False News Travels Faster than True News

Depositphotos Image ID: 176371828 Copyright: chris77ho

A recent MIT study that analyzed over 100,000 news stories and millions of tweets concluded, convincingly, that falsehoods travels faster than truth. (See Study: On Twitter, false news travels faster than true stories) Let that sink in….

“’We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,’ says Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings.”

The next time you are tempted to retweet, re-post or share a news story that triggers your ire, maybe you should stop and think about it first. Better yet, maybe you should do a little objective investigation first. In fact, as it turns out, there is characteristic emotional state that seems to accompany the sharing of false news.

“’We saw a different emotional profile for false news and true news,’ Vosoughi says. ‘People respond to false news more with surprise and disgust,’” he notes, whereas true stories produced replies more generally characterized by sadness, anticipation, and trust.”

The more shocking the story, the more fantastic it seems, the more likely it is that the story is false. Red flags should go up whenever something seems a little too great or little too despicable to be true. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t some true news stories that seem fantastic or disgusting. It’s just that anything that seems a little too fantastic or a little terrible to be true should be investigated more completely.

This is particularly true when the stories run along political lines and hit those partisan buttons that people seem to have set to ultra-sensitive these days. We are particularly susceptible to being duped when the stories trip our switches! The extent to which we are triggered shocked the researchers.

“[R]esearchers were ‘somewhere between surprised and stunned’ at the different trajectories of true and false news on Twitter.”

In fact, the researchers found that false news stories were seventy percent (70%) more likely to be retweeted than true stories! True stories took about six (6) times longer to “catch up” to the false news stories according to their study that was recently published.

That suggests that we should be automatically suspicious of any news story we are hearing for the first time, and doubly so if the story is unusually fantastic or disgusting.

Maybe one of the reasons that people run with false news stories today has to do with the way we consume news and entertainment (and news is entertainment the way it is produced and “consumed” these days!). News is big business, and it is designed to generate an impact and a response. “The news sells”, and bad news, fantastic news, disgusting news sells better than good news and ordinary news. We are programmed to respond to it because it is designed for a response.

News and entertainment has also conditioned us to short attention spans. From 30-minute sitcoms to to 30-second commercials to 140 words in a Twitter post (now up to 240 words!), we have gotten used to soundbites of information. I have always thought our soundbite, short-attention-span world began with MTV videos in which dozens of moving video segments kept the focus off any particular video component, but that is just a personal theory.

In the fast-world we live in, we don’t have time to digest anything for very long, and we seem to feel compelled to jump to our conclusions while the events, ideas, news or statements have even concluded and the dust settles on what we are considering. Perspective requires a certain amount of time to mature, but we have become too impatient to respond with more than a reaction.

Maybe a little self-realization will help. Maybe taking a step back will help us gain some perspective. The next time you come across something fantastic or disgusting, whether it aligns with your politics and ideology or strains it, take a deep breath… pause… and let it simmer while you take some time to dig into it. See if you can find some corroboration from an unlikely source – one that doesn’t align perfectly with your leanings.

If you don’t have time to investigate, then just let it simmer. The world isn’t going to spin off its axis if you don’t chime in right away.

One last thing about the study is that the researchers had a hard time agreeing on a definition of “fake news”. This is telling to me. Many things that people call “fake news” is really just a contrary opinion or conclusion. Opinions and conclusory statements are often confused for factual statements.

The researchers settled on using “false news” for the purposes of their study. False news consists of fact statements (assertions of fact, or supposed fact) not opinions or conclusions about fact the facts. Many things that people call “fake news” are simply someone’s opinion or conclusion about the facts.

Our propensity to rush to an opinion or conclusion about things is similar to our propensity to share false news. (In my opinion – this is an unsupported conclusion based only my personal observation and not backed by any objective study.) My support is only anecdotal, but it’s something to which I am sensitive as an attorney.

More times than I could count I have had clients insist to me that they have been wronged and relay to me a one-sided tale of personal wrongs that seems black and white – until I begin to hear the other side of the story. And then I often don’t know who to believe (he said/she said). We naturally see things through the filters of what we expect, what is best for us, what we like or dislike and other very personal motivators that color our worlds.

This is true (in my opinion) when it comes to news. Within minutes and hours of the Treyvon Martin shooting, and the Ferguson shooting, and – you name it – social media is flooded with armchair news anchors, investigative reporters, detectives and pundits who think they know exactly how it went down and are rushing to get their op-eds out to the world. The truth is that the real facts usually take months to sort out and sift through, and we often are left with more troubling ambiguities and inconsistencies than we would care to admit or accept.

All the more reason to be slow to jump to conclusions, to be thoughtful and considerate, to be circumspect about what we see and hear and to allow time for more thorough consideration. We should be willing to entertain new information and different perspectives. We should be careful about the facts we assume, especially if we are not in a good, ourselves, to judge them.

The MIT study gives us good reason to take a step back and to reconsider how we digest the news we receive and the things that we share.

School Shootings: Seeking the Why

Depositphotos ID: 87889252 Copyright: creatista (editorial use only)

Another school shooting has occurred, this time in Maryland at the Great Mills High School. (See the CNN report: Armed student dead after he shoots 2 others at Maryland high school, sheriff says). Some people will herald this incident as a vindication of gun rights because the shooter was taken down by an armed resource officer in the school. I will leave that debate to others. I want to focus on why school shootings are happening in the first place.

Yes, we can say school shootings are happening because of guns, but guns are not the whole story. Guns are not the root cause. Guns have been ubiquitously part of the fabric of American life going back to the Revolutionary War and before. Guns were accessible in our country throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, but there was never an indiscriminate, mass school shooting until 1966 when an engineering student holed up in a tower in Austin, TX and began shooting at passersby on the campus below.

Within months a copycat shooting took place in Mesa, AZ by another individual who spoke about inspiration from the Austin shooter and a serial killer. (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US) Copycat inspiration is a likely source of motivation for indiscriminate, mass school shootings, but copycat inspiration doesn’t explain why. Why would anyone be inspired to emulate such an example as a school shooting?

Regardless of whatever we decide as a society to do about guns, we need to ask why!

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Walk Out or Stand Up?

Depositphotos photography ID: 115252164 Copyright: icrogen

The news headlines were all about the national walk out yesterday. Students in schools cross the nation walked out of school in protest of the latest mass school shooting, urging politicians and other responsible adults to do something about the epidemic of school shootings. Judging by my Facebook feed, most adults supported and even applauded them in expressing their concern to the adults in their world.

It is our responsibility to protect our children. We need to take this seriously and do all that we can to protect them from this very modern danger. It is a modern danger by the way. Never before 1966 was there an indiscriminate mass shooting of students on a school campus in the history of the United States, and indiscriminate mass school shootings have ramped up each decade since then, shooting into the double digits in the 1980’s and beyond. (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US.)

As if this trend isn’t disturbing enough, we can see another trend in the age of the perpetrators. From the 1980’s on, the perpetrators have been predominantly teenagers and young twenty somethings. The perpetrators have been as young as middle school age, and they are almost all boys and young men. What is going on with our boys and young men is a question we need to ask and answer. (See The Lost Boys with Guns.)

Meanwhile, I add my voice to the chorus of adults applauding our youth around the country for walking out in a show of unified protest and demand for the adults to make changes that will protect them from future attacks from indiscriminate mass shootings, but it isn’t enough.

Granted, protests are a last resort for people who don’t have the power, or, perhaps, feel they don’t have the power, to effect change directly. It’s an attempt to prick the conscience of the people who do have the power to effect the change that is needed. At least that is the perception.

Go ahead and protest. It raises social consciousness. It demonstrates a necessary urgency. It forces the issue top of mind and demands that we take the issue seriously. But it isn’t enough. Young people have much more power than they might think, but it will take much more effort, sustained effort, and we, as adults, need to help them in every way we can. Their lives may depend on it!

What am I talking about?

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A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US

Depositphotos Image ID: 4503903 Copyright: tlorna

Ever since the school shooting in Florida, I have had a hard time moving on from the subject, as have many people judging by my social media feeds. I am not sure what is different about this one. Maybe there isn’t anything different – and maybe that is exactly the problem. School shootings have become all too commonplace.

Instead of accepting occasional school shootings as the price we pay for the 2nd Amendment, which was drafted not for hunting and the pleasure of shooting, but to ensure “the security of a free State”[1], we need to come together as reasonable, civil citizens of our great country, and find some solutions to this recurring problem. We have to recognize, first, that it is a problem, and we have to admit that something needs to be done about it.

We can’t hope for solutions if we aren’t willing to listen to each other. We can’t listen to each other if we can’t stop all the ideological rhetoric.

So we must listen and put down our ideological weapons. Our kids’ lives depend on it!

Gun rights advocates are not all crazed, right wing zealots, and gun control advocates are not all soft, naive, liberal elitists. There are good people on both sides who have legitimate points of view, and there is room to find thoughtful solutions. There are many issues on which reasonable minds can differ. Nothing is more unproductive than painting each other in caricature strokes of wild colors.

But I digress. I don’t want to talk about gun rights or gun control. The problem isn’t just the availability of guns, and tighter gun controls is only a band-aid over a much deeper societal problem. I can say that with some degree of confidence after looking at the history of gun violence in schools. Let’s look at the facts.

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The Lost Boys with Guns

Depositphotos Image ID: 184293546 Copyright: belchonock

In the wake of another tragic school shooting and re-ignition of the flames of impassioned debate over guns and gun control, some people have dared to suggest we have problems other than guns. They get shot down pretty quickly now, as it seems we just can’t ignore the gun problem we have. Yes, I have been reluctant to say it… we have a gun problem.

But, we have more problems than guns. Mental health may be an issue, but statistics suggest that the United States has no greater incidence of mental health problems than the rest of the world. Maybe the incidence of mental health problems isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is the way we treat it (or don’t treat it as the case may be).

But that isn’t the only problem either. We assume that anyone who shoots up a school playground is crazy, but that is a dangerous assumption. We think that they are “not like us”, but history suggests we might be fooling ourselves. Given the right factors, circumstances and pressures, any one of us might do things we could never imagine.

The Holocaust wasn’t just the result of a despot few. It took a nation of “regular people” to allow it to happen. If the Holocaust happened in the US today (not suggesting it will), your neighbors would be going off to work this morning to the concentration camps, gas chambers and sterile government offices that allowed genocide to become a national industry. It could very well be us, given the right mix of circumstances and pressures.

The gun problem in the United States isn’t likely the result of a single problem. Reality is more complicated than that. Rather, a confluence of factors and circumstances have come together to create this perfect storm – this phenomenon that is unique in the civilized world.

Among the factors, I speculate, is the history of gun rights that is unparalleled in any other country. Gun ownership is an individual right in the United States. It’s even built into our Constitution. No other country has that history.

But, I don’t think the availability of guns or mental health or or our history, pick your pet theory, are the only issues. School shootings are a recent phenomenon. The first school shooting took place in 1966, and the incidents of indiscriminate school shootings have risen exponentially in the last 20-30 years. Something else is going on.

We tend to let ourselves fall into the trap of false dichotomies: it’s either guns or not guns. Yes it is! Not it’s not!

Like schoolyard banter, nothing gets accomplished because each side is too busy defending their own side of the argument, and too stubborn to concede anything to the “other side”, so we don’t get anywhere. Nothing gets done. We end up with no resolve and no solutions.

I am not anti-gun, but I am here to say I am willing to listen to reasonable measures to limit gun ownership. We have to do that. It’s a numbers game. The more guns that are available for more people to get a hold of, the more likely it is that guns will end up in the hands of people who are dangerous. I am willing to listen to the people who say we have a mental health problem. I am willing to consider other issues and solutions.

But there is problem that few people are talking about it: it’s a problem with our boys. When was the last time a girl was involved in a school shooting? How about a mass shooting of any kind? Girls and women have been involved in school shootings, but school shootings are overwhelmingly committed by boys and men.

It’s past time that we started talking in earnest about what has happened to our boys!

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Into Her Dreams

Depositphotos Photography ID: 8146447 Copyright: jkirshphoto

Like skaters on icy pavement
gliding together into the city skyline,
grey against clouds of snow.
Winter storm warning, veiled
by music and coffee,
conversation and silence.
Precious cargo
delivered into the Windy City,
big shoulders,
blonde and steel,
she slips into the hurried streets,
the streaming crowds,
out into the world.
This father beams in consolation.
She doesn’t look back,
blue eyes piercing into her future,
no hesitation,
Hungary bound.
Heading home,
grey fading into western twilight,
slipping past long headlights,
Silence in the music playing.
Snow dust, shifting like dry mist,
passing like sands of time.
Falling, flurries swirl
As I recall
How easily she slipped
out of my car
and into her dreams.