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Joining the Dots: information and misinformation

Many years ago the footballer Eric Cantona was embroiled in a controversy. I cannot remember what it was about now, but I can remember he was accosted by journalists as he emerged from a meeting who demanded his view on the matter and he replied to the effect “When the seagulls follow the trawler it’s because they expect a fish to be thrown overboard.” I thought it was a clever response, putting the media firmly in their place, but none of the reporters admitted to knowing what he meant. For days media pundits continued to refer to this as a mysterious enigmatic saying as if its meaning were not obvious. Either they were very stupid or they thought their audience was.

Possibly the trade of journalism requires a certain naïveté. After all, like the judge in a court case their rôle is to facilitate understanding by others, so perhaps they need to avoid assuming too much. By failing to understand and asking questions of clarification they ensure their readers or listeners receive explanations and are not left to guess. Possibly, or then again it is possible they just lack insight.

Although journalists would claim they work to a high professional standard, from the viewpoint of a reader or listener I cannot say such efforts are justified by the result. I frequently notice mistakes or oversimplifications which obscure the facts they try to report. What we hear on the news is rarely precise truth. More often it is the result of someone who knows nothing of the subject asking a few questions and reporting what they thought they heard in reply. Sometimes it’s not even that, just the content of a press release rewritten to sound original. The problem there is that press releases are designed to catch media attention, but might not be the best reflection of the item reported. Organisations release press releases because they have something they want to communicate. That can be biased to flatter the organisation or to suit whatever agenda it might have.

On 1st November 2022, Radio Four had coverage of two subjects which might just be linked. Firstly, on the Today Programme, Matthew Syed introduced his new book, What do you think? for children about the need to be humble about knowledge and to argue well, sometimes agreeing to disagree, and then, just over an hour later, Disaster Trolls covered the distress caused to victims of serious incidents covered by the media when people question whether those incidents really happened and imply those involved were faking their victimhood, possibly for financial gain.

In the interview with Matthew Syed it was recognised that public debate was becoming less about the issues and more about ad hominem attacks on those involved. The question then arises as to what extent journalists contribute to that process, given the ease with which reputations can be made by exposing scandal.

While the Today Programme might champion debating evidence rather than character, Disaster Trolls, by its very title was less about the evidence than the character of those it saw as the problem. In fact, it ignored, or failed to notice, important evidence which might have enlightened us about the phenomenon it described. It was clearly on the side of the victims and not on the side of those it saw as “trolls”, and failed to ask what they saw themselves as doing. When in a later episode Marianna Spring, the presenter, did encounter one of the perpetrators, Richard Hall, instead of asking him to tell his side of the story, she approached him with hostile questions about the harm he was causing victims and wondered why he refused to talk to her, but she made no attempt to adjust her understanding from her own perspective to his.

His misdemeanours were a clue which was ignored. Hall was accused of approaching friends and employers of victims trying to gain access to them and of setting up cameras to get pictures of them to see whether they were really disabled. These were presented as harmful activities, without any consideration of what might be behind them. At the same time, Ms Spring repeatedly demanded an interview and when it was declined investigated his movements and confronted him at a place she knew he would be found. She appeared oblivious of any moral equivalence in her own investigation.

Any neutral observer can see her fundamental mistake; attributing to malice what could better be understood as ineptitude. For the actions of the “troll” accord very much with her own actions, and for the same reason. If she thought he was a malicious conspirator against innocent people, why could she not recognise the person she sought to investigate might also be trying to investigate what he saw as a malicious conspiracy?

In the Today Programme we were encouraged to ask questions, consider evidence and not attack people’s character. In Disaster Trolls we started with character assassination and were then presented with a catalogue of alleged harm intended to reinforce the impression of malice. This is part of a self-perpetuating spiral which threatens to overwhelm society, truth, and democracy.

Let us return to the beginning and not attribute malice. While it is possible, even probable, some people intend harm, that is not a good presumption with which to start in any particular case.

In our contemporary world there is, as Matthew Syed observed, a tendency to attack people with pejorative labels rather than assess evidence, and that can only lead to ill-will and mistrust. We should not be surprised if some people, wishing to establish the truth, do not trust the source of what they are told. Indeed, that is the natural corollary of the suggestion nothing should be taken on trust without evidence. We should ask questions, raise doubts, and seek corroboration. There is nothing wrong with desiring to investigate the evidence for anything asserted anywhere. It is what we should all do. It is what journalists should do on our behalf but sometimes fail to do to our satisfaction. It is precisely because some campaigners have abandoned presenting evidence for their cause and begun maligning dissenters that this distrust has grown. Many journalists take many of those causes as truth without questioning them, and that leads to mistrust of journalists. Politicians, likewise, are often seen to seek to control the narrative rather than allowing the truth to stand on its own merits, and the standard of debate is indeed, woeful in many cases. After all, Donald Trump has asserted the 2020 American election was rigged against him and that he really won, but has presented no evidence to prove his claim, yet many of his supporters believe him while others adamantly do not.

With so much mistrust around, both of politicians and the media, some people are likely to believe they are being deliberately misled. Conspiracy theories do not just emerge from nowhere. They come from people seeking to understand and making the wrong joins between the dots. When Russian and Western media disagree so strongly about the war in Ukraine, it is easy to ask why, if one government can lie, we should not believe all governments lie? This is the dilemma the theorists seek to solve. For the most part they have no evidence behind their suspicions, but should we blame them for seeking the evidence?

So let us consider the matter at the heart of Disaster Trolls; the bombing at the Manchester Arena. A suicide bomber detonated his bomb in the foyer after the concert and killed 22 people. Many others were injured. This is fairly well-attested fact. I am happy to accept it at face value, because I have no reason to think the media or the government would have a reason to make such a thing up and the conspiracy to do so would have to be implausibly big in order to succeed. That, though, is just my opinion. I have no direct evidence. I do not live in Manchester. I know no one who was there. My judgement is based purely on weighing up the probability of such a deception being either desirable or possible. I have no reason to doubt it.

Another person could disagree, however. They could point to unreliable media in other countries where governments wish to justify some action. They could point to the “dodgy dossier” used to justify the invasion of Iraq. They could argue the government desires to whip up fear of terrorism as a pretext for limiting personal freedom, as they might claim Covid was used for the same purpose. If, in keeping with the spirit of the age, they wish to assume the government is a malevolent force, they might doubt everything reported in the news until they can investigate it for themselves, and investigation is not wrong. Properly done it helps to establish the truth.

Now, whilst it is undoubtedly reasonable to think someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one or a life-changing injury in a publicised crime will find it tedious and eventually distressing to be disbelieved or have to answer endless questions from incredulous enquirers, it is also likely such distress will be increased by the prolongation caused when those seeking information are frustrated. There must be a better way than simply closing the door for, in the eyes of the incredulous, refusing to co-operate will be seen as confirmation there is something hidden to be uncovered. People with nothing to hide, they might think, would have no objection to showing the scars. However misguided such a view is, we should see how doubts will remain.

The problem is exacerbated if some people, simply taking the conspiracy theory as truth, decide to take matters into their own hands and threaten the victims. Clearly, that is unacceptable behaviour and should be punished, for it does nothing to calm the situation or bring understanding, and is directly distressing for anyone on the receiving end. That sort of direct action should never be acceptable in a civilised society. However, guilt by association is not justice. Ms Spring did concede that, once Mr Hall became aware of the harm some of his supporters did, he put an instruction on his website not to undertake such actions. I am in no position to know how sincere that was, but it seemed disingenuous not to give serious credit for it.

Of course, conspiracy theorists are also at fault in that, while complaining about a lack of evidence to prove opposition to their viewpoint, they also express their alternative view without obtaining evidence of their own, and only seek to obtain proof after nailing their colours to the mast. Spreading falsehood without evidence is a dangerous thing to do, and without evidence there can be no confidence what is being spread is not false. A trained journalist would know where conjecture ends and defamation begins. Possibly others might not have thought about it. Therefore, starting from a position the reported news is necessarily false is clearly foolish. Questioning it and seeking more information in an effort to confirm or disprove it is legitimate. Starting from a conclusion is arguing in the wrong order. Sadly, both Hall and Spring seem equally at fault there: he by insisting the bombing was staged without a shred of direct evidence, and she by assuming his motive was to harm the victims rather than a lack of confidence in official sources.

Here we come, I would suggest, to the real problem; lack of trust. We live in an age where people are becoming aware of the way information is sorted, weighed, and manipulated to pursue hidden agendas, and the resulting suspicion means distrust. It becomes difficult for ordinary people to know what to believe any more and that provides the atmosphere in which alternative views proliferate. There are two possible responses to that. One is to clamp down on dissenters to prevent alternative views circulating. That method creates an official truth and suppresses all else and is the method long favoured by totalitarian regimes. Unfortunately, it does not lead to trust; just a greater sense of alienation. The other is greater openness and transparency, in which evidence is made clearly available so all can inspect it and come to their own conclusions. However, sometimes evidence is difficult to analyse, particularly where its interpretation involves technical skills ordinary people might not possess, so sometimes we do have to trust expert interpreters. Normally, though, on non-technical matters, being able to see the evidence should be enough. That latter approach depends on full and open sharing of information, and open discussion of interpretation to guard against bias. That is what Matthew Syed seemed to argue for, and what Marianna Spring seemed to oppose. Her final remarks at the conclusion of her last episode were chilling. She claimed what really mattered was not whether the conspiracy theorists believed their position, but the harm it did to ordinary victims. I could not disagree more. Bad though the harm may be, what really matters is truth. The idea that harm to victims trumps society’s need to understand issues is a dangerous smokescreen, expressing a binary presumption that taking sides is the answer to our problems, when taking sides is the origin of those problems. What it really hides is a desire not to promote truth, but to control the narrative, and that is exactly what provokes conspiracy theories.

I do not think Ms Spring is necessarily determined to suppress dissent. I suspect, like many, she has simply believed the Wokeism many journalists take as true, although those promoting such views never present any evidence for their position, other than an emotive call to sympathise with victims and a suggestion anyone who fails to agree is colluding in the persecution. It is all very binary, and fails to engage with the complexities of human experience. Indeed, the lack of trust, the polarisation, the binary approach to complex issues, do they not all originate from a lack of engagement? Instead of a constructive engagement, people try to demand agreement with their own narrow position, and that can lead nowhere except to conflict and harm. We need that humility Mr Syed promoted. Maybe the children who read his book can show us the way.

K.J. Petrie