The format of falsehood: how plausible untruth spreads

The format of falsehood: how plausible untruth spreads

A Guinness commercial a few years ago pumped out a stream of ‘strange but true’ statistics. It finishes ‘88.2% of statistics are made up the spur of the moment’.

I have to say, I was totally taken in by the bogus statistics the first time I saw it. They were all quirky enough to be true — though implausible if you thought about them — but it was the way that they were presented that made them seem reliable. First, they were spoken in a quiet Scottish voice, of the kind we usually associate with serious public service announcements. The accompanying pictures were all in black and white. Mingled among them were things that seemed like they had to be true, for example ‘98% of Man United fans have never been to Old Trafford’. They included ‘facts’ that sounded like facts you’d heard before. And, crucially, they were all eerily specific — a double digit percentage as often as not with a decimal point thrown in as well.

In case you missed it, here’s the advert.

It was funny at the time, though I still prefer Stella.

However, what began as farce is fast recycling itself as the run-up to tragedy.

Here is how to format a falsehood in such a way that it is not questioned.



This is a format you’ve seen thousands of times on Facebook.

Usually, the images included are entirely ‘false’, in the sense that they have nothing to do with the story and are miscaptioned. However, we’re so programmed for ‘seeing is believing’ that we don’t question the captions.

What’s more, the image on the left — benefit scroungers, MPs, religious extremists — represents a group of people that we may not like, but feel a bit guilty for not liking. We know that we are being judgemental when we think bad things about them, and that makes us feel guilty. However, seeing a picture this group allegedly (because it’s in the caption) doing something terrible makes us feel all right about being cross about them.

The image on the right, on the other hand, will be shot in evocative lighting and show real suffering. Again, it will be falsely captioned. For example, a picture taken from Google of ‘homeless people’ will be captioned as ‘homeless ex-soldier’, while a picture of a nurse will be captioned that she (and it will be a she) is earning less than a family on benefits. Again, this caption will be entirely false, but we are programmed not to question captions.

However the captions work, they will boil down to this: ‘People who deserve bad things are are having a great life because society is over-compassionate, while people who work hard for all of us are suffering — do you think this is right?’

The ‘Do you think this is right’, whether explicit or implied, is the clever bit. By being asked to make an (obvious) moral judgement, you are more prone not to question the ‘facts’ presented through the captions. It’s irrelevant that the two things have nothing to do with each other — the moral sense being engaged isn’t a true moral sense, merely a sense of outrage which you’re likely to go for simply because of the format of ‘Do you think this is right?’

But, it gets cleverer. In case you might be on the point of saying ‘even if nurses are on low pay, it’s not linked to families who are on benefit’, the next part brings things closer to home. ‘Thousands won’t share this, share if you support our nurses/ex-servicemen/firemen, etc’. Suddenly you are being put in the position of one person ready to stand against the tide of indifference. If you share this, you support the nurses etc. If you don’t, then you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

Do you share or not? A bizarrely large number of people do, but, even if you don’t, you may still have fallen into the trap. The meme’s designers want it to be propagated, but only for the purposes of shifting your and others’ perceptions towards believing that society is soft, that benefits should be capped, families of criminals punished, and other such mob-rule responses. In Britain, these things are usually right-wing, but there’s no implicit reason why they have to be.

Those readers who have worked in advertising will have decoded very quickly that this style of meme follows the advertiser’s AIDA format. AIDA is the basis on which most effective ads are constructed. It stands for Attention, Information, Decision (or Desire), Action. The attention element could be a compelling photograph, an illustration, a headline, anything which grabs your attention. As soon as the ad has your attention, it gives you information. Research by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority suggests that provision of information is the first, essential element in an effective advertisement. The more plausible and objective sounding the information, the better — but it must also tickle the intellect, or the moral sense, or the emotions. Once you’ve got the information, it moves straight on to suggesting that you make a decision now. Finally, it gives you an action to undertake immediately. It doesn’t matter how slight that action is — even tweeting or sharing on Facebook is enough to solidify your commitment to the messages of the advertisement, even if the ultimate action that the advertiser wants you to take is much more arduous.

Now, advertisements in the United Kingdom are heavily regulated. Ads which fail to satisfy the ASA’s CAP code are removed immediately. They have to be legal, decent, honest and truthful. If it’s on TV, or on radio, or in the pages of a newspaper or magazine, or on a billboard or the back of a bus, you can count on it being so. A well regulated advertising industry means that you can generally trust the advertisements much more than you can the news, which is altogether less reliable.

However, this only applies to ‘real’ advertisements. Facebook memes and other such things are not regulated at all. By following a reliable format, which is also a powerful format, the Facebook memist gets a double benefit.

Why would anyone spread falsehood?

For the heck of it, to sell a product, to sell attention, to spread a political viewpoint, other ideas will come to mind.

Have you heard the story that Microsoft is doing an experiment and the 1,000,000th person to share the Facebook meme (previously an email) will win a huge reward? This has been debunked many times, and yet it continues to persist. Who would have created such a thing? A hoaxer of some kind, but there seems to be little benefit. Nonetheless, these hoaxes have an enormous currency.

“Something ordinary and perhaps slightly annoying started to happen, what happens next will blow your mind”. You’ve certainly seen this kind of thing. Generally it takes you on to a mildly diverting YouTube or other video, as like as not one which takes you to a product advertisement at the end. Many of these are commercially produced videos designed to seem as though they are user generated content. Often they will be ‘sown’ a hundred thousand times, because research shows that the spread of such a commercial meme depends on the number of times it is sown more than on any other factor.

“Maggie lost 2.5 stone using this weird old trick. Click here to find out more.” This, alongside the one about dentists hating someone, life insurance people hating someone, and so on, if you do bother to click on it, will take you somewhere deeply dull. The weird old trick will be using different kinds of diet pills (why not the weird old trick of eating less?), or using baking powder instead of tooth-paste, or some such. Despite your misgivings, when you’ve clicked on it, you feel that you haven’t really been tricked — after all, they aren’t selling you anything. Actually, what has happened is you’ve been taken to a website which is earning income by the number of page views, in the expectation that you may well click on one of the other, commercial advertisements on the page. Of course, you wouldn’t would you…? Well, since you clicked on the ‘weird old trick’ ad, you’re a prime target for the others.

The most famous examples of the Facebook dodgy memes are from Britain First. Britain First is run by an ex-BNP member, and they are all about getting ordinary voters riled up against ‘liberal’ and ‘left-wing’ ideas. As a card carrying Liberal Democrat (no, seriously, I carry my membership card in my wallet), I find these tedious and annoying Many people who really ought to know better, though, do share them — and they can get very cross if you point out where they’re from.

Is this all important? After all, why shouldn’t people be allowed to have a little fun?

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, points out what Rousseau was to point out later in Le Contrat Social: that society operates on a social contract where, even though humankind is by nature egotistical, people work together out of enlightened self-interest. It can be shown logically, rationally and even statistically that even criminals working together will get better results than working alone: that is why we have such strict laws on conspiracy.

Generally speaking, society has prospered on this basis, aside from the occasions where people have got together to fight wars or where a majority has decided to perpetrate an injustice on the minority. This has produced some appalling atrocities, but, everything taken together, we are wealthier, healthier, better educated and safer than we used to be.

There is an exception to the enlightened egoist. It is the amoral agent who has calculated that, although society as a whole prospers most when people behave out of enlightened self-interest, and would collapse if people behaved with selfish egoism, this collapse will not happen in their life-time.

The problem here is that there are far too many occasions, especially recently, where the successful selfish egoist really can bring society crashing down around them. We remember Nick Leeson the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank, in 1995. He had calculated that the bank was big enough not to miss the money he was losing. He was wrong. The 2007 banking crisis was not quite as simple, but there were elements of ‘it won’t happen in my time’ to it. Ponzi schemes, and the pyramid schemes that almost brought down the entire Albanian economy between 1991 and 1997 are stronger examples.

Deliberate misinformation on the internet is dangerous for the same reason that rogue financial dealings are dangerous to a bank. A thief who steals tools from vans or shops is not going to bring down the whole tool-making business. In fact, to some extent, the trade will benefit as insurance pays out and tradesmen are forced to buy new tools. However, a tool-making company that starts to skimp on the metals used to make tools is much more likely to destroy its industry. When the tool makers make bad tools and when the banks cannot be relied upon with money, society begins to lose its foundations.

If this seems somewhat obtuse (or over-obvious — it’s always difficult to know which), the point is that the internet exists solely for the purposes of spreading information. Misinformation rots the internet in the same way that spam rots email and viruses rot computer systems. More and more time and money is spent filtering out the misinformation and spam and blocking the viruses.

What happens when the time required to determine if what we find online is true is more than the time it would have taken to get things by other means? Progressively, those who need information move off the ‘free’ internet to pay-wall protected sites and purchased content. The more they do so, the less information is given away for free, since giving it away for free makes it valueless when the user cannot distinguish it from bogus information.

At what point will this happen? Impossible to measure or predict. In some sectors it has already happened. On the other hand, there is always a human vitality pumping free, valuable information in, notwithstanding the rubbish that it has to compete with.

Nonetheless, maybe think twice before sharing something on the web again, without checking if it’s really true?

After every election, the public sector is reorganised. It never seems to save any money.

After every election, the public sector is reorganised. It never seems to save any money.

Police Officers

BBC News – Radical police shake-up outlined.

After every election, vast swathes of the public sector are reorganised. And yet, within four years, the opposition — whoever they are — is able to point to a litany of inefficiency, bureaucracy gone mad, pointless red tape and wasteful duplication. Today, the police are being told they will be reorganised. A couple of weeks ago it was the health service. Other public sector bodies should expect the same.

We recognise that there have to be cuts. We are carrying a public sector sized for the economy in the hey-day of Tony Blair. We clearly cannot afford to carry on doing everything that we were doing, or, at least, not to the same extent. Lest we forget, it was not the public sector that got us into the economic trouble we found ourselves in. If Blair et al had had the Vince Cable-like foresight to take steps to avoid the crisis, they could have done it by dealing with our under-regulated financial sector, not by cutting public services.

But we are where we are, and we can’t simply go back. Cuts of some kind are inevitable.

But reorganisation? I’m not so sure.

Politicians, I feel, like reorganisation for two reasons. First, it gives them a feeling of being in charge — they can make their mark on history, leaving a legacy that will endure long after they are gone. Second, it makes them feel like they are running the nation like a business. Businesses reorganise, so should government. And, since businesses are driven by a profit motive, it is self-evident that reorganisation will deliver savings to the public purse, which can either go into more public services, lower taxes, or paying off debt.

Except, except.

First, since every government reorganises, even when the party in power stays the same, no reorganisation is permanent, and therefore no one gets to leave a mark in the history books. Or, if they do leave a mark, it is in pencil, to be rubbed out by the next owner of the book and replaced with their own mark. Nothing is more transitory than public sector reorganisation.

Second, businesses rarely reorganise successfully to reduce costs. Business reorganisations are as fraught with spiralling costs and new inefficiencies as public sector ones, although the losers are conveniently forgotten about. This is to some extent inevitable: public sector organisations tend to continue whether they are successful or not, and the ones which are axed are often not the ones which were inefficient. Private sector organisations that are unprofitable go under and vanish from our memory.

Business reorganisation, when it works, is done to meet new challenges and opportunities in the market place, which, under the now (in)famous BCG matrix, helps them develop the new rising stars which become cash-cows. A proportion of reorganisations can fail, as long as the business keeps its cash cows going, and creates its next generation from somewhere. The reorganisation itself is a costly process which creates duplication. But it is often out of this duplication and time of tension that new, creative, solutions to old problems emerge.

In the public sector this dynamic is not at work. First, there is no market place. The NHS cannot suddenly come up with an idea to beat crime, and move into police work. The Fire Service cannot muscle in on Education’s territory. Public services exist because we need them to exist, not because it is profitable that they exist. If the police spend their time trying to replace the fire service, then they are not catching criminals. Second, there is no profit. Any public sector organisation which underspends its budget faces having that budget subsequently reduced. It can reinvest its money in better services, but it cannot use that reinvestment to give bonuses to its staff — encouraging more efficient working — nor to develop new products for its future diversification.

Perhaps there is a case for a matrix working, self-diversifying set of public sector organisations without portfolio. A sort of generalised charity or trust, which moves to find holes in the public sector market place and fill them. Perhaps not — it would be another reorganisation.

We now face a very real possibility of the entire savings from the cuts being ploughed back into the costs of reorganisation, or, worse, real cuts which are not 25% but 50% in order to pay for the reorganisations. But our problem was not that the public sector was incorrectly organised, but because it was more than we could currently afford.

If we must cut, let us cut. But no more of this rearrangement of the pieces into another, no-more-efficient, and no-more-permanent solution which will be in turn abolished by the subsequent administration.

Toxic dumping banged to rights

Toxic dumping banged to rights

gavelThe case alleging that British/Dutch/Swiss firm Trafigura dumped its toxic waste in Ivory Coast, overloading capital Abidjan’s health system and injuring thousands of people, reads like something from a John Le Carré novel. Yesterday, a Dutch court found the multinational guilty of illegally exporting toxic waste from Amsterdam and concealing the nature of the cargo. Trafigura continues to deny wrongdoing and claims that the ruling is “incorrect”.

The fine amounts to €1 million, substantially more than it would have cost to have the waste dealt with correctly at the time, and it’s the first time Trafigura has faced criminal charges since the scandal struck in 2006.

This judgement is a genuine blow for justice. But it begs the question: how much more of this is going on?

Over the last thirty years we have seen (quite rightly) the growth of the FairTrade movement, aimed at giving growers and producers a price which reflects the value of their goods, rather than their weak negotiating position. But there is no FairTrade on waste. As EU laws (again, rightly) tighten up on disposal of waste on this continent, there are surely many more companies than Trafigura who eye the rubbish dumps of Africa or even Latin America as convenient places to leave their pollution, far from Western courts or the eyes of Western journalists.

Indeed, it was down to Greenpeace to bring the case, although Trafigura has paid out £104 million to the government of Ivory Coast and £32 million to individuals.

What is especially alarming in all of this is that an Ivory Coast court found two non-Trafigura employees guilty in 2008, sentencing one to 20 years in jail and the other to five years. I am not questioning their guilt — but two non-European nationals have borne the personal criminal liability with jail sentences for a crime for which they were by no means the main beneficiaries.

Here in the West, we bemoan the fact that while we put minor drug-traffickers away, we allow the big bosses to get off scot-free. The fact that no Trafigura employees are facing personal criminal convictions shows that, from the point of view of Africa, Western multi-nationals can behave exactly like those drug-traffickers.

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

Councillor John DixonLib Dem Cardiff Councillor John Dixon must have been surprised to be called to book over declaring that Scientology was “stupid”. The fact that he did it on Twitter was probably enough to raise this to a national news story. But it is disturbing that a councillor can face censure for a remark like this.

What Dixon actually tweeted was: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

Harmless, one would think, albeit not especially amusing. But this kind of thing is really very mild compared to the polemic which has done Richard Dawkins very nicely in his books, and far less hurtful than the daily knockabout on the subject of religion that takes place on countless websites across the net.

Lest we forget, Scientology is not an officially recognised religion in the UK. But even if it were, most faith groups take a certain amount of ribald criticism within their stride. Dixon was not putting up satirical cartoons of the Prophet, nor was he running an ad campaign mocking the crucifixion. Sacred symbols were not being abused, sacred texts were not being criticised: no deities, real or imagined, were hurt during the making of his tweet.

If he is indeed censured for this (though, if they have any sense, the ethics committee will recognise this as a legitimate comment and let it go, before they themselves become a laughing stock) then we have gone far too far down a path of political correctness over freedom of speech. Was John Dixon inciting religious hatred? Hardly, since Scientology is not officially a recognised religion under UK law. But even if it were, would he be inciting it? I doubt that the term would constitute incitement.

During the General Election, the leader of Stratford on Avon’s ruling Conservative group labelled me and my views ‘stupid’ four times in less than thirty seconds, live on BBC Radio. I thought it was a bit rude. But why, as a recognised British citizen, should I enjoy less protection than an imported American organisation which is not even recognised for what it claims to be?

In a world where our every off-hand comment is now tabulated and Googled, we need to come to a new understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. There has to be an understanding that there is a hierarchy of off-handedness. A statement published in a book for which money is paid is of a different level from a remark in live interview broadcast on local radio, and this is again different from a brief Tweet or a FaceBook one-liner.

Dixon would not have faced this kind of censure if he had written an opinion piece in a published newspaper attacking Scientology.

He should not face it for a Tweet.

Back to Top