Recognition Is Futile (and also dangerous)

I often talk about the dangerous of teaching students to “recognize” fake news. Here’s a good example from today of why recognition is a lousy strategy that can lead to bad results, a tweet proposing that the President of Nigeria has been replaced with a clone.

Here is how Peter Adams’s excellent newsletter The Sift  describes the conspiracy theory:

Speaking on Sunday to Nigerians living in Poland, where he is attending a U.N. climate conference, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari denied viral rumors — amplified by his political opponents — that he had died and that a look-alike from Sudan had taken his place.

The rumors first emerged in 2017 amid Buhari’s lengthy, unexplained disappearances from public life. They have been strengthened by misinformation and conspiracy theories shared on social media — including by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, a political activist and leader of a separatist group.

But wait, are those the same person? Look closely…

What do you think? 

See, here’s the thing, and I really wish we’d put this at the center of what we do. If I tell you these are the same person, you’ll say, “But of course, it’s so obvious!” and point to some details. On the other hand, if I say actually I played a trick on you and swapped a picture out for another one, you’ll say… “But of course, it’s so obvious!” and point to other details.

Why is that? Two reasons. First, the informational field here is dense. A photograph has literally hundreds of things I can drill down on, and given an initial orientation towards the photo I may often find whatever I need to bolster that initial orientation. Second, there’s no stopping rule for declaring whether these are the same person or not. There’s no point, for example, where you can have looked at three precise things and declare, with high certainty, that this is confirmed to be him. So instead of bringing you to more certainty, the longer you look at it the more likely you are to find some strange differences, and the more likely you are to become confused.

Most things aren’t quite as informationally dense as photographs, but the same problems come into play. The more features you have to look at, the more you start to be manipulated. Don’t believe me? Here’s a cruel trick you can play on your faculty. Show them this page:

Tell them — hey this is a suspicious medical site, how do we know? Unless they know the site is the site of one one of the most prestigious journals in medicine they’ll tell you all the reasons why it’s obvious this is a junk site:

  • It’s a .com, not a .org. Probably an imposter.
  • There’s literally an “Our Company” link at the top. Like, hello!?! This is not a journal!
  • “Beating sugar taxes” in that headline doesn’t sound very scholarly
  • And look at these pictures, they look like something from a clickbait site, stock photos, etc.
  • There’s a popup ad that looks like an ad for some sort of pharmaceutical promotion in the bottom, what a scam!

Start by telling them the opposite — that it’s one of the top five medical journals published in English, and again, they’ll come up with all the reasons why it was so so obvious from the start this was quality:

  • Good clean style
  • Lots of focus on medical practice
  • Scholarly titles on some articles
  • Mentions of the CDC
  • Research tab and Authors tab looks legit.

In a dense informational field you think you’re being Sherlock, and feel pretty smart. But the more data you look at the more you’ll get confused.

This is well known by people outside online media literacy of course. Ever go to buy a car? The psychology of dealerships is to put complex configurations of car options in front of you — this one is $1600 more but it has the power windows and the satellite radio is standard, it has seat warmers and leather interiors, this one is less but but doesn’t have ABS and doesn’t come in white, at least on the lot. All of this stuff is fed to you deliberately to overload your cognition so that by the time you sit down and hear about their special warranties you’re putty in their hands. 

If you want to survive on the internet or in a car dealership, you have to radically reduce what you look at. If seat warmers and satellite radio were not things you came in looking for — ignore them entirely. Their value to you is zero. Reduce the information you look at dramatically, and prefer things that are resolvable to comparable criteria (is this journal well cited compared to other journals) to things that aren’t comparable (which page looks more professional). Choose a couple crucial things, and stop there if those things suggest clear answer.

Our four moves approach, of course, deals with just this issue, and you can read about it here.

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