From the Dean: The “Bubbles” Giving Us “Fake News”

June 30, 2018

Most of us in the United States live in a bubble of comfortable ideas, concepts, and familiar faces and experiences. In and of itself, this is no great insight. Sociologists refer to people’s pattern of seeking out similarities in mates, friends, peer groups, professions, and neighborhoods, as “homophily,” the tendency to cluster around beliefs, values, attitudes, political preferences or socio-economic status. This tendency is particularly true in the United States. As Derek Thompson describes the social networks of our nation’s 326 million people: “America is bubbles, all the way down.”

Gravitating to people who are like us is not necessarily bad. But, the membranes of our bubbles are becoming thicker and coarser and a nastiness, rampant demonization and intolerance of others is starting to seep from our comfy bubbles of sameness. From cursing at White House staff and kicking them out of restaurants, to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein getting attacked by Republican Congressional leaders at hearings on the Russian probe to the Attorney General Jeff Sessions ridiculing of people who are appalled at the idea of separating children and parents on the border, America is re-entering a phase of political and social mean-spiritedness that some are comparing to the pre-Civil War era. There are lots of causes for this behavior in today’s world. But, it seems the root motivation for much of the invective is the overly confident understanding of the world that comes from bubble living. In that smug view of the world, people in other bubbles are: a. uniformed; b. misguided; c. invincibly ignorant; d. evil; or e. all of the above. Alas, nothing is that easy.

factfulness200px“To know” what to do about issues related to our common good is a complex process. To know with complete certainty is even more demanding. Any thoughtful person with knowledge of how social, economic and political change actually occurs in the world is aware of this deep, frustrating, and unsatisfying human limitation. But, in the comfort of our own bubble, we can convince ourselves that we know a lot more than we do. That should bother us all. It certainly concerned Hans Rosling, a global health expert who tried to explain the reality of the world to some of the world’s smartest people, and almost always failed. In Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think, Rosling, a big data expert, says: “Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong … Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”

Rosling has a hopeful message for our unsettling times. But, he identifies a human dynamic that is part of our problem right now. He found that even among the smartest people, “facts” have a difficult time penetrating, impacting, and changing our worldviews. In other words, data is increasingly less likely to convince us of anything we don’t already believe. There is a troubling by-product of these fact-free zones – the line between fact and fiction is getting so blurred that we can believe easily the absolute worst about people living in other bubbles. This provides the ideal environment for our new era of “Fake News,” which began as an entertainment industry that concocted information and wild interpretations of data and events, and has morphed into an alternative news source and “proof” of the evil motivations driving the behavior of others.

The first use of the term Fake News occurred in 2016 when Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed noticed a constant stream of fabricated stories coming from the Balkans. Silverman found a cluster of news websites from Veles, Macedonia, and tracked the news “producers” to tech-savvy Macedonian teenagers seeking to make quick money by placing outrageous storylines on social media platforms. Silverman identified at least 140 fake websites, many drawing almost a million engagements.

The term, “Fake News,” is now omnipresent, drawing almost 7.5 million sites in a Google search. It is a force of distortion even in the developing world, especially in regards to issues dealing with health, religion, and society, and has become a serious topic of academic research. In early 2018, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Exeter released the first fake news study and found that 25% of Americans visited a fake news website in a six-week timeframe during the 2016 fall election.

Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign

There are now many studies of techniques of misinformation, including one examining the manipulation of Youtube videos with machine learning and facial recognition technology, which makes it possible to create the illusion that someone said something they did not. No one is immune from this manipulation of current events. Researchers have found that Fake News is just as alluring to liberals as it is conservatives. We are all learning to assume the worst about the other.

Fake News, of course, is not the disease; it is a symptom. In a recent commencement speech at Rice University, Michael Bloomberg suggested the greatest threat to democracy is our current “epidemic of dishonesty.” But, as the BBC News has noted, “misinformation, spin, lies and deceit” have always existed in journalism and politics. What is new is the “unique marriage between social media algorithms, advertising systems, (and) people prepared to make stuff up to earn some easy cash.”

The (almost) complete history of 'fake news'

The real disease beneath the Fake News is that the mixture of the dark side of human nature with technology is precipitating a rapid loss in our ability to identify a common truth about the important things in our shared life.

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence300pxOur need to find truths that offer a common set of values and virtues is just as natural as our bubbles. All religions, political and economic systems, as well as all societies and cultures, believe in knowable truths through which diverse people can build a common life. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence begins with a simple assertion, “we hold these truths,” and goes on to articulate three “unalienable” rights: all humans have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When these three seeds are planted in good cultural soil and allowed to grow, the Founders believed, they would give birth to a better kind of world, as long as every generation committed itself to operationalizing the rights in the context of their period of history. Although the signers of the Declaration disagreed fiercely about many things, they found common ground in these rights, which they considered obvious, unquestionable, undeniable, or as they put it, “self-evident.” The disease of our time is that we are finding it increasingly impossible to find such self-evident truths.

It seems there is no longer a truth, but merely my truth. The Oxford Dictionary recognized this ethical shift in declaring "post-truth" the 2016 word of the year, defining it as: the state of affairs when "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief." The “facts” in our bubbles are driven by our feelings, increasingly undisturbed by the messiness of data that might question our conclusions. It seems more and more of us think that my truth should be obvious to everyone and should hold no tensions.

But, truth has always known better. It holds tensions that are uncomfortable. As the Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho observed: “Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know? If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity.” Coelho captures a truth about truth – it is not captured in simple formulas and bumper sticker philosophy, theology or public policy. In her own pithy way, Ann Lamott, captures the same thought in a TED talk entitled, “12 Things I Know for Sure.” Says Lamott: “Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift … filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”

12 things I know for sure: Anne Lamott speaks at TED2017

AnneLamott-TED

Truth in the real world is found in a blender, not a neatly organized sock drawer. Universities are built on an ancient tradition of keeping the tensions of truth in constant dialogue and debate, but even they are becoming less and less tolerant of the competing worldviews represented in our bubbles, as you can see by reading any edition of the Chronicles of Higher Education.

Social media did not create the truth-destroying Fake News; it only enabled it. Our desire to have truth without tension is the real cause. If we want to build a common bond for a common good, we will need to find formational and educational experiences that shape us to live in the tensions of truth-seeking. Good theological and ministry education excels in this area, lowering our tribal boundaries, and helping us to appreciate and seek out uncomfortable truths. Such an education “thickens our skin” to differences and allows us to become masters of our emotional reactions to otherness. Placing faith and spirituality at the center of the educational experiences allow us to “thicken our skin” without diluting our empathy, softening our moral sensibilities, or dulling our capacity to recognize the dark side of our own interiority and personality.

Fake News feeds on the illusion that the world will get better by displaying the corrupt motives, sloppy thinking and misguided values of others. It assumes that human growth, development, and evolution will begin first by enlightening or silencing the folks in other bubbles. But, finding the truth is much harder. It is found first within ourselves by breaking through the bubbles that create comfy places of affirmation for our worldview and pushing through emotional buffers that prevent us from understanding the worldviews in other bubbles. When we understand why certain stories, images, and reasoning processes speak to others, even though they do the opposite to us, true dialogue and debate become possible. In a democracy, these are the real change agents in troubled historical periods. So, even as the membranes in the bubbles around us thicken, let’s hope and pray enough bubble poppers and bubble crossers arise in our midst to help us re-discover a common truth that seeks a truly common good.