Ahmed: Another ship arrived during the night. There’s a boy standing out there on the bow. Like he’s a statue.
Melchisidek: The boy is letting them see him.
Ahmed: He’s in plain sight!
Melchisidek: They do not know if what they see is real. Something to do with the mist. Apparently they find dangerous things, spirits, in the mist. The boy was being … polite. Giving them time to decide if he’s real.
-- The 13th Warrior, Touchstone Pictures, 1999
How do you know?
How do you know if what you see is real?
In the previous essay, I used Michael Crichton’s Westworld as an analogy for the fluid virtual reality we now face.
Crichton was a master of creating fictional realities based on science, religion, politics, and whatever his fertile imagination could dream up for seasoning. He was a science fiction writer, that’s what they do.
So it seems fitting to use another of his creations as an example here.
In the movie The 13th Warrior, based on Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, the entire story is about deception, layer upon layer of it. As one of the characters says, Deception is the point! and nothing is as it seems. The poet who claims he’s not a warrior is skilled with a blade. The Vikings who first appear to be dumb brutes hide calm reason and keen intelligence. The monsters appear to be half man, half beast, but even they aren’t what they seem.
Crichton based his novel in large part on the Syrian risala of Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān who described an embassy expedition sent by the Caliph of Baghdad in 921 C.E. to meet with the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga. There, Ahmad, claims to have encountered a group of traders from the north called The Rusiyyah, or Rus, a people of supposed Scandinavian origin, and to have witnessed the funeral of a Viking chieftain.
For many years historians have argued over the veracity of Ahmad and his descriptions of the Rus. At first, the experts weren’t even certain if Ahmad ibn Faḍlān really existed. Some academics claimed with authority that the risala was simply a fiction cobbled together over the years from many different oral histories. But eventually an authentic text was discovered and those in a position to know have over time come to agree in broad strokes that an Arab scholar named Ahmad ibn Faḍlān did indeed journey north in the early years of the 10th Century into what is now modern day Russia. Exactly who the Rus were and what role they might have played in the creation of Russia is still subject to academic debate.
What is more certain however is this: even if the overall tale of Ahmad’s travels is true, his descriptions of what he regarded as a primitive and savage people are filtered through his own bias, perhaps deliberately so for cultural, religious, and political reasons. Faḍlān’s description of the northerners was, at times, somewhat less than flattering:
§ 83. They are the filthiest of God's creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination, nor do they wash after pollution from orgasm, nor do they wash their hands after eating. Thus they are like wild asses.
§ 84. Every day they must wash their faces and heads and this they do in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible: to wit, every morning a girl servant brings a great basin of water; she offers this to her master and he washes his hands and face and his hair. He washes it and combs it out with a comb in the water; then he blows his nose and spits into the basin. When he has finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does likewise. She carries the basin thus to all the household in turn, and each blows his nose, spits, and washes his face and hair in it.
Given what is known of Scandinavian culture from that time, and given Faḍlān was a strict Muslim (in fact, his role in the expedition was as a religious advisor) with very specific hygiene requirements dictated by his religion, it’s likely that he was exaggerating just a bit (though the morning toilet made it into the movie verbatim as a frame around the quote that opens this article. Because it made for a graphic description of the differences between the two cultures).
Whatever the truth, Crichton took that tale and reworked it into a more compelling fiction and then combined that with the Viking legend of Beowulf to create Eaters of the Dead.
And then Hollywood reworked that into a movie.
As such, The 13th Warrior is a tale of deception based on a possibly even greater deception and as the story says, “they do not know if what they see is real.”
So, how do you know?
In Blind Spot, Part I, I talked about fake news and conspiracy theories and the danger of an administration that isolates itself from reality (as best we can determine it).
I got hundreds of responses, in comments and email and social media messages. All of which can be boiled down to this: Yeah, but how do you know?
How do you know what is real and what is just another imagined spirit in the mist?
How do you separate the fake world from the real one?
Our reality is a manufactured construct which we all agree (or not) to live in and because we are human that world is only partially based on fact and reason and verified evidence. The world we inhabit often consists of viewpoints shaped by our own politics, by religion (or not), by community (or not), and increasingly by an unending barrage of media – both commercial and social. To some extent, we each shape our view of this world by choosing what information we are exposed to, a process commonly referred to as confirmation bias – though there is much more to it than just that. We often accept the information we want to believe as true, and reject that which we don’t as false. All of us do this to varying degrees, it’s part of being human. Education and training, critical thinking, experience (or not) all temper that process, again to varying degrees.
But even the best education and training and decades of experience can’t prevent the human mind from seeing spirits of its own imagining in the mist.
This is one of the biggest pitfalls of intelligence work. That is, you tend to see the things you want to and be blind to the things you don’t. This is also true of other fields, and is common in politics, religion, and science alike – the difference being that science done right is self-correcting, politics and religion tend to be self-reinforcing (intelligence work far too often falls somewhere between those poles).
So, how do you know?
How do you know what is real, truly real, and what isn’t?
Assuming that you want to make the distinction in the first place – not everybody does.
How do you know what is real?
Earlier this week the Associated Press reported a man in Mississippi had been arrested for burning down an African-American church after spray-painting “Vote Trump!” on the building’s walls.
Is that true?
Did that really happen?
Well, let’s see. The church was certainly burned. On November 1st, eight days before the 2016 General Election, police and firefighters responded to a blaze at the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi. The historic black church had been vandalized with spray-painted slogans and set on fire.
The church exists. There are property records of such a church. There are pictures. You can find it on Google Street View:
As to the crime itself, there are multiple press reports based on multiple sources that can be verified. There are police and fire department reports as part of the public record. There are eye witnesses.
As such, there’s a very high probability verging on 100% that the event as initially reported is true: The church does exist, it is a historically African-American church, it was vandalized, it was set on fire. And really, a black church, vandalized, arson, Mississippi, how many examples from history of similar events do you need in addition to the basic facts?
Now, I suppose you could, at this point, dismiss the incident altogether.
No such church.
No such fire.
I don’t believe it. False flag. Fake news. Created by unknown persons for reasons unknown.
And the world is such that there are in fact people who believe exactly that and there is little that can be done short of institutionalization (or perhaps time travel) to correct that extremist viewpoint.
However, short of driving to Greenville yourself and personally checking the race of the congregation and shifting the ashes with your own bare hands, there’s a point where you have to accept certain things as fact even though you personally haven’t witnessed them or put your hands on them.
Anything else verges on paranoid schizophrenia.
Most of us had little trouble believing the initial reports.
Most of us.
But that’s where it starts, right there, because a significant number of people do indeed doubt that aforementioned history ever happened – just as there are those who deny the Holocaust or the Moon Landings, or the guy who showed up in my social media feed last week who doesn’t believe there are such things as nuclear weapons, a surprise to the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki I’m sure. And no amount of proof, no evidence, nothing, can convince them otherwise.
But here’s the problem: there is the very barest chance that they may be, if you squint your eyes, correct.
See, facts don’t always tell the entire story.
Human beings aren’t robots, we aren’t computers. We always, always every time, see even indisputable fact through the lens of our own bias – just as Ahmed ibn Faḍlān viewed the Vikings he encountered though the lens of his own civilization and religion. And so, beyond the facts, we read the reports of that burned church and formed our opinions of what must have happened based on how we see the world, on what we believe history to be.
Well, the man arrested, the arsonist, it turns out he’s black.
And a member of the congregation.
Right? Ah. Ha.
Ah ha! So it was a black guy who faked a hate crime trying to make white Trump supporters look like the bad guys! Ah HA! I knew it! and you don’t have to go very far to find that exact response.
When the story first broke, I wanted it to be true.
I wanted to believe the worst about Donald Trump and his supporters. That’s my bias. I’d seen the Klan and the Neo-Nazis at his rallies. Hell, a number of them got me temporarily banned from Facebook because they didn’t like something I said. Those people were real, no fooling, self-declared Nazis. Racists. Bigots. Trump Supporters. That’s not hyperbole, they proudly self-identified as such.
So when this story first broke, black church, vote Trump, Mississippi, arson, I wanted to believe the worst.
I wanted to believe the worst, I wanted to believe some racist sheet-wearing Stormtrumper was responsible. And that’s the problem, I wanted to believe it.
But I was afraid right from the start that it might turn out this way.
You see, wanting it to be true doesn’t make it true.
And today police have in custody a black man, a member of the congregation, who vandalized his own church in order to make us, all of us, believe Trump supporters are racist villains. And if you’re one of those Trump supporters, isn’t that exactly what you wanted to believe when you first read this story?
But again, wanting it to be true doesn’t make it true and it turns out both viewpoints are likely wrong.
You see, investigators now believe the crime was not politically or racially motivated at all.
It seems Andrew McClinton (McClinton? OMG!) has a criminal history and might have vandalized the church to cover up a robbery and the racial tensions of this election simply provided a convenient cover.
So where does that leave us?
Is this fake news?
A hoax? No. That it wasn’t.
The building really was burned.
The words “vote Trump” really were painted on the walls.
That’s not a hoax. A hoax would be if the congregation faked a fire or lied about it actually having happened. This isn’t that. This is a real event, it’s just the motivations we assumed were behind it are likely incorrect.
So, is it real news then? A case of somebody trying to create fake news by exploiting racism and political triggers to hide another crime altogether?
Is that real news or is it fake news?
Actually, yes it is coincidence.
Or maybe if not coincidence per se, then a case of opportunity.
The arsonist attempted to exploit political conditions and racial prejudice to hide the criminal actions that were his real motivation. That’s not fake news, that’s real news. It’s just not the real news we wanted to hear and so some of us refuse to believe it. And predictably, white people responding to the revelation that the arsonist was a black man seem to forget all those times a white person created a fictitious black man to hide their crimes. Ashley Todd, for example, who in 2008 went so far as to carve a “B” into her own face … and then blame a black Obama supporter for it. Or how about Susan Smith in 1994, who murdered her children by rolling her car into a lake with her two young boys strapped into car seats … and then blamed a fictitious black man. How about Brian Wells? Remember him? This guy was committed to his duplicity. He’s the pizza delivery man who entered an Erie, Pennsylvania, bank in 2003 with a bomb strapped to his neck. He claimed he’d been abducted by a group of, yep, black men who were forcing him to rob the bank. The bomb detonated and Wells lost his head. Turns out he was in on the plot. He and his white friends came up with the whole thing.
All of those things were news – even though the people involved were engaged in fakery and fraud for their own ends.
And so, again, where does that leave us?
Is reporting on fake news real news?
Or is reporting fake news fake news in and of itself? (Yeah, that sentence was just as hard to type as you might imagine).
Why doesn’t headline say “black man arrested for burning black church?”
If it was a white man, the commenter opines, they’d say so. The media thrives off [starting] shit.
Well, there’s some truth to this. That’s the nature of the beast. We could wish it otherwise, but the reality (heh heh) is that shit sells copy and that’s our fault.
However, there’s also a lot of untruth in that statement and it doesn’t take much to find it.
Pictures of a black man.
Many headlines do say that a black man was arrested for burning down a black church. Many don’t. If you look carefully, you’ll see that in the sample provided it’s conservative sources which emphasize black and more liberal sources that just use a picture or the phrase member of.
Is that significant? Yes. No. Maybe.
Depends on how you see the world, doesn’t it?
Information, news, how we see facts, are all biased in one fashion or another and to varying degrees. How much importance we attach to that bias is a function of education, training, experience, emotion, habit, and a thousand other subjective factors.
Is it fake news because we just didn’t have all the facts at first, so we filled in the blanks with our own suspicions?
Moreover, can you now point to this story as reason not to trust any news report?
Some Liberals will do or say anything.
Well, yes, that’s true. But, so will some conservatives. It’s a human trait, not a political one.
Beyond that, Is McClinton’s duplicity evidence that none of Donald Trump’s supporters are racists? Including those who are openly members of the Aryan Nations and the Ku Klux Klan?
Is this story evidence that the “real” racists are black people?
Can you now point to McClinton’s duplicity as proof all other hate crimes reported by the press are fake?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re engaged in a logical fallacy.
The simple truth is that in this case, the fact – the facts – don’t really help you.
We all, most of us anyway, can agree on the facts. At least in this instance.
But we see this situation the way Ahmad ibn Faḍlān saw the Rus.
That is to say, the “truth” depends on who we are.
“Rationality seems to have fallen out of vogue. People don’t know what to believe anymore. Everything is really strange right now.”
-- Brooke Binkowski, managing editor, Snopes
How do you know?
How do you know if President Obama really ordered a ban on all Christmas cards to overseas servicemen because the Christian holiday supposedly offends Muslims?
It should be obvious that’s real fake news (I know. Sorry. Won’t happen again).
It should be obvious, but it’s not. At least not for a lot people who’ve been forwarding this fraud via social media with varying degrees of outrage.
But how do you know?
Simple, ask yourself this: Do I want it to be true?
Do I want it to be true? Yes or no. In this case, a certain segment of the population does want it to be true. They want it to be true in the worst way. They want to believe that Barack Obama would do such a thing, that he’d cater to foreigners – to a religion they see as foreign and hostile – at the expense of not only his own countrymen but the very heroes who keep us safe. They want to believe Muslims are so intolerant they’d be offended by non-Muslims receiving Christmas Cards. They want to believe there’s a war on their religion, on their holiday, that they are somehow ultimately the victims of this terrible offense. And they want to share this outrage with others who inhabit their viewpoint because it confirms that worldview.
But it’s more than that.
Social Media makes it worse because it amplifies our worst tendencies. Post a good conspiracy meme to your Facebook page and you’re likely to get noticed, you’ll get comments and likes, arguments, agreement, attention. Noticed. You’re the guy with the news, people want to be your friend. Even if you suspect it’s not true, you want it to be. You want to share it, just so you can be that guy with the clever thing for a moment.
What’s that? Oh you don’t think that’s a real driver behind the spread of information? That need for attention? That need for social validation? Really?
You live in a country (you Americans anyway) where your fellows put a sticker on the back of their car so the people behind them will know what kind of cooler they own. Because keeping your beer chilled in a $400 plastic box is a status symbol and owning one gives you bragging rights over the mundanes who have to make do with a Coleman. And if you spend any time on social media at all, it doesn’t take long to realize that people who derive some kind of social status from a goddamned icebox, really, really care about the number of clicks and likes and shares they get and it doesn’t really matter to them if what they post is true or not.
Do I want this to be true? If so, why?
That’s how you start. That’s the hardest step, that first one right there. Because you have to be honest with yourself.
You can’t find the truth if you start out by lying to yourself.
Do I want this to be true? Yes or no.
Wanting it to be true doesn’t make it true.
Wanting it to be true doesn’t make it false either. But you have to consciously fight against confirmation bias and just like in science, or in good intelligence work, the more you want it to be true the greater should be your skepticism.
That’s step One.
From there, at least in this case, it’s a simple matter of reason and fact checking:
Did President Obama really ban Christmas cards to troops overseas?
1. Censorship is an extremely touchy subject in the US. There are both political and practical reasons why censorship of military mail directed by the president would be improbable at this point in time. Large scale censorship of military mail has been done in the past, however no program for such currently exists. Reviewing each piece of mail, hundreds of thousands of items, would require a very large workforce at multiple facilities, both military and civilian, and would require extensive oversight. Which in turn would require federal funding. Which in turn would require legislation. Which would a) have to be approved by a Congress dominated by conservatives largely opposed to anything originating with President Obama, and b) be a matter of public record. No legislation? Then no funding. No funding, no censorship.
No such legislation exists.
2. The president would have to implement such an action via Executive Order. Executive Orders are a matter of public record. Each Executive Order is an official document and property of the United States, the text of which is recorded in the Federal Register and promulgated to the appropriate Department Secretary or Agency Head via official message. In this case President Obama would have had to issue an Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense, who would then have issued his own directive to the Joint Chiefs, who would then task the Service Branches, who would then have to issue orders to the appropriate units under their respective commands. Those directives and orders would have to include authorization, a schedule of implementation and duration, the specific units and locations affected, allocation of manpower and assets (such as facilities to do the censorship in), instructions for training that manpower, specific guidelines for implementation, funding, some manner of determining effectiveness, and instructions for reporting. At a minimum. Given the controversial nature of such an order, more than likely the tasking would have to be vastly more specific and extensive.
No such Executive Order exists.
No such military tasking exists.
No such funding. No such allocation of manpower and resources exist.
3. Military Regulation, specifically DoD 4525.6-M The Department of Defense Postal Manual, section C2 specifically prohibits (with one exception) censorship of military mail. (That one exception? Handling of mail for enemy prisoners of war detained in US facilities as detailed in section C2.17). For the military postal system to censor mail, that regulation would have to be modified by official order.
No such order exists.
4. If you go to the official White House Website, you will immediately see that far from restricting Christmas greetings to troops overseas, this year President Obama’s administration suggests Americans send a USO E-Card to members of the military and one of the message options you can select is "We are grateful for all you do. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!" Go look for yourself. Hell, send a Christmas card on President Obama’s dime to a service person while you’re at it.
That story is fake news.
It originated on a fake new site and was specifically tailored to appeal to conservatives, designed specifically to provoke patriotic outrage in those prone to such, in order to further fuel their hate and distrust of the president (Don’t think so? Click on the link, read the article, then read the comments), which in turn generates page views and advertising revenue for the fakers.
And it works.
It works because social media makes it easy to spread disinformation, especially among those who want to believe.
This is true on both sides of the political spectrum, so don’t go getting too smug.
It takes practice.
It takes training.
It takes conscious effort, to overcome your own biases.
But the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
Step 1, You start by acknowledging what you want to believe.
Yeah, Jim, we got that. But what then? What’s Step 2?
Well, every story is different.
They’re all true and false to varying degrees. The world changes on a moment by moment basis, each of us comes at it from our own viewpoint. Even the facts, as noted above, are no sure guarantee of reality – or we wouldn’t still be arguing over Benghazi (or 9-11, The Kennedy Assassination, TWA flight 800, Pearl Harbor, the Moon Landings, etc).
So there are no hard and fast rules for spotting fake news, no hard and fast Step 2.
However, NPR provides a pretty good list of things to consider at this point:
Is the story so outrageous you can't believe it?
Is the story so outrageous you do believe it?
Does the headline match the article?
Does the article match the news story it's lifted from?
Are quotes in context?
Is the story set in the future?
Does the story attack a generic enemy?
Are you asked to rely on one killer factoid?
Who is the news source, anyway?
Does the news source appear to employ a professional editorial staff?
You should read the entire article for a more detailed examination of each of those items, but NPR’s advice can be summed up as “apply basic critical thinking.” Do I want to believe this? Do I not want to believe it? What are the sources? Is the author engaged in logical fallacies? Can I double check the basic assumptions myself (as in the above example: any new Executive Orders? Legislation? Etc). Who else has checked into this? Snopes, Factcheck, Politifact, etc, and what are their sources and conclusions.
It matters because the world has changed.
Once upon a time fake news, fringe conspiracies, deliberately false reports, those things spread relatively slowly. They were confined by the state of the art, by society itself. Like a virus, even the most virulent, the spread is restricted by the vector of transmission and the vulnerability (or not) of the prospective host.
And now? Well, at the risk of pushing this analogy too far, the contagion has gone airborne.
With the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and the desperate competition between channels for viewers – any viewers, with social media now instantaneously connecting literally billions at any one moment, false information can become, well, viral. It begins as a misunderstanding of the facts, or a deliberate lie, or just the human tendency to see what we want to see. And so if it’s outrageous or titillating or unusual or just confirms what we want to believe, it begins to spread through social media. A celebrity, a politician, some notable, mentions it. Suddenly it’s a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter and it becomes self-sustaining – and that’s when it becomes real news. Even if it’s fake.
And it matters.
It matters because fake news now has the power to shape the course of human events.
On Christmas Eve this happened:
Khawaja M. Asif is the Pakistani Minister of Water And Power And Defense and a member of the National Assembly. He was responding to a statement made by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who was quoted as threatening to destroy Pakistan with nuclear weapons if it sent troops into Syria.
The problem is that Yaalon never made any such threat.
Also, it should be noted that Yaalon is in fact a former Defense Secretary and no longer a part of Israel’s government.
The quote was taken from a fake news story.
At the same time, our own President-elect and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were engaged in their own social media nuclear saber-rattling.
And so it matters because fake news and social media can now directly influence world events.
In my previous profession, we called it information warfare – and it’s the most powerful weapon ever invented. It can target a single individual or the entire world, it can destroy a single politician, or poison the minds of entire populations. And it matters because this trend is increasing, both by the natural evolution of technology and through malice aforethought. Fake news is lucrative, if you’re good at it you can make a lot of money. Fake news can topple nations, alter elections, influence legislation, and change history – and even broke, isolated, Third World countries can use it to directly influence nations such as ours, and they can do so for pennies. You don’t need nuclear weapons when you can convince England to leave the European Union without firing a shot. Hypothetically speaking.
For that reason, It’s not going to stop, it’s going to increase.
As such, we’d all best learn how to deal with it sooner rather than later.
Russia didn’t have to hack into our election machines to change the course of history.
Despite what you see from Hollywood, that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. And the blowback if you’re discovered would likely lead to the exact opposite of your intentions.
There’s an easier way, one that even if attributed to you, can be dismissed, laughed off. And to prove it, really prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, your target would have to give up secret methods and capabilities and why is this starting to sound so very, very familiar?
In the end, what saved the Vikings of The 13th Warrior wasn’t their courage or their strength or their swords – or at least not just those things. It was reason, and logic, and the willingness to question their very reality, to look beyond what they wanted to believe and to see the monsters for what they really were.
Russia, China, the various political strategists, the pundits, those who are enemies of democracy, they didn’t have to hack our technology.
They only had to tell us what we wanted to hear.
Ahmed: You! You could have killed him at will.
Ahmed: Then why the deception?!
Herger: Deception is the point! Any fool can calculate strength. That one has been doing it since we arrived. Now he has to calculate what he can't see.
Ahmed: <realization dawning> And fear … of what he doesn't know.
-- The 13th Warrior