading because it gives people the false sense that what they need to be alert for is simply false claims. Almost all of the most effective strategic disinformation is complex, layered, contains mostly truths, and a few cleverly interwoven lies or misleading half-truths.

That implies that if you’re not a specialist in the subject you’re looking at, most probably you won’t be able to recognise the lies and misleading half-truths in opinion pieces. So you should disregard almost all opinion pieces, especially by people who feel like they’re on your team. If there’s a major news issue or event and you’re not a subject matter specialist, avoid opinion articles! Of course it’s more convenient to read ready-made, processed and packaged judgements, but it will make you faculty of judgement weaker.

Read the detailed news reporting first. If the article you’re looking at blurs the line between news reporting and opinion forming — reject it, and, if you have time, complain to the editor too. Increasingly, news reporting agencies such as Reuters and AFP have been using more opinion or judgement-loaded framing terms, to save words because people seem to have ever shorter attention spans since social media, and to appeal to people’s in-group favouring sentiments and social identity and community motives, to more efficiently compete for clicks and shares on social media.

There is no necessary correlation between marketability or popularity of information and its truthfulness. Actually, the more popular information is, statistically the more likely it is to be manipulative or partially deceptive. Untruths are designed for mass appeal; truth always demands responsibility. No-one likes responsibility. An easy way to shift responsibility is to imaginatively construct a total enemy or an out-group to scapegoat.

There is also a typical manipulative propagandistic rhetorical style, which should be a red flag for you. Let’s make it clear with examples — Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, et al., they write in a classic, authority-performing, manipulative propagandistic style. That means they don’t appeal to your independent personal judgement by explicitly laying out the relevant evidence and stating the logical causal and moral responsibility attribution claims which they’re proposing, but they hide the most relevant logical claims in their framing terms and rhetorical flourishes. They do a lot of repetition of essentially the same claim with little to no relevant evidence.

If someone is really confident that the opinion or judgement which they’re proposing to you is true and just, then it makes sense for them to present the relevant evidence and state the logical connections they’re making explicitly, because they believe that if you apply your will, intellect and conscience to the same evidences and test each of their logical connections, that you will probably arrive at a compatible conclusion. Objectivity as a value is universal, so you don’t employ objectivity if you’re aiming to foment partiality and polarisation and to build up uncritical, unthinking loyalty to a mass movement’s leader’s will. Manipulative propagandists, vice versa.

Manipulative rhetoricians hide their causal connection claims and moral attribution claims in their adverbs, or in their framing terminology or metaphors; they allude to a popular “truth” and then flourishingly connect it to the judgement they want you to make without explaining the steps between A and Z. Anyone who does that, even if the particular argument they’re making is true and fair this time, is entraining you into less interiorly free and responsible habits. They are violating your personal integrity by entraining you to make judgments without consciously engaging your will, intellect and conscience, and reasonably and rationally integrating them. Even if you like what they say — especially so! — do not trust them.

Another aspect to why you probably guessed a lot of the ‘troll or not?’ quiz wrong is that it’s often impossible to tell what is manipulative strategic disinformation or propagandistic content on the surface content level alone, and that isn’t really the point for those who are doing it. ‘Propaganda’ is essentially about propagating a system of epistemic and moral priors.

Let me translate out of brief jargon now: ‘priors’ means basic assumptions which are usually held unconsciously, and are socially transmitted, with variations and modifications, so they evolve, thereby becoming, after a while, authentically regenerated; ‘epistemic’ mental phenomena are about the means and limits of knowledge — how can we possibly know anything? — we can apply assumptions about this without being conscious of doing so, and we usually do; ‘moral’ in my usage means any set of weighting constants that we apply to different sorts of outcomes in order to judge what is better, since most outcomes are mixed, partly good and partly bad; i.e. ‘moral priors’ are not necessarily morally right, it’s a descriptive term.

So when they’re repeatedly pushing e.g. ‘Mystic Baba Yaga predicts..’ kind of absurd stories, or multiple, mutually incompatible spins — yes you can laugh about it, but it’s also serious, because even while reading that story and not taking it seriously on the surface content level, or even while you’re arguing against it, but reacting according to their emotive framing terms and metaphors, it is entraining in your mind practical habits of how you decide what you know and how you morally judge it, and especially with patently absurd content, it should be even clearer that most of the processes of entrainment of epistemic and moral priors are unconscious; they don’t involve conscious manipulation of mental representations of the epistemic and moral priors involved, and yet unconscious entrainment of epistemic and moral priors is even more effective when you’re not consciously aware and rationally critical of the process. It relies on you not really thinking.

For more background to why I define ‘propaganda’ this way now, see —

Identitarian epistemic practices get in under the radar of consciousness because we’re misinformed and irrationally socially conditioned about what human rationality is and its place in the whole human mind and social life by Enlightenment or classical Liberalism, which heroizes an artificially isolated concept of human rationality in order to implicitly attribute more authority to the merchant class vis a vis the state and clerical classes. (I will explain and justify this in a forthcoming article in Centre for a Stateless Society, also about why Renaissance concepts of the nature and right role of rationality within a person and a society are more accurate and reliable.)

Secondly, and I’m sorry for throwing such a dense abstraction at you: cultural consumerism has functionally convergent epistemic priors with identitarian, fascist priors. First generation big tech social media platform designs have been so catastrophic and apocalyptic for global politics and human consequences because they’re built with essentially culturally consumerist priors — everything is a consumer choice, subject to individual subjective feelings, not objective reality testing, in a “marketplace of ideas”.

Identitarianism means the set of epistemic practices which prioritises partial group identification over universally accessible objective reality —

It is the system of epistemic priors and practices which leads to fascism.

‘Marketplace of ideas’ implies that there is no such thing as objective truth or reality, there are only aggregate consumer choices (that’s where their sense of ‘pluralism’ is located), with the utterly arbitrary, unstated assumption that majority will somehow automatically favours truth, which is abundantly evidently counterfactual, historically. Without empathetic, respectful attention to others’ subjective realities, there cannot be justice, and cannot be peace. ‘Peace’ campaigning which doesn’t care about its human subjects and what they say about their reality is not what it seems.

So when your friends ask ‘how do you know that?’ ‘where did you get that idea from?’ ‘are you familiar with this website you’ve shared from, why do you trust it?’ ‘did you notice what the url of the site this post you’ve shared is?’, they are doing your responsibility for you. Instead of reacting like they’ve insulted you, recognise that, by calling out your autonomy and agency to do wrong, they are also calling you back towards more personal integrity. Sharing shit on social media is how we get mass movements without personal consciences. It’s how we end up at genocide.* * Slow down, learn to think, exercise and strengthen your judgement faculty, and accept personal responsibility for action. The performance contest on social media is not reality, and it is not responsible to engage like that, even if everyone else is.

There is just anger, it is a real possibility. However, appetitive and aversive will can very easily be manipulated, especially if intellect or reason and conscience are not consciously engaged with the will at the same time.

Cultural consumerism entrains disengagement between will vs. intellect and conscience, and so does fascism — they’re ‘functionally convergent’.

How you can tell the difference between just anger and unjust anger is that just anger aims at righting an injustice, and at the same time understands that injustice is inherently a common kind of harm, there is no “us” and “them” sense about it, as there cannot be in reality. Justice is inherently an indivisible good — there cannot be more justice for “us” versus any out-group. Difference (διαφορά) is good and should be embraced, but division (διαίρεση) is untruthful, and more justice can never result from untruth. This is 6thC AD ethical thinking, by the way.* Some problems and answers don’t change, but people always forget, and valid ideas need reinterpreting.

Be careful about divisions which opinion-forming pieces form in your mind, especially when they’re not explicit. Things in reality exist in relation to each other. The purpose of artificially setting up divisions in our sense of in what way things exist (an ontology, which is also usually unconscious) is not to present truth or to promote justice, but to gain arbitrary power or to conserve privileged social status in order to continue to exploit and oppress people. You can decide more reliably what is manipulative information content also partly by being more conscious of your feelings and intellectually reflecting on them — if an opinion-forming piece engages you primarily on the level of in-group favouring sentiments, rather than following it or sharing it because it has social identity performing benefits and gives you a more secure sense of identity and connection — which we really need as human beings! — you should engage your intellect and conscience with those socially appetitive and aversive motivations.

Opinion or judgement-forming content which engages your will exclusively, or your intellect exclusively, divides your personal faculties in order to twist and turn you in towards your predisposed audience cluster, so that you become even easier to manipulate in future, or to reinforce and normalise our tendencies to discount harms to out-groups or to demonise imaginary enemies who mysteriously seem to have superhuman powers of general causation, does not deserve to be trusted. It doesn’t matter if it’s from your own side. Get a better political side! Proactively look around and get a more realistic sense of your positionality in the social information network.

Real conspiracies have trash heaps and paper-trails that need actively hiding or disposing of, and the same sort of mundane project management crises as the rest of human life. And real conspiracies are not usually easy to use as explanations for everything, or nicely apportioning blame to “them”.

How to increase your resistance to manipulative disinformation and propaganda is not just about looking at trolls profiles and trying to guess if they’re authentic, or fact-checking, or even social network analysis — even more importantly, it’s about reflecting on ourselves and our social, political behaviours, and trying to become more fully personal, more human, more balanced and integrated. Then no-one will be able to divide or disintegrate your appetitive or aversive will from your intellect and conscience again. When you’re fully, perfectly balanced as a person, you will be able to resist.

I don’t favour calling the global hybrid war ‘democracies versus authoritarian regimes’, because our democracies are imperfect, and it’s too easy to use that fact exploitatively to undermine and degrade them even further in reality (i.e. the populist strategy), by diminishing people’s interior freedoms and discouraging us from accepting our personal share of responsibility, and our problem is really deeper than that — it’s humanism versus authoritarianism. It’s a war over our hearts, not just between states.

Be more human.

Lapsed biologist retraining as a social data scientist, often writing about refugee rights advocacy and political philosophy.

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