Truthiness: The Elon Musk Edition

Saloni Diwakar
7 min readJun 11, 2018
The Big Daily Read by Jean Helion

Elon Musk wants to task the general public with rating “the core truth” of news articles and judge the credibility of journalists and editors through his platform Pravda. Being perceived as a way to hit back at negative press about Tesla, there’s a lot more that’s wrong with Musk’s venture to edit reality by

  1. discrediting the folks whose job it is to report and communicate their findings, and then by
  2. outsourcing the quality-checking to non-experts over the internet.

By attempting to “crowd-source the truth”, Musk would have internet-users rate the veracity of facts on a scale of ‘truthiness’, if you will (h/t The Colbert Report).

We kind of already do that, albeit minus the apparent legitimacy that such a platform intended solely for truth-rating would lend to this (f)activity.

While I’m all for democratizing of information-sharing, sadly there’s a lot wrong with banking on consensus as some sort of metric for ‘factfulness’.

Here’s an article I wrote back when ‘alternative facts’ was still a relevant hashtag.

It covers the many ways information is distorted depending on where it’s coming from, how to maintain objectivity in sharing information, and how best to consume information without numbing your mind.

Fact-checking the Indian Media

On 8 November 2016, the Indian Government demonetized Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 bank-notes as invalid currency, leaving much of the population — 93 per cent of which works in the informal sector — high and dry. This was done citing populist justifications of curbing corruption, terrorist funding, and resolving Kashmir’s separatism conflict. What followed was increased media and public scrutiny on the aftermath of GoI’s decision.

In the midst of primarily bad press, there were reports of paid tweets condoning the move, and absurd rumours of the scientific capacities of the replacement notes (apparently the banknotes would be GPS enabled to track the movements of black money).

These messages were disseminated through various social media, but also peddled by select news outlets, notably Zee News and Aaj Tak. The content of this reportage was generally aligned with the messages in PM Modi’s Mann Ki Baat on demonetization, designed to resonate with the aspirations of the voting urban middle-class demographic.

Propaganda is not a novel political tool, particularly in the post-truth political era we seem to be in. Historically, governments from diverse sociopolitical philosophies have utilized propaganda to direct public discourse. India’s Aam Aadmi Party and the Indian National Congress, too, have upped their game in employing social media to disseminate their ideology, and shift their pre-election mudslinging to virtual platforms.

Manipulating public opinion through disinformation can be achieved through direct or indirect censorship, fake news outlets, suppression of facts or relevant context, historical revisions, etc.

One could argue that the media has a duty to remain non-partisan, and report neutrally, but absolute media objectivity might seem impractical considering media houses are composed of human beings, each person a conglomerate of conscious and unconscious biases and agendas.

More realistic praxes for media houses to retain some measure of objectivity is achieved through systematized transparency — declaring sources of funding, ideological leanings, political agendas and affiliations of top leadership. Within reportage, when reiterating news from secondary sources, link the primary source. Label sponsored content as such, and cite contrary evidence to claims that aren’t conclusive in their entirety.

Disinformation & Information Overload in American Discourse

Disinformation is the purposeful spreading of false information with the express intention of deceiving.

Interestingly, the word itself — coined by Stalin — was made to sound of French etymology in order to implicate the West in originating it as a concept. It was used by the KGB in their psychological warfare wing called black propaganda.

Trump’s easily falsifiable lies before and during the U.S elections seemed like a crass (black) mirroring of the Kremlin’s modus operandi. In any case, his convoluted word-vomit derailed conversations away from facts and serious discussions of his proposed policies, and into the abyss of emotionally volatile rhetoric. Trump, a master rhetorician, even compelled the White House to release Obama’s birth certificate, as evidence of his being born on American (‘nation of immigrants’) soil.

In the ensuing battle to disprove Trump, attention was diverted from his slandering immigrants, Muslims, ethnic minorities, democrats, and women as belonging to the collective ‘Other’. His speeches resonated with middle-class white Americans, already hassled with the neo-progressive left. The predominantly left-leaning media was easily baited by many of his outrageous lies, some of them supposedly premised in “alternative facts”.

As we now know, much of these lies were injected by Russian intelligentsia on social media, and leveraged by Trump’s camp through data mining companies like Cambridge Analytica. The plague of misinformation was allegedly leveraged by Trump’s camp to skew public perception against the ‘establishment’, allowing him to posture as the refreshing outsider American politics needed.

There is an important difference between processing unambiguously false information (disinformation) and too much of any information (information overload).

The dangers lie not just in an epidemic of disinformation, but also in a flooding of too much data. One consequence of having to navigate information in the digital age is that we are constantly inundated with a large stream of information — online articles, tweets, trends, memes, soundbites, videos, satirical sketches, talk-shows, news, debates, radio, and so on.

Outrageous soundbites make for great headlines, but subsequent retractions and corrections don’t. This is critical considering headlines framed to be emotionally loaded strongly persuade our judgments regarding politics and policies, than neutral ones. Research demonstrates that anger and outrage elicit more potent responses than do sadness, pity, or positively-loaded emotional headlines. Subsequent perceptions about the issue are coloured by this fairly persistent affective judgment.

Additionally, lies repeated often enough begin to seem factual, even to people who know the facts. This is called the Illusory Truth Effect. To be inundated with a constant stream of lies exhausts our brain — already functioning on a cognitive budget. Unable to handle the cognitive load of sifting through a large stream of information and then having to verify its accuracy, our brains begin to rely on mental short-cuts, or heuristics (such as stereotypes), which aren’t necessarily well-reasoned. To be overwhelmed by emotionally loaded headlines and content, never mind their accuracy, can eventually cause outrage fatigue and information avoidance.

Essentially, your brain gives up.

So how does one survive in a world where accurate information is scarce but poorly verified reports thrive? To summarise an expansive to-do in a sentence only suggestion:

Engage in evidence-based thinking.

Bear in mind that :-

  1. A majority consensus does not signal the veracity of facts
    Even large numbers of people can be mistaken (as evidenced by the bandwagon-effect). Social media algorithms sift through your personalized web searches and past activity, to provide more of what you find agreeable. This corporatized system of data consumption creates an ideological echo-chamber, enabling the perception that your stance is commonly held, hence valid. This is exacerbated by people’s tendency to faster assimilate information that is congruent with their preexisting beliefs. The confirmation bias persists despite being shown evidence to the contrary. Such an illusory consensus might even inflate a group’s sense of ideological solidarity, and influence important decisions.
  2. Virality does not equal veracity
    The factual correctness of an online article is not dependent on how many times it’s been cited. In the age of click-bait, trends and covertly sponsored marketing content masquerading as news, virality is seen as a measure of public attention. This is misleading, since various social media marketing agencies offer services to ‘trend’ opinions, creating an illusory consensus, as demonstrated in the demonetization case. Not to mention, content could go viral for all the wrong reasons. Looking at you, Logan Paul!
  3. Scour for viewpoints ideologically different from our own
    It’s not sufficient to be privy to non-partisan content to remain objective about all the information we receive. Since we don’t have control over the quality of information, particularly information in which correctness falls into a grey area, it makes sense to accumulate as much data on the problem at hand, including those ideologically different to your own. The idea is to form an alternative hypothesis to your perceived truth, and not fall for the confirmation bias. Researchers have found that persons who were more scientifically curious, were more likely to circumvent the trappings of partisan ideology and find their way to the factually correct conclusion more often than those who were not.
  4. Use words well!
    There is perhaps a lot of merit in precise use of language in online and offline discussions. Facts and medicine do not have the luxury of being ‘alternative’. Claims to the contrary are engaging in subjectivist fallacy, a form of circular logic premised in “my truth is different from your truth.” As inclusive and open-minded as that sounds, it is unhelpful in drawing conclusions, particularly in governance and public policy, in which large populations are better off being well-informed. Deliberately ambiguous phrasing analogous to the Orwellian concept of doublespeak has culminated in phrases like “alternative facts”, “post-truth” and “fake news” that essentially mean misinformation, or bullshit.

Finally, the trouble with obscuring facts through nomenclature is that it dilutes the truth by legitimizing conjecture as a possibility. The implication is that you, the reader, don’t just have to verify the veracity of what you are reading, but also scale it on a degree of ‘truthiness’.

Lies should not be normalized under the guise of alternative facts; opinions and facts are not interchangeable.

To conclude quoting Orwell on the deceptive nature of political language,

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some ‘jackboot’, ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘hotbed’, ‘melting pot’, ‘acid test’, ‘veritable inferno’, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.”

A version of this article was originally published on www.firstpost.com on February 19, 2017.

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Saloni Diwakar

Words enthusiast, occasional writer. Psychology faculty. Sporadic social media usage. Archiving my writings on Medium. ✍ | ♬ | ⚛️