Fascinating how fast false rumors spread on social media

This post is about how social media propaganda appeared immediately after a proposed House bill was passed, then spread like wildfire, and was mostly not true. The NY Times reviews the main social media propaganda memes and how their messages are extreme exaggerations, distortions or outright lies.

I have not looked at the bill because I doubt its going anywhere and no need for me to waste time on that. We were ObamaCare consumers starting in 2014 until our insurance rates rose by 140% from 2014 to 2017 to the point we had to drop out of the ACA markets. News reports rarely mention the majority of purchasers receive no subsidies and their rates have risen so fast and so high that many can no longer buy insurance. If you are interested in learning about the real reason for this, please read my lengthy paper on the subject to understand why ObamaCare is fatally broken, by design, with proposed solutions.)

Most car crashes caused by cellular phone usage?

I saw an item on a Facebook group where the general meme was that everyone knows cellular phone usage while driving is the cause of most vehicle crashes. The data, however, paints a remarkably different picture. Cellular phone usage, per the government’s own data, is a minor causative factor in vehicle crashes.

There are many causative factors in car crashes: one category of causative factors is “distracted driving”. Cellular phone usage is a subset of “distracted driving”.

The U.S.government’s National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a report in 2016 on distracted driving, with data up to 2014 (the most recent data available).

Here is what they write on page 1:

“A distraction-affected crash is any crash in which a driver was identified as distracted at the time of the crash.

  • Ten percent of fatal crashes, 18 percent of injury crashes, and 16 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2014 were reported as distraction-affected crashes…”

Let’s restate this:

  • 10% of fatal crashes involved a driver distraction
  • 18% of injury crashes involved a driver distraction
  • 16% of all reported crashes involved a driver distraction

The proportion of those distracted driving incidents where a cellular phone was a causative factor is a subset of these percentages (see tables in the report):

  • 7% of 10% of fatal crashes or less than 1% of all fatal crashes
  • 13% of 18% of injury crashes or about 2.3% of all injury crashes
  • Cellular phone usage for “all crashes” (including non fatal, non injury) is not provided in the report but is likely similar to the two other categories.

The data provided by the U.S. government does not support the widespread meme that cellular phone usage is the leading cause of vehicle crashes. Is my interpretation off in space? The report uses remarkably plain language for a government report. Am I missing something?

Why do people believe cellular phone usage is a leading cause if not pre-dominant cause of vehicle crashes?  (This was the conclusion of those in a Facebook group discussing this topic.)

There is no official answer to that question so we can only guess:

  1. Selected (cherry picked) emotional stories are given widespread media exposure
  2. Bad journalism/bad reporting (fake news from “non-fake” news sources) – often using a variety of propaganda methods to convey this. One common approach in news reports is to quote an “expert” (appeal to authority) who says “Over 30% of crashes are caused by cellular phone usage”. This is a common quote in many news reports, none of which substantiate the number except by an appeal to authority.
  3. Propaganda efforts by the insurance industry to promote a reduction in risk (and their costs)
  4. The tendency to generalize from n=small numbers (I once saw a bad driver using a cellular phone, therefore most bad driving is due to cellphone usage, and if most bad driving is due to cell phone usage then this must be the cause of most crashes). This is a”logical fallacy“.
  5. Everyone just knows that cellular phone usage by drivers causes most crashes (both the assertion and the get on the bandwagon propaganda methods).
  6. If anyone cites the data in a social media reply, this unleashes a barrage of name calling (another propaganda method) that if you disagree, you are a denier, an idiot or whatever.

Facts and logic are the enemy of propaganda. When many people believe something to be true, and that “something” is not supported by official data, it is likely that propaganda messaging has been used to persuade the public.

Using lies to spin a story

Lies work because people are absurdly trusting of others and surprisingly trusting of authority figures.

We saw this during the past week as both Chicago Aviation Police and United Airlines told lies to defend unlawful actions against a paying customer. Much of the media bought the United story without skepticism, reporting initially that a belligerent passenger refused to get off an overbooked flight and then injured himself as police were forced to remove him from the plane. Except none of those assertions were true.

If there had been no cell phone video, the story would have ended there. But as has become typical, multiple videos showed a different story of abusive police. And we learned the United Airlines flight was not overbooked but United was unlawfully assaulting a passenger because their own employees were more important than paying customers.

While much propaganda does not rely on lies, lies are used often enough because they usually work. As we saw here, the media merely regurgitated United propaganda assertions and lies – turning their initial news reports in to fake news.

Two other big lies were caught this week. One, the Daily Mail newspaper paid a nearly $3 million settlement to Melania Trump after printing false and defaming allegations about her for which they had no evidence.

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How bureaucrats use passive language to escape responsbility

Long article (link below) explains how corporations and governments torture language to escape culpability. By carefully crafting the message, these organizations use propaganda to intentionally mislead the target audience – and they get away with it because it works and rarely does anyone call them out for their malfeasance and lies.

What became clear to me in this exchange is that the passive voice is itself unsuited for the lexical landscape of United’s email, which itself is part of a larger world we now find ourselves in, where corporate and government bureaucracies rely heavily on language to shape our perception. Munoz’s email relies heavily on the passive voice to evade culpability, but he also employs a host of other rhetorical moves that collude to put the blame on the man who was assaulted and carried out on a stretcher. Like a well-trained bureaucrat, Munoz used an array of syntactical choices in a predictable, quantifiable and deliberate manner, and it’s time we recognize it for what it is.

Source: The Elements of Bureaucratic Style

And how the media itself is fully complicit in this malfeasance:

Readers need to know, for example, that journalists who use phrases like “officer-involved shooting” in any context other than a direct quote from law enforcement are derelict. It is law enforcement’s prerogative to use spin and dissimulation to obtain favorable coverage; it is the media’s role to resist this. And yet, this is a role the media has almost wholeheartedly abdicated.

When corporations and government speak through their public relations staff, they are almost always lying or hiding something.

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Using outright lies to inflame the target and spread propaganda

11800154_1666909613542254_6320716305316920615_nTL;DR Summary

To accuse a health care practitioner of murder, as done in this social media poster, is libel.

This is one of the most disturbing and vicious propaganda posters distributed on Facebook.  This poster illustrates the horrendous danger of social media, the sick individuals who inhabit social media (and newspaper comment forums) and the undue influence they hold over others through spreading their own messages of hate.

This example illustrates how easy it is to
1. Create a propaganda poster out of anything, twisting the original out of context.
2. Quickly spread it on social media – because people share without thinking.
3. And stupidly engage in online libel.

I do not know the original source for this altered image but it has been shared widely online, and then commented by many other people who believe the poster is accurate. Thus, an outright lie was turned into a “true fact” by propaganda, even though it is absolutely false.

Social media is very, very frightening. Outright lies are shared and turned into “true facts” through friction-less social media sharing, leading to the creation of a false virtual world where people who vote are making future decisions based on falsehoods.

The more you examine social media propaganda the more you realize, “What if you everything you think you know is a big lie?” (See next post below this one)

How do we get control over this spread of falsehood and hate on line – by people who would never ever view themselves as discriminatory and yet routinely group individuals by their membership in a group (the exact behavior or racism, sexism, ageism, ethnic-ism, etc). This behavior cuts to the core of the thinking processes of those who engage in these behaviors.

Did a Congressman really say we do not need satellites because we have the Weather Channel?

The 2017 social media meme:

2017 True Story: A Congressman was at a hearing for a request for funding for GOES satellites. He asked the scientist why do we need to spend money on satellites when you can turn on the weather channel and get the weather!

TL;DR Summary

  • This quote appears in 2000 and 2007 and 2011 and has nothing to do with events in 2017.
  • As we will see, it appears several people who claim to have been told this were either confused or are lying.

2000:

“… we must avoid replicating the error of the US congressman who questioned the need for (publicly funded) weather satellites on the ground that the Weather Channel is available on cable TV.” (page 8, The Nature and Dynamics of Organizational Capabilities).

2007:

“But that is not always the case for politicians and some of the public, as illustrated by the congressman mentioned in the previous chapter who was not interesting in funding a weather satellite when you could already watch the Weather Channel” (page 57, Space as a Strategic Asset, and previous chapter did not mention any congressman.)

2011:

“I had a member of Congress tell me, “I don’t need your weather satellites, I have the Weather Channel.” (quote from Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA, as quoted in a media interview).

This social media meme sounds plausible at first glance, but the attribution to an anonymous Congressman is our first clue that this most likely a false quote. Oddly, several people each claim to have been told this by a member of Congress, yet clearly, when the track goes back to at least 2000, this implies the author in 2007 and Jane Lubchenko in 2011 were potentially lying.

Social media memes – and fake news – are often crafted by leaving out details necessary to verify the authenticity of the story. Here, by leaving out the name of the Congressman, there is nothing to fact check. Similarly, referencing the GOES satellite systems adds an aura of legitimacy to the statement.

Leaving out critical details is a key aspect of fake news reports, some of which are published by major media outlets. Over a decade ago, one of the nation’s most well recognized newspapers published a story about an “ordinary transport ship” having reached the North Pole without the aid of an ice breaker.

The story gave the ship’s name, which was easily looked up online. I found the complete specification for this “ordinary transport ship” at the Finland-based ship manufacturer.

In the real world, this “ordinary transport ship” had twice the ice breaking capability of the largest ice breaker in the U.S. fleet. Indeed, at that time, about 70 “transport ships” operated by Russia were actually ice breakers re-fitted for dual use as cargo hauling transport ships.

I sent this verified information to the corrections editor of this well known newspaper. I never received an acknowledgement.

What did the newspaper do about this error in the story?

They deleted the name of the ship so that no one else could then fact check their story. Their fake news story – from one of the nation’s best known news papers – lives on to this day, minus the ship name.

By removing a key element needed to verify the authenticity of the story, fake news can live forever, unchallenged.

Everyone plays the fake news game, including famous publishers.

 

 

Paid propagandists control social media discourse

Attkisson: When people get online every day and take part in social media or do searches for news, what is it you think they don’t know?

Matthew Brown: I don’t think they know they’re being manipulated.

Matthew Brown is a data analyst who pierces the secrecy behind paid efforts to influence online.

Attkisson: What areas of the Internet are used to shape and manipulate opinion?

Matthew Brown: Everywhere social. Everywhere social means specific Facebook pages, but it also means the comment sections in every major newspaper.

Brown began investigating after his health insurance costs tripled and he commented about it on the Obamacare Facebook page. He got bombarded, he says, by digital activists disguised as ordinary people.

Brown: Digital activists are paid employees; their purpose is to attack anyone who’s posting something contrary to the view the page owner wants expressed.

Brown decided to use analysis software to crunch the numbers. He evaluated 226,000 pro-Obamacare posts made by 40,000 Facebook profiles. What he found was remarkable.

Brown: 60 percent of all the posts were made from 100 profiles, posting between the hours of 9 and 5 Pacific Time.

Attkisson: Which means what?

Matthew Brown: They were paid to post.

Source: Sum of Knowledge Part 1

Bitter almonds were banned by the US government because they can treat cancer?

TL; DR Summary

  • This appeared in my Facebook news feed yesterday.
  • Many of the commenters to it, believed this to be true.
  • A few noted that perhaps this ban was because bitter almonds contain hydrogen cyanide (this is true) but pointed to other “nuts” like Apricot pits, that also contain similar levels of cyanide – and those are not banned. Therefore, say the conspiracy theorists, this poster must be true!

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Non profit spins news story into propaganda success?

Source: Traffic deaths surge in 2016

My local paper (not linked here) spun this story with anecdotes and quotes that cell phones were the cause of most car crashes (they are not). The story is appearing in online news reports nationwide.

According to the National Highway Transportation Administration, all forms of distracted driving accounted for 10% of all fatal car crashes and 16% of all crashes reported to the police. Cell phone usage is one of several driving distractions.

Cell phone usage was a factor in 3% to 39% of all distracted driving fatal crashes (the percentage varies by age, with the age 20-29 group being the high outlier). That corresponds to 0.3% to 5% of all fatal crashes, and 0.5% to 6% of all car crashes.

Numerous stories claim or imply that cell phones are the cause of most crashes, which is not true. But judging by the comments in my local newspaper, this assertion has been turned into a fact thanks to propaganda and poor journalism.

I made this chart a very long time ago – while it only goes to 2000, the basic issue it illustrates remains true:

 

From a propaganda perspective, this story took off across the country today – originating with the National Safety Council, a safety advocacy organization. The NSC press release lists cell phones as one of many issues in auto safety – the NSC, however, wants to ban all cellular phone operation in automobiles, for any purpose.

The NSC press release also says “The U.S. lags the rest of the developed world in addressing highway fatalities” which is not true. The U.S. is not the worst for accident rates or total accidents even though the U.S. has more population, more drivers, driving more miles than other countries.

The NSC’s propaganda efforts have been a spectacular success, widely distributed in the media, and then amplified by poor reporting and news forum online comments that proclaim this assertion as a fact. Undoubtedly the story has been shared widely on social media. I have not been on social media for a few days as our Internet access has been unreliable and intermittent.

Propaganda: Want to Make a Lie Seem True?

Lies can be made to seem true when they are repeatedly told, over and over and over again.

Repetition is what makes fake news work, too, as researchers at Central Washington University pointed out in a study way back in 2012 before the term was everywhere. It’s also a staple of political propaganda. It’s why flacks feed politicians and CEOs sound bites that they can say over and over again. ….

The effect works because when people attempt to assess truth they rely on two things: whether the information jibes with their understanding, and whether it feels familiar.

Source: Want to Make a Lie Seem True? Say It Again. And Again. And Again | WIRED

You do not need to look very far to find examples of lies that were repeatedly endlessly:

  • “you can keep your health plan”
  • “you can keep your doctor”
  • “my plan will save the typical family $2,500 per year”

As long as it sounds possibly plausible, and even better, it agrees with your wishful fantasy, the endless repetitions turn lies into facts.

How can you protect yourself from being taken in by lies?

I have no answer to that question. You may spot the lie, but if you mention to someone else that you believe it is a lie, you will likely be insulted, treated rudely and likely told you are a denier. Even if they agree that the statement is a lie, then they often say “But everyone lies”.

Telling a lie is a positive virtue where once upon a time, telling lies got people in trouble.

As long as telling lies is tolerated and supported, fake news and social media propaganda will flourish! We are in the golden age of propaganda!