At The Atlantic: “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite” explains the advances in machine-generated propaganda. How can we trust anything we read?
Guys. The solution requires just two steps, one easy and one slightly more difficult, and both of which have been part of the human toolbox since before the dawn of language — if lying monkeys are to be believed.
#1 Learn How to Think
Currently circulating among my internet friends (I know!) is an astonishingly badly written piece of divisive agitprop, this time about dogs. (Y’all thought I was being facetious in my puppy-killer example the other day — if only we’d known!) If you’ve taken the Spot the Troll quiz, you can easily recognize this particular bit of complete nonsense as either bot-generated or else some deluded soul working very, very hard to pretend to be a front for Russian spies.
Guess what? It doesn’t matter. Let the spies write all the insanely stupid anti-puppy articles they like because . . . you have a mind capable of recognizing bad arguments.
Using nothing more than logic and a well-formed conscience, you can recognize nonsense and ignore it.
So do that.
Teach the people in your care to do the same.
Friends don’t let friends spout utter idiocy.
Meanwhile: On the off chance the the bot generates something true? Hallelujah. If it’s true, it doesn’t matter who the author is. Logical, morally sound, historically- and scientifically-accurate common sense has a claim in its own right that does not depend on the virtues of its proponents.
But alas, we also have to get down to the question of: Is it true? Hence our other strategy, which takes a touch more effort.
#2 Ask People You Can Know and Trust
You know who I call if I want to find out what’s really going on in Portland? My sister. She’s there. She knows. And she’s got no motivation whatsoever to gin up some cockamamie story to secure my buy-in on her latest power-grab. Indeed I have real-live, verified, neutral-enough friends throughout the country available any time I want to find out what’s really happening on the ground in some other place.
This isn’t difficult.
Even, sometimes, journalists can be used for this. Not all of them. Yellow journalism was not invented by 21st century counter-intelligence droids. But there do exist reporters who stick to the business of looking around, perhaps digging a bit to get the real story, and communicating their findings accurately. It is possible for one or a group of persons to build a deserved reputation for reporting with integrity, and therefore be worth turning to.
And, interestingly, governments can do this as well. Are the bots generating stories about the horrible rabble-rousers abroad whose crimes cry out to America for vengeance? We can go look. We can go see what is happening on the ground in that country — surely our would-be allies will allow us free access, or else we can know they are hiding something — and use our logic and common sense to sniff out a clearer understanding of the situation.
This is not difficult. This is how I scouted my daughter’s college town before sending her off: I walked around the town and I spoke to people. Random people. I walked up, introduced myself, and asked them to tell me what they thought I should know about the community and the college. I learned which hospital not to patronize, I learned where to buy hand-milled lumber, and I learned the ups and downs of being an education major (even though my child is not an education major). People will tell you all kinds of things if you give them the opening, and you can use that disparate information to put together a more-reliable view of reality than the slick marketing materials indicate. If your allies won’t let you freely walk around their country unescorted and chat up whomever you please, unmonitored, maybe don’t go to war for them.
You don’t have to play the victim in this game.
Are the bots a nuisance? Sure. But ultimately the problem of lying is nothing new under the sun. You can choose to be taken in by everything someone puts in front of your face, or you can, as my father would say, use your head for something other than a decoration.
In conclusion: If the bots are dictating you or your country’s behavior and decisions, the problem is not the bots.
“Editorial cartoon by Leon Barritt, 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid (a popular cartoon character of the day), each pushing against opposite sides of a pillar of wooden blocks that spells WAR. This is a satire of the Pulitzer and Hearst newspapers’ role in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain.”