Monday, September 01, 2014

They Say Rumor Has It

Restlessness smites me when it comes to rumors. I know about them, I had learned how they work and how ridiculous and even harmful they can get. They form a separate domain, one that is completely made up, a weird world consisting of abstract scopes of illusive ideas. Let me introduce You to the parallel reality of Rumorealm:

This conceptual realm, in which we live day by day, is built upon real-world data. The silhouettes of understanding which we can sense here are much different, though. They are intriguing replacements for uncertainty. As we walk through this place, our focus is captivated by how interesting the whole thing feels and authentic it seems. The real-world data which we're sure of (like time, places and people in them) make this illusory location ever so believable. It makes sense and that makes us feel good. Only two things matter here: insecurity of facts and the notability of the substitutes we make up for that insecurity. The progression of Rumorealm, however could easily fall apart if either of these two building blocks was missing (i.e. if events derived from real-world data were unambiguous, or the replacement rumors were unimportant) - except that we are pretty much wired to creating believable facade to cover up any plotholes in our narrative.

Events here are mostly spontaneous, but they can also be generated willfully by the gods of deception, who reign supreme. We are avatars of these gods. By absorbing the data from Rumorealm, we mediate them onward and rebuild its phony fabric. We rearrange it to be simpler and shorter. We never forget the strong messages we received, but we make them easier for further tattling. Sometimes we can be met with correctional measures and are presented with true facts that debunk falsehood, yet we might forget the debunking proof in favour of a what it tried to debunk − caused by effects known as the misinformation effect and the backfire effectTo find out more, check the WikiPedia Aticle on biased memory, and this and this research paper.. The essence of Rumorealm is to add our own little piece of distortion: we assimilate and emphasize information with our own understandings and fill in the gaps.

Many of us walk around, sometimes admiring the shining pink light, and sometimes clenching our teeth from the grimness which laughs from the corners of our eyes. In the Rumorealm, we are surrounded by those who tell us what we want to hear, be that good or bad. All definitions encountered here are broad enough to be distorted in any way.

Instead of striving to get out this dangerous place, we grasp for semantic tricks to assure its existence. It's enough to casually say "it's scientifically proven", "it has been documented", "I've read" or even "I've heard" to easily persuade others. She said he said. Thanks to a widespread, bad journalistic practice, in most cases it's not even a lie to say these things. How often do we actually check for any veracious and/or scientific basis behind these claims? Not only scientific facts get misinterpreted and falsified, because events, statements and intentions get the same treatment.

We should make a difference between a couple of similar social mechanisms, namely misinformation, rumour and gossip, and conspiracy theories. Rumours are a type of communication that can spread throughout social circles and publicly, and contain information that has a skewed view of actual events and containing some personal touch of belief. Gossip, a phenomenon closely related to rumour, are rumours shared between those with common history and interests and are about personal affairs of people who typically aren't present at the time of this sharing/spreading. A conspiracy theory is a layer of narrative that connects unassociated points in reality with alternate historical facts and outright lies, often forming an explanation about a malicious group (or individual) that take advantage of a majority that is oblivious to their scheme. A misininforamtion is an information that is false, simple as that, but it is encompassed in all of the described terms.

Since the internet became an unavoidable portal to the world at large, we distort data in unseen prolixity. Every type of media is flooded with misinformation (sometimes with the best of intentions, while at other times creativity is the only limit). The cybersphere is also one of the best places to check the validity of whatever we don't encounter firsthand. I too have been the victim of my own fascination within Rumorealm. So many times I eagerly went on spreading information I found to underline my beliefs but was false. I signed online petitions without checking the actual facts behind them. I accepted how my friends behave behind Their backs without thinking twice, despite knowing Them better. I was amused by scientific twists I read in magazines but wasn't critical about their presentation.

A great danger from living in Rumorealm is the rendering of important social tools insubstantial. Within the vibes of it, the essentiality of informational ripple effects and online activism about important issues deteriorates. The vital voices remain unheard in the deafening cry of an evolutional remnant that is the colelction of our fact-skewing psychological tendencies unfit for today's informationally embedded society.

two giraffes
"Have You heard?"
"Heard what?"
"Heard that You heard."
"Of course I have."

It is most unsettling when one can disprove the factuality of a journal article after five minutes of clicking around the web, for example here, here or here. I mean, what happened? I am in no position of criticizing journalists, as I am not one of Them and haven't got a proper insight into the deep intricacies of Their craft. Still, we have these wonderful tools called search engines and almost unbelievable investigation enhancing services already in existence and similar emerging. It has never been easier to find our sources. Certain publicly utilizable Machine Learning services allow us to cross-reference information, looking it from an amazing web view of interconnected material. Methods of checking up on data credibility are widely availableSummarized in the likes of the Crap Detection 101 Handout and the Crap Detection Classroom or Credibility Checklist teaching/study resources, as well as Carl Sagan's thoughts on the topic in The Fine Art of Baloney Detection and the Baloney Detection Kit. We also have the WayBack Machine, now with a search option, so that even if some web pages are gone, we might be able to search in the past.. A recent study on the topic of misinformation does not only give the reader an adept insight into its problematic but also succeeds in delivering proficient solutions on strategies for successful debiasing. I'm convinced that a journalist should feel the intrinsic obligation to enter keywords into these resources described and check Their statements for veracity before publishing.

Let's stay fair and not blame the journalists. Our whole society is dependent on rumors. It's how we convey trust. It's not unusual even for long-time friends to nod heads when pieces of obvious misinformation are passed between them. From where do these little lies come from, anyway? Some researchers (and most prominently Gordon Allport and Joseph Postman) concluded that rumors come either from rivalry in conversation (wanting to appear right and better informed), fear (explaining inconceivable happenings which make us dread), hostility (explaining why other members of society are bad by our moral standards), or expectation (forcing our wishes onto reality).

We accept rumors because we cannot possibly check every bit of information we are provided with. It is only natural to seek out and verify matters that we find important, and not give too many cares for the rest. We want to make sense of reality, so we gullibly accept anything that makes sense to us. Since it's better to seek sense together with other people, and because it feels good to find common ground and to receive and give trust – we test our morals in each other. This brings us closer, so we all play this little game.

We have the ability to drill a new approach in how we transfer information. As humanity as a whole grows to be more self-aware, this issue is already being addressed by professional enthusiasts. Why don't we leave Rumorealm behind and just simply live in a natural realm? It's pretty hard to imagine, as we all fall victims to human psychological reality, which is many things, but hardly is our reasoning based in objectivity or memory being accurate.

The issues described so far have been noticed in many circles worldwide, and attempts are being made to come up with solutions. Two major internet corporations have integrated their own measures into their algorithms and collaborative effort options in order to counter the tide of misinformationFor more ideas on how to deal with misinformation, check out this great article, some thoughts and insights on the matter from NewScientis's journalists, or four (foolishly) paywaled articles: here, here (these two regard what critical mindset tools we can use and should provide citizens with in order to be able to recognize faulty info), here and here (these explore further options into what can be done)..

There is a great trick I found and that could be of help: acquaintance with truth seekers.

Truth seekers are people who, despite the apparent futility of Their endeavor, give Their best to feel, understand and speak the truth. They are rare. The good news is that many of us have this profile, but only occasionally. Truth seeking behavior should be rewarded and encouraged. When someone faces us with our mistakes, we might feel uncomfortable. If we feel upset, that's actually a good sign that They hit the spot. When we react angrily in this kind of confrontation, people might cease with trying to examine our shadows, and return to the cozy acceptance of Rumorealm. Instead, Their intention of challenging our reality and bringing the best out from us should be greeted with blessings. The true way to make people's expressed concerns about the inconvenient truth worthwhile is to examine them. Understand them. Take the effort to transmute what they describe and make this process mutual.

When surrounding ourselves with truth seekers, our circle of friends might change drastically and so may our reality. This is not about making reality look more positive (we already have a potential in Rumorealm for that); rather, it's about not forcing our egotistic distortions upon the world. It's about a maturing humanity and making everyone's life easier.

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