“I’m just trying to inform people.”

I’ve heard that phrase used twice recently, by different people, both times in response to me questioning the content of posts being shared on Facebook. It’s an interesting phrase; innocent and disarming, yet subtly suggests a higher level of knowledge and understanding, but each time I’ve heard it used it’s been after sharing completely inaccurate information: fake news if you will.

But with the claim, “I’m just trying to inform people,” should come with the fundamental expectation that you’ve double checked your information, you’ve accurately sourced it and removed any bias, that you’ve got your shit together.

I can’t be the only one that finds that idea of someone “informing me” more than a little threatening. When I want to absorb knowledge I normally seek it out, read a book, watch a documentary, speak to someone knowledgeable on the specific topic I’m interested in. An expert, if you will.

I don’t expect to be walking down the street and for someone to jump out from behind a wheelie bin screaming information at me that I was previously unaware that I needed. And I don’t expect to be browsing photos of my sister’s recent holiday to China to all of a sudden to have someone else’s “reality” up in my face.

Apropos of nothing, I had a conversation about Brexit this weekend.

Being informed

Only it wasn’t just about Brexit. The conversation stumbled around like a drunk at the shallow end of a bottle of whiskey, meandering between Islamic extremism, the policies of Donald Trump, immigration control and Conservative party policy.

The conversationalist was forthright, confident, and self-assured in his propositions, and on almost all points he was completely and factually wrong.

And when I say wrong, I don’t mean I disagreed with him. You can have differences of ideology; you can believe that individualism is superior to collectivism, you can argue the toss over private versus public healthcare, but you can’t argue facts.

But when I tried to introduce facts; for example, explaining how the first past the post electoral system works, or that a particular British citizen hadn’t been squirrelled away to be surreptitiously returned to the United Kingdom despite the Government removing her British citizenship, I was both ignored and talked over as though the facts presented had never existed.

I’ve seen the same thing happen on both the left and right of politics; in fact, I’ve seen people switch mid-sentence between policies considered right-wing to policies considered left-wing. I’ve watched 14 hours of testimony in the US House of Congress this month, and the degree of distortion and false information is staggering. It’s more than just fake news, it dips into the realm of conspiracy theory and the type of active measures used by the foreign intelligence services. It’s openly dangerous.

Choosing to be Uninformed

What connects these people? It’s not solely misinformation. It’s about propping up an ideology or worldview, it’s about disempowered people becoming empowered.

I don’t believe that people like Jacob Reese-Mogg or Donald Trump or Theresa May actually believe the nonsense that they sell, but the stories they tell, and the falsehoods that are extrapolated from them by tabloid newspapers and spread on social networks provide a handle for people who have slipped outside of society to grasp on to.
Do you question them? Risk offending them? Is talking to them, understanding their perspective enough to bring them back to reality?

There’s an interesting parallel with scientific development. A hundred years ago, maybe even more recently, you could imagine an industrious and intelligent young man or woman setting up an experiment in their basement/garage/greenhouse and discovering some before unknown facet of the universe. Scientific history is full of iconic figures (Newton, Einstein, Tesla) who with a lot of intelligence and a bit of practical ability discovered wonderous secrets, hither to unknown by the human race.

But now our knowledge of the natural world has become so deep that it’s simply not possible to have the breadth of knowledge one might have had in the past. String theory, nanotechnology, nuclear theory and a thousand other new scientific fields now require that scientists are specialised in a very narrow aspect of physics or biology or chemistry. Another way of putting it is that individual human beings now know an awful lot more about an awful lot less.

The same concept can be applied to a topic like Brexit. There is no possible way one, or even a few, individuals can know and understand the implications and effects of something as complex as the UK leaving the European Union. It’s an impossibility that one person can fully appreciate the effect Brexit will have on the long term economics of the UK, and the impact on the medical industry, and how the loss of trade deals will the country’s political relationship with Japan, and how our changing relationship with Europe will affect NATO. Brexit is simply too complex an issue to be dealt with in a yes/no referendum.

You might as well ask the British public whether a butterfly’s wing flapping in Australia will have a net positive or negative effect on the amount of snowfall this winter in France. You can ask the question, but if the answer is still only going to come back yes or no, what’s the point?

All Arguments are not Equal

Maybe that’s the issue, the social media world requires us to regard the arguments and not the facts as the truth of the case. Remove the facts and an external observer can only see both arguments and conclude that both suspects are as guilty as each other

Forums like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter all too often argue over a headline. What follows are threads of conversation which are devoid of facts or depth, simply people applying their own subjective view of another person’s subjective view.

So, how should we deal with this? Well, a good start would be just by talking to people that you wouldn’t normally talk with. Understanding the experiences of others gives us the best chance to consider their problems when we go to the ballot box, or give to a charity, or react negatively on Facebook that we don’t quite understand.

But how can you know when you are wrong? How can you be sure that your subjective view is the right one?

Well, my opinion is that the chance of being 100% right about anything is almost zero, so maybe it’s best to just assume you are always wrong and look for evidence to the contrary. If we all assumed we were wrong, no-one would ever share a misguided opinion or twist a simple political failure into a conspiracy theory.

But, of course, I could be wrong about that.

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