Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Think Responsibly

I was in the middle of composing a blog post on You Make The Card when the horrible news started appearing on social media: Two explosions heard at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, injuring over 150 people and killing at least 3.

I should've stayed off Twitter, Facebook, and news sites. I knew what was going on already; at some point I should've just tried to get the complete story when more of the facts were known. But my eyes were glued to the [computer] screen and later to my phone.

My reaction to the very first headline I saw was: This makes no sense. Why??

My understanding of the event seemed to rely on this underlying assumption that cause comes before effect, and thus I started searching for a cause without even knowing all the facts.

On a level of my brain that bordered conscious and subconscious, I had a split-second moment where I didn't believe the event was real because the motive wasn't obvious. Well, no, I didn't even have time to make a judgment on real vs. not real. It was more like my brain was suspending its belief until a cause made itself known to me. The realness of the event was intrinsically linked to my personal understanding of it.

That was my first, immediate reaction to laying eyes on the first headline, on the first photograph.

As I scrolled through the post, I realized: We don't know anything.

This took me 2-3 minutes to process, not helped by the fact the rest of the post was full of photographs of people still running the marathon. It was a live blog of the event.

As I continued reading and as time passed, I had to backtrack and erase certain assumptions I'd made unknowingly.

For one thing, I had unconsciously assumed there was a bomber.

Theoretically it was possible it had been a freak accident of some kind. (Remember this was before anything was found.)

Move back one space.

The news initially claimed two explosions were heard, not that there were two explosions or two separate bombs.

There could've been some kind of echo or the sound of structures collapsing, or it could've been one bomb (in one specific location) that only partially went off at first.

Move back two spaces.

My mind wanted to fill in the gaps in a futile effort to make sense of it all, to make sense of such chaotic, meaningless, tragic violence.

But my mind doesn't have the superpower to make things true simply by thinking them.

Neither does yours.

However if the mind is good at anything, it's imagining things, rationalizing things, and just plain making shit up.

Our relationship with information is critical in an age where we can share instantly, report instantly, and take in instantly. All of us, in a way, are responsible for what gets seen, reported, and shared. We are especially responsible for the way we let information affect ourselves, our view of the world, and our subjective reality.

Do you know what your cognitive biases are? Do you know how your brain might be tricking you into believing things without you realizing it? Your brain is just trying to do its job, really—it's protecting you, figuring things out for you, fitting random pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"Awww your brain is just trying to help, like this cat."
We are only beginning to discover exactly how social media affects our experiences with information sharing.

In a world where everyone can be their own reporter, editor, and broadcaster, everyone needs to start being way more perceptive about the line between true and false, worth sharing and not worth sharing.

Censoring others is easy; censoring yourself is hard. But ultimately it's you who is in control of what you say. Others can't do it for you. The "public" is not a good decider of true vs. false, right vs. wrong, or good quality vs. bad quality. They're mostly working along the axes of interesting vs. boring, like vs. dislike, and agree vs. disagree.

Those are useful axes too; however it's important not to overvalue them and conflate them with each other. This is something modern US news organizations are doing, right now, because it brings in the hits, clicks, and views. Be wary of that.

I'm going to give you some helpful tips on how to be a more responsible and better sharer.

1. Don't believe the first thing you read.

Check for other sources. Use Google. Even ask someone else about it who you think might know more.

In particular, don't immediately trust a story in its entirety if it's all coming from "one place"—i.e. one country's news organizations, one website (no matter how reputable), Facebook, Twitter, one country's government, a company's press release, Reddit, etc.

I'm sure you heard about The New York Post mistakenly reporting that a Saudi Arabian national had been apprehended as a suspect. If nothing else, it produced this excellent Onion piece.

There was another incident that was more insidious that occurred yesterday. It probably flew under most people's radar, but I noticed it as a link on Facebook.

Some news sites were reposting an older news article from 2002 as though it had happened recently about a bombing at an Afghan wedding. Guns were fired at the wedding in celebration; a US air patrol flying overhead mistook the gunshots and responded with deadly force. Here's the original article.

For the record, I'm glad I read the article and am aware of that incident. I find it appalling.

However I'm also disgusted that "news" sites would masquerade an article as though it had happened that day just to draw attention.

The first thing I did, after reading the newly posted article, was to try to find the date. It was missing from the page. I looked at other articles on the same site.

The date and byline were missing from that particular piece.

I Googled for other instances of this news report and checked the pages of Al Jazeera (which would certainly have the story). I quickly discovered what was really going on.

Don't believe the first thing you read, and don't make assumptions about the details if they're missing.

2. Choose your words carefully.

I discovered yesterday that the word "terrorism" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And some people automatically thought that just because there were planted explosive devices at the Boston Marathon that it naturally followed it was due to terrorist motivations.

When people start debating the meaning of a word, you (as a responsible sharer) should automatically think to yourself, "Huh, this word is causing some confusion. I should probably stop using it or clarify what I mean first."

Just read the following from The Associated Press to see just how mixed the meaning of that word is:
WASHINGTON — With little official information to guide them, members of Congress strongly suggested on Monday that the deadly Boston Marathon explosions were acts of terrorism and vowed to bring anyone responsible to justice.

"My understanding is that it's a terrorist incident," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
She told reporters she had been in contact with U.S. intelligence agencies and they reported no advance warning that "there was an attack on the way."

Two other members of the panel, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, said that based on initial press reports that "multiple improvised explosive devices may have been involved at this high profile national event bear the hallmarks of a terrorist attack."

The remarks made by the three lawmakers stood in contrast to President Barack Obama's own brief statement at the White House, where he made no mention of terrorists or terrorism as a possible cause of the bombings. [emphasis mine]
Note well the use of the word "terrorism" and the word "bombings" in the same sentence. The "bombings" aren't under question. The "terrorism" part is.

This story wouldn't be reported this way if everyone knew exactly what the word meant. The way they describe the underlying debate (is it or is it not an act of terrorism?) only makes you more confused about what Senator Dianne means versus what President Obama is implying by omitting the word from his brief speech.

Of course, he did use and define the word earlier today in a press announcement. Now what does it mean?
"Anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror."
–President Obama
I cannot tell exactly why he switched from the word "terrorism" in his previous sentence to "act of terror" in the next (why not use the same word?), but I think we mostly get what he's trying to say.

Mark well these words. Obama, the White House—these are the official sources for the meaning of the word "terrorism" and what it means. Don't bother looking it up in the dictionary.

Well fine, since you're curious, here is what the World English Dictionary says:
1. systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal
2. the act of terrorizing
3. the state of being terrorized
Upon Googling it, this is what Google comes back with:
The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
Dictionary.com gives me this definition:
The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.
Now Merriam-Webster:
The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.
Key words to point out: systematic, goal, political, coercion. Now contrast with the President's definition and what he is saying the word means.

Can we call this systematic? Can we call it politically motivated? Can we say they're trying to coerce people into doing something? Can we say what their goals are at all? So far, we know nothing, and the word "terrorism" implies that we do. That word is loaded, in this country, and so Obama showed the correct restraint by not using it last night.

However that changed by this morning. Now he's trying to tell us what the word actually means.

I'm not trying to point out some kind of agenda. (I hate most partisan politics.) I'm merely demonstrating that a word can mean a lot of things, and you should be more critical in your observations and your "reading of the lines" if you want to be a responsible sharer.

I don't like the word "terrorism" because to one set of people, it's a shortcut for an Islamic or North Korean threat. To another set of people, it means any kind of violence by a political group. To the government, it means whenever "bombs are used to target innocent civilians"—which to them translates into a need to heighten national security against "someone or some group that isn't the US government." But it will never mean anytime the US government uses bombs against people; that's something else entirely.

Because of the way people perceive the word "terrorism," it also pushes into the background some other possibilities. It doesn't eliminate those possibilities, but people won't necessarily consider them. The President has said that there are no leads on who did it. Which means it could've been the work of a deranged maniac—delusional and angry and psychopathic. What are the potential motivations of a deranged psychopath? Fuck if I know!

But it's possible that "causing terror" isn't on their list at all, and people are ignoring that as one potential.

To repeat my original point, be careful what words you toss around out there. Make sure [mostly] everyone is on the same page.

3. Cui bono?

Cui bono is a Latin adage that translates into "as a benefit to whom?"

You've heard the phrase "follow the money"—well it is similar.

If you're Alex Jones, you may take this to an unsupported, moronic extreme, but when used rationally, it's a decent check to try to find points of bias in information.

Everyone has a motive.

It doesn't have to be, like, a political motive or even a self-interested motive. But people do things for reasons, and it's important to be aware of how those may affect the words that come out of their mouths.

A good rule of thumb: Every organization, entity, corporation, etc. has at least one goal that is shared, and that is self-preservation. It can change its name or replace all the individual cells in its body, but the body will want to preserve itself in whatever way it can. If external forces pressure it, it will struggle against them.

And if it has a mouth, it will speak against them.