Saturday, February 22, 2020

Emergent intelligence and misinformation

Sometimes I see strong parallels between my own writing, and either events in the real world, or in other stories that I read. Once in a while the spooky sensation is made all the stronger when multiple parallels crop up in a short space of time.

I’ve recently finished reading Watch, a story about an intelligence that emerges spontaneously in the vast flow of information across the Internet. The fundamental basis (spontaneous emergence, and the struggle to make sense of a wider world from a perspective inside the network) is the same as in my own novel, Tiamat’s Nest.

Of course, Watch is a vastly different story from Tiamat’s Nest. In Watch, Webmind is curious, benevolent, and wants to interact with people. Tiamat, on the other hand, is secretive and malignant - if that word even applies to an intelligence that has no concept of right or wrong, only of self-preservation. Webmind actively avoids altering content on the web and works to reveal truth where it would do most good, while Tiamat’s approach is to actively manipulate information to steer public opinion and policy to her advantage.


It’s this latter aspect that brought in the other coincidental strand of thought through several news reports over a short period of time.

Despite my efforts to resist, I find myself ghoulishly drawn to news stories about Trump’s latest behavior, and to the comments sections. It’s a bit like slowing down on the highway as you pass a multi-car pile-up on the other side.

And I can’t help noticing the active misinformation that is repeated time and again, despite it being so easily debunked with the simplest of research.

While I was reading Watch, in response to reports of Trump awarding Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an angry commenter stated that Obama gave the same medal to Bill Cosby. Setting aside the usual refusal of Trump supporters to engage the actual issue and instead deflect with “what abouts”, the claim is absurdly false! Bill Cosby was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush in 2002.

The following day, again in response to criticism of Trump ordering the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani on Iraqi soil without involving Congress, trolls compared this to the action of Obama bringing down bin Laden. Obama did it, so it’s OK for Trump. Again, this ignored the checkable fact that Obama acted under a formal declaration by Congress authorizing the president to act against those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. This was passed in 2001, again under GWB, but was still ongoing in Obama’s time.

On a lighter note, the day after that I saw a BBC video debunking a long list of cooking hacks that look amazing but which simply don’t work. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make tempting videos of recipes that are useless in practice.

The scary thing is, outright and obvious falsehoods simply won’t die!

But of course, truth isn’t the point. The point in politics is to discredit opponents by repeating the same lie over and over until people start to believe it. That’s effectively how Tiamat in my novel steered the world into catastrophic climate change, and made people’s survival dependent on increasingly sophisticated computation to plan everyday activities around accurate predictions of extreme weather events. The point of the more mundane lies is simply to garner clicks for profit. But they are still putting out things that are not true that will nevertheless take on a life of their own.

As we head into another US election, people keep talking about voter ID and election fraud. But that is missing the point. The real war is already being fought in the news feeds and social media, framing people’s views before they even reach the ballot box.

Campaigns of misinformation are no longer mere inconveniences, they have real world and long-lasting consequences on public policy, on justice, on health and safety, and on elections. In an era when events are shaped by the loudest, most strident, best funded voices, what chance does truth have?

12 comments:

  1. I've said for years it's the media. It's no longer news - it's what they want you to believe.
    And the dems screamed impeachment so long, hoping people would finally believe it. That finally got debunked, but of course not until after three years worth of taxpayer money was wasted.

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  2. Hi Ian - it's difficult for the joes and jills out in the streets to know what's what - and because they don't question or look ... challenging times for us all.

    Life here is challenging too - take care but interesting about the book 'Watch' and your Tiamat ... opened my eyes to the stories - cheers Hilary

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  3. Alex, the media are part of the problem, but "what they want you to believe" is down to who holds the purse strings these days. They are no longer independent, and competing for attention with social media.

    Hilary, for anything important I try to verify it through several independent channels. But that is hard work, which few people bother to do.

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  4. It's one thing to read about people being manipulated through a steady diet of misinformation and lies, and another one altogether to see it happening in real life. The book is entertaining; the reality of today's politics is anything but. I'm a pathological optimist, so I HAVE to believe that truth will win in the end. It's maddening to live in a world where civil discussion has been bulldozed by partisan bullies.

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  5. Ian -- just wanted to be sure you're aware that Robert Sawyer's _Watch_ is the middle book of a trilogy. I liked the first story, _Wake_, even better.

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  6. Susan, partisan bullies just about sums it up!

    Rick, I didn't know that, just grabbed the book off the library shelf. I'm always doing that :) But it worked well enough as a standalone story.

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  7. Hey Ian, :-) They're all self-serving liars--both sides of the aisle.

    But, I really just stopped to see how TLD is coming along? I LOVE that story.:-)

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  8. Teresa, glad you enjoyed TLD. I've just about reached the half-way mark on this series of major edits. Progressing well, with all the critique feedback I've had.

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  9. Obama bashing is a sport in the Trump camp. They don't bother with facts. Yep. Our fiction often mirrors life.

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  10. If you look hard enough, you'll notice parallels everywhere.

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  11. Denise, seems to me that Trump is pathologically obsessed with Obama for some reason.

    Lynda, very true.

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  12. It's good to see you! It's sad to see truth trampled beneath people's stomping feet (even those who love and stand by it). The end is near. ;)

    ♥.•*¨Elizabeth Mueller, Author¨*•.♥

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