Avoiding bad information

Mike Flood asks how much is the Information Age being tainted and diminished by disinformation.

The Internet is full of information, coming at you thick and fast. But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Photo: Nazly Ahmed

The Internet is full of information, coming at you thick and fast. But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Photo: Nazly Ahmed

The Internet Society once observed that the Internet is ‘proving to be one of the most powerful amplifiers of speech ever invented. It offers a global megaphone for voices that might otherwise be heard only feebly, if at all. It invites and facilitates multiple points of view and dialogue in ways unimaginable by traditional, one way mass media.’ The Internet is this and much more besides.

But as we become increasingly dependent on this miracle of human ingenuity, we are also having to cope with the internet’s darker side – bad information, propaganda, cybercrime and pornography. Here are two less flattering descriptions: ‘an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies’ (Mike Royko) and ‘the biggest lavatory wall in history’ (AC Grayling).

We might live in an ‘Information Age’, but how much is it being tainted and diminished by disinformation? We are accustomed to tyrants, dictators and jihadists putting out their warped propaganda and fabrications. But there are a host of other more subtle sources of bad information that we are exposed to 24-7 and this raises questions about the impact this may be having on personal wellbeing, social cohesion and international relations.

1   Amplifier of speech… or lavatory wall?

Online social networking services like Facebook, video sharing websites like YouTube, and open source blogging sites like WordPress enable anybody with a computer and a modicum of nous to disseminate information instantaneously to a global audience. And if people pass the information on, and it is sufficiently interesting or scurrilous, it may go viral and reach millions. But most of the information posted online has not been edited or peer reviewed and therein lies a problem because it can be partial or inaccurate, or just plain wrong. Whether this is by design (i.e. disinformation) or not (misinformation) is beside the point; in any case the distinction is often blurred by spin.

In 2010, Dow Jones carried out a survey of ‘Bad Info’ on the free web. This identified ‘opinion disguised as fact’ and ‘biased sources’ as the most frequently cited types of bad information. People use weasel words (‘many experts agree…’), selective omission, imply without saying, bury inconvenient facts, include misleading statistics or images, and so on… More than a third of respondents indicated that they encountered bad information ‘often’ or ‘constantly’. The most affected sectors were businesspeople, students, and inexperienced researchers.

There are websites that specialise in racist, xenophobic or indecent material, but bad information is also found on websites like Wikipedia, which were set up for the best of reasons and in the public good. Friends and rivals are constantly trying to manipulate content – be it the biography of controversial leaders or celebrities, information about a commercial product (pro or anti), anything about Israel, etc. The intention may be to manage reputation, promote some interest or other, affect page rank/link traffic, or simply to cause harm. It is difficult for any of us to know the extent of ‘Wikihacking’.

Another concern is how far search engines give a balanced view of what’s available on line. Who sets the algorithms? Things may change for the better as the programming gets even more sophisticated – or they may get worse, if commercial interests have their way. Google has already announced that websites that are not mobile-friendly will be pushed down the rankings, and there is talk of it launching an initiative to reduce bad information with a program which ranks websites according to veracity using a ‘knowledge-based trust’ scoring system that checks website data against verified facts in a ‘knowledge vault’. This should penalise web pages containing suspect or contradictory information.

The internet is censored to protect intellectual property and discourage defamation, harassment and obscene material, but this is but a drop in the ocean when it comes to removing bad information. So whilst the internet provides unrivalled access to information, those who surf its often murky waters have to be extremely careful. Things may not be all they seem.

2   Other sources of bad information

But bedroom bloggers, pranksters, and mischief-makers are not the only source of bad information. We also have the outpourings of religious zealots, New Age thinkers, unprincipled corporations, government spin doctors, and conspiracy theorists. This has always been the case but the issue is made more problematic and challenging by the Internet and the relative ease with which such material can now be accessed and used.

  • Mainstream religions and cults are major sources of ‘myth-information’ and promulgate misinformation by definition – they can’t all be right, although they can all be wrong, as atheists like to point out. How many religions put out disinformation is an interesting question: some tele-evangelists clearly do; and lying to non-believers (taqiyya) is permissible in Islam.
  • Proponents of woo, including New Age thinking, alternative therapies, and all manner of snake oil also propagate bad information and make claims that are unscientific, unproven, or unprovable. Whether astrology, biorhythms, esoteric healing, extrasensory perception, homeopathy, reflexology etc. work is debatable, but some may on occasion through the power of suggestion (the placebo or nocebo effect).
  • Big businesses do too. Big corporations are regularly accused of spreading disinformation. The criticism is most intense with high profile industries that promote controversial technologies – GMOs, nuclear power, waste incineration, fracking and the like. But naysayers are also prone to use propaganda and selectively interpret facts, and this just adds to the confusion.
  • The media is also culpable. Tabloid newspapers and news corporations are regularly accused of distorting or sensationalising issues – the former by making up stories; the latter when, for fear of being scooped, they broadcast without adequate scrutiny. (Cf. The new phenomenon of fact- and rumour-checking websites, and the extension of the idea to the media are good developments.)
  • Governments and state agencies regularly disseminate questionable material, often with a good dose of ‘spin’, and they are not averse to using negative advertising to attack opponents’ record, policies or personalities. This muddies the water. Some governments go further and suppress historical facts, even making it illegal to challenge the official line. Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is but one of many examples.
  • Conspiracy theories can be set in train by any of the above; they flourish on the internet and in some parts of the media. Sadly, they are widely believed in many parts of the world so have political currency. This is especially so where governments are economical with the truth and suppress bad or inconvenient news.

3   Costs and consequences

So what impact does exposure to bad information have on public attitudes, behaviour and wellbeing? And do we ourselves actively make the situation worse by ‘confirmation bias’, our tendency to search for, interpret or recall information in a way that confirms our beliefs or prejudices? We surround ourselves with people who share our views and reject ideas or concepts that don’t fit comfortably into our view of the world. Here are six consequences that should concern us all:

  • Misinformed citizens can influence elections and hence the political colour and policies of those in office. Being misinformed is in many ways worse than being uninformed, especially when misguided individuals state their beliefs and opinions with such confidence. They can become intolerant, even violent, and this – and the publicity it generates – can represent a serious threat to social cohesion.
  • Misapplied resources: Secularists consider support for ‘faith’ schools and other religious enterprises a gross misuse of taxpayers’ money, and they condemn the state funding of pseudoscientific ‘alternative’ ‘medicines’ through the NHS. But in my mind, perhaps the most extreme example of bad information having resource costs was the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’, which was used in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds – and cost Britain influence across the Middle East and beyond.
  • Risk to health and life: Alternative therapies are potentially dangerous as they are magnets for charlatans and conmen, and this poses risks to public health – as do pious believers who reject medical advice and rely on prayer to treat life-threatening conditions like cancer, or who refuse blood transfusion or vaccination.

‘Like a disease, pseudoscience runs through broad gutters of sophisticated misinformation, contaminating the groundwater of common knowledge and leeching into the minds of the media-fed masses. Undetected and uncorrected, furtively avoiding verifiable fact, bad information propagates disastrous errors and mistakes.’ Kelton Rhoades

  • Damaged minds: Young children cannot tell fact from fiction and are easily indoctrinated into faith. In later life their minds will be closed to science – what Stephen Law calls ‘intellectual black holes’ – and any idea or thought that threatens to undermine their cherished faith and practices. It is tragic but hardly surprising that idealistic youngsters become vulnerable to firebrand preachers or to grooming over social media, and that some are enticed into jihad, even martyrdom.
  • Intolerance and division: Strict madrasas and ‘faith’ schools create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that does little to promote community understanding and social cohesion; some ban music and other cultural pursuits, and or teach corrupt forms of science in which evolution, if it is taught at all, is dismissed as ‘just a theory’, with ‘intelligent design’ promoted as true. Groups that rigidly follow the scriptures, like the Scientologists, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah Witnesses, creationists, and Salafists, tend to be intolerant of the views of others and characteristically ostracise apostates, including close family members. Victims can be mentally scarred, and some fall victim to ‘honour’ killings – all as a result of social conditioning and bad information.
  • Weakened social cohesion: False rumours and conspiracy theories are spawned by ignorance, misunderstanding, or malice. They are invariably toxic and can lead to offensive, uncompromising attitudes, and aggressive behaviour towards people of other races, faiths, or customs, especially where repeated by multiple, seemingly independent agents. The speed of spread can be impressive (‘digital wildfire’) and the damage they can do to public attitudes, community cohesion and international relations is not easy to repair. And there may be more subtle effects: studies suggest that people who are exposed to anti-government conspiracy theories are less likely to vote than those who have read information refuting the conspiracy; similarly with climate change conspiracies (less intention to take action to reduce their carbon footprint), and anti-vaccine conspiracies (reduced intentions to get vaccinated). In each case, conspiracy theories decrease social engagement because they leave people feeling powerless.
  • Self-censorship: Bad information is difficult to counter: once released it can be referenced over and over, even after the original posting has been refuted or withdrawn. Mud sticks. Indeed, confirmation bias can maintain or even strengthen people’s beliefs in the face of criticism or contrary evidence. Moreover, it has become difficult to speak one’s mind or voice genuine criticism of anything related to religion, particularly concerning Islam. Many freethinkers feel restrained and increasingly self-censor for fear of being accused of being prejudiced, intolerant, racist, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic.

‘The problem with free speech is that it’s hard, and self-censorship is the path of least resistance. But, once you learn to keep yourself from voicing unwelcome thoughts, you forget how to think them – how to think freely at all – and ideas perish at conception.’ George Packer

  • Apathy: The omnipresence of bad or suspect information on the internet and in the outpourings of hard-line believers, special-interest lobbies, news corporations and government spin doctors raises serious concerns about anyone’s ability to make informed decisions in today’s Information Age: it may well be a major contributory factor to so much present day apathy.

4   What can be done about bad information?

Bad information can and should be challenged – or ridiculed and derided. Period. But there is a lot of it around and one needs to choose one’s battles carefully. One also needs to employ considerable emotional intelligence, especially when people’s cherished cultural practices or beliefs are in the cross-hairs. We live today in a global village, and we should be looking to make friends rather than alienate and antagonise people: as Benjamin Corey argues: ‘we must learn to recognize that all social groups – regardless of religious belief or lack thereof – bring something to the table that is worthy. Coming together to pursue peace, justice, equality, and all the other values we hold in-kind, we find that if we failed to partner together we would be dismissing friends and allies on a wide array of issues.’

Many of the following points should be self-evident, but there’s no harm in reciting them here.

 Don’t add to the problem

  • Tackling Bad InformationBe vigilant – make sure that ‘a little red light’ comes on in our head whenever you get near to an ‘intellectual black hole’ so that you don’t get sucked in / fall victim.
  • Keep an open mind – be aware of your own bias and the tendency to interpret ambiguous evidence as supportive of your own position or prejudices.
  • Be careful – use reputable sources and cross-check information before passing it on; make sure you are not yourself contributing to the problem of bad information. Fact- and rumour-checking websites may be helpful.
  • Be constructive – there’s enough negative comment around.

Challenge harmful attitudes and practices

  • Challenge suspect facts and dangerous opinions, especially where those involved have political aspirations and seek to curtail or prevent freedom of thought and expression.
  • Be persistent – refuting errors, pointing out bias needs to be done with vigour, and repeated often if it is to stand any chance of having an effect. But above all:
  • Be respectful and aware of cultural and religious sensitivities – questioning people’s faith or beliefs causes distress and offence, and only serves to increase division. What is the point in arguing with people who have ‘passed the event horizon’? Moreover, challenging vulnerable individuals who draw comfort from their faith – or from complementary medicine or some other lifestyle choice – could have serious consequences if it leaves a gaping vacuum in their lives. Be very careful!

Look for allies

  • Get more involved – support local humanist groups; talk to schools; attend local SACREs; challenge local sources of bad information, including elected representatives who support ‘faith’ schools, public services run by evangelical groups, or alternative therapies on the state; and subscribe to national organisations that promote human rights and freedom of thought and expression.
  • Collaborate – we need to be looking for allies and areas of common ground not making enemies and promoting The Accord Coalition sets a good example: it includes religious groups, humanists, teachers, trade unionists, educationalists and civil rights activists, working together for inclusive education, upholding civil rights, and promoting mutual understanding.

Steve Neumann sums it up nicely: ‘forget about disabusing believers of their core convictions with the ‘universal acid’ of rationality – the best way to fight for social justice and pluralism is to ally ourselves with those who share the same values, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs.’ Yes.

Critical thinking

Last but not least, we have to be more assiduous in promoting critical thinking at all levels of the education system, from pre-school to the university of the Third Age: with so much information now available on the internet, teaching ‘facts’ is much less important than it once was. The essential need today is to develop a good ‘nose’ to smell out bad information, and to acquire the skills and confidence to distinguish facts from opinion, and reliable sources from those that are questionable. These should be priority areas in all educational establishments.

Education is the only real weapon that we have in the fight against bad information – and it goes without saying, giving people the ability to think for themselves changes lives and makes the world a more interesting and more wondrous place to be.

Mike Flood is Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists. He works for Powerful Information, a charity involved with grassroots international development. This is a shortened version of Mike’s article. The full article with quotes and references can be found on the Milton Keynes Humanists website.

Peter Tatchell: My journey to Humanism – how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to rationalism

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes about the story of his journey to Humanism. This article was originally published in Humanism Ireland under the title ‘My Journey from superstition to rationalism.’

Peter Tatchell: Why I'm...

Peter Tatchell: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof that humans don’t need a god to tell right from wrong, and something we as humans can be proud of.

Organised religion is the world’s greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people for millennia, and continues to do so in many countries. So how come I was once in thrall to it?

Nowadays, I am a human rights activist motivated by love and compassion for other people. I do evidence-based campaigning, based on humanitarian and rational values.

But I once had a very different perspective. Indeed, I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ’60s. My mother and stepfather (with whom I spent most of my childhood) were prim and proper working class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual and definitive word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience, more Old Testament than New. It was all about personal salvation.

According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside of marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying and failing to go to church every Sunday. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

But in secondary school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smug religious education teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith. He argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light.

Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it is man-made electricity and wiring – and this can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. The existence of God cannot. This set my mind thinking sceptical thoughts.

This nascent doubt was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16,from becoming a Sunday school teacher to six year olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made colourful cardboard tableaux of Biblical stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This not only shattered my confidence in the police, courts and government, it also got me thinking about my faith.

According to St Paul (The Bible, Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. But why would God, I asked myself, ordain a government that allowed an apparent injustice, such as Ryan’s execution? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? Apartheid? And closer to home, the 19th century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the phrase. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news was dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action.

This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of ‘Jesus Christ the Liberator’, based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This soon led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against the death penalty, apartheid, the draft and the Vietnam War. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement. In 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an inter-denominational anti-war organisation which organised a spectacular candlelit march through Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

At the age of 17, I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. This positive experience overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummelled into me.

Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. I reasoned: how could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? Instantly, I accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn’t need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of human life and the universe.

Accordingly, I renounced religion and embraced reason, science and an ethics based on love and compassion. I concluded: we don’t need God to tell us what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof of this. It’s not God-given dogma and intolerance, but a fine example of high moral values, without religion. Bravo!

Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. Note: this article first appeared on Sarah Ager’s Interfaith Ramadan blog.

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’

The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.

The BHA and the NSS really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use ‘secularism’ interchangeably with ‘atheism’ or ‘Humanism’.  The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by ‘militants’ like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.

The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular – to varying degrees – after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that secularism and atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.

That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” – people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.

In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase pluralism, or at least the desire for pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.

You can currently be put to death simply for the ‘crime’ of atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist andEthical Union’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word ‘genocide’ is appearing – and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is .

Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power – or simply of change – and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.

Secularism is the alternative response to pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.

The faithful need secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.


Infographic: Is Britain a ‘Christian country’?

Last Monday the British Humanist Association coordinated an open letter, signed by more than 50 public figures, including authors, scientists, broadcasters, campaigners and comedians, who wrote to the Prime Minister to challenge his statement that Britain was a Christian country.

The story dominated the news agenda for the past week, and today the BHA has released an infographic which compiles statistics on the current state of religious identity, belief, and values in contemporary Britain. You can view the graphic below:

2014 04 28 LW v5 Infographic Christian Country