Control-F and Building Resilient Information Networks

In the misinformation field there’s often a weird dynamic between the short-term and long-term gains folks. Maybe I don’t go to the right meetings, but my guess is if you went to a conference on structural racism and talked about a redesigning the mortgage interest deduction in a way that was built to specifically build black wealth rather than intensify racial wealth gaps most of the folks there would be fine with yes-anding it. Let’s get that done short term, and other stuff long-term. Put it on the road map.

In misinformation, however, the short term and long term people are perpetually at war. It’s as if you went to the structural racism conference and presented on revised mortgage policy and someone asked you how that freed children from cages on the border. And when you said it didn’t, they threw up their hands and said, “See?”

Control-F as an Example of a Targeted Approach

Here’s an example: control-f. In my classes, I teach our students to use control-f to find stuff on web pages. And I beg other teachers to teach control-f as well. Some folks look at that and say, that’s ridiculous. Mike, you’re not going to de-radicalize Nazis by teaching them control-f. It’s not going to address cognitive bias. It doesn’t give them deep critical thinking powers, or undo the resentment that fuels disinformation’s spread.

But consider the tactics used by propagandists, conspiracy theorists, bad actors, and the garden variety misinformed. Here’s a guy yesterday implying that the current coronavirus outbreak is potentially a bioweapon, developed with the help of Chinese spies (That’s how I read the implication at least).

Screenshotted tweet links to CBC article and claims it describes a husband and wife were Chinese “spies” removed from a facility for sending pathogens back to China.

Now is that true? It’s linked to the CBC, after all. That’s a reputable outlet.

The first thing you have to do to verify it is click the link. And right there, most students don’t know they should do that. They really don’t. It’s where most students fail, actually, their lack of link-clicking. But the second thing you have to do is see whether the article actually supports that summary.

How do you do that? Well, you could advise people to fully read the article, in which case zero people are going to do that because it takes too long to do for every tweet or email or post. And if it takes too long, the most careless people in the network will tweet unverified claims (because they are comfortable with not verifying) and the most careful people will tweet nothing (because they don’t have time to verify to their level of certainty). And if you multiply that out over a few hundred million nodes you get the web as we have it today, victim of the Yeats Effect (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”). The reckless post left and right and the careful barely post at all.

The Yeats Effect Is Partially a Product of Time Disparities

One reason the best lack conviction, though, is time. They don’t have the time to get to the level of conviction they need, and it’s a knotty problem, because that level of care is precisely what makes their participation in the network beneficial. (In fact, when I ask people who have unintentionally spread misinformation why they did so, the most common answer I hear is that they were either pressed for time, or had a scarcity of attention to give to that moment).

But what if — and hear me out here — what if there was a way for people to quickly check whether linked articles actually supported the points they claimed to? Actually quoted things correctly? Actually provided the context of the original from which they quoted?

And what if, by some miracle, that function was shipped with every laptop and tablet, and available in different versions for mobile devices?

This super-feature actually exists already, and it’s called control-f. Roll the animated GIF!

In the GIF above we show a person checking whether key terms in the tweet about the virus researchers are found in the article. Here we check “spy”, but we can quickly follow up with other terms: coronavirus, threat, steal, send.

I just did this for the tweeted article, and repeatedly those terms are found either not at all or in links to other unrelated stories. Except for threat, which turned up this paragraph that says the opposite of what the tweet alleges:

Paragraph indicating no threat to public perceived. Which would be odd if they were shipping deadly viruses around.

The idea here is not that if those specific words are not found that the contextualization is wrong. But rather than reading every article cited to determine whether it has been correctly contextualized, a person can quickly identify cases which have a high probability of being miscontextualized and are therefore worth the effort to correct. And for every case like this, where it’s reckless summary, there’s maybe ten other cases where the first term helps the user verify it’s good to share. Again, in less than a few seconds.

But People Know This, Right?

Now, here’s the kicker. You might think that since this form of verification triage is so easy that we’d be in a better situation. One theory is that people know about control-f, but they just don’t care. They like their disinfo, they can’t be bothered. (I know there’s a mobile issue too, but that’s another post). If everybody knows this and doesn’t do it, isn’t that just more evidence that we are not looking at a skills issue?

Except, if you were going to make that argument, you’d have to show that everybody actually does know about control-f. It wouldn’t be the end of the argument — I could reply that knowing and having a habit are different — but that’s where we’d start.

So think for a minute. How many people know that you can use control-f and other functions to search a page? What percentage of internet users? How close to a 100% is it? What do we have to work with —

Eh, I can’t drag out the suspense any longer. This is an older finding, internal to Google: only 10% of internet users know how to use control-F.

I have looked for more recent studies and I can’t find them. But I know in my classes many-to-most students have never heard of control-f, and another portion is aware it can be used in things like Microsoft Word, but unaware it’s a cross-application feature available on the web. When I look over student shoulders as they execute web search tasks, I repeatedly find them reading every word of a document to answer a specific question about the document. In a class of 25 or so there’s maybe one student that uses control-f naturally coming into the class.

Can We Do This Already Please

If we assume that people have a limited amount of effort they’ll expend on verification, the lack of knowledge here may be as big a barrier as other cognitive biases. Why we aren’t vigorously addressing issues like this in order to build a more resilient information network (and even to just help students efficiently do things like study!) is something I continue to not understand. Yes, we have big issues. But can we take five minutes and show people how to search?

Memorizing Lists of Cognitive Biases Won't Help

From the Twitters, by me.

What’s the cognitive bias that explains why someone would think having a list of 200 cognitive biases bookmarked would make them any better at thinking?

Image
Screenshot of tweet encouraging people to read a list of 200 biases to be a better thinker.

(It literally says it’s “to help you remember” 200+ biases. Two hundred! LOL, critical thinking boosters are hilarious)

 I should be clear — biases are a great way to look at certain issues *after* the fact, and it’s good to know that you’re biased. Our own methods look pretty deeply at certain types of bias and try to design methods that route around them, or use them to advantage.

But if you want to change your own behavior, memorizing long lists of biases isn’t going to help you. If anything it’s likely to just become another weapon in your motivated reasoning arsenal. You can literally read the list of biases to see why reading the list won’t work. 

The alternate approach, ala Simon/Gigerenzer, is to see “biases” not as failings but as useful rules of thumb that are inapplicable in certain circumstances, and push people towards rules of thumb that better suit the environment. 

As an example, salience bias — paying more attention to things that are prominent or emotionally striking — is a pretty useful behavior in most circumstances, particularly in personal life or local events. 

It falls apart partly because in larger domains – city, state, country – there’s more emotional and striking events than you can count, which means you can be easily manipulated through selection, and because larger problems often are not tied to the most emotional events. 

Does that mean we should throw away our emotional reaction as a guide altogether? Ignore things that are more prominent? Not use emotion as any indication of what to pay attention to?

Not at all. Instead we need to think carefully about how to make sure the emotion and our methods/environment work *together*. 

Reading that list of biases may start with “I will not be fooled,” but it probably ends with some dude telling you family separation at the border isn’t a problem because “it’s really the salience effect at work”. 

TL;DR: biases aren’t wholly bad, and the flip side of a bias is a useful heuristic. Instead of thinking about biases and eliminating them, think about applying the right heuristics to the right sorts of problems, and organizing your environment in such a way that the heuristics don’t get hacked.

The Stigmergic Myth of Social Media, or Why Thinking About Radicalization Without Thinking About Radicalizers Doesn't Work.

One of the founding myths of internet culture, and particularly web culture, is the principle of stigmergy.

This will sound weird, but stigmergy is about ant behavior. Basically, ants do various things to try to accomplish objectives (e.g. get food to nest) but rather than a command and control structure to coordinate they use pheromones, or something like pheromones. (My new goal is to write shorter, quicker blog posts this year, and that means not spiraling into my usually obsession with precision. So let’s just say something like pheromones. Maybe actually pheromones. You get the point.)

So, for example, ants wander all over, and they are leaving maybe one scent, but they go and find the Pringle crumbs and as they come back with the food they leave another scent. A little scent trail. And then other ants looking for Pringles stumble over that scent trail and they follow it to the Pringle crumbs. And then all those ants leave a scent as they come back with their Pringle crumbs, and what happens over time is the most productive paths have the best and strongest smell.

If you think this smells very E. O. Wilson, it is. But it’s not just E. O. Wilson. This stuff was everywhere in the 1990s. Take “desire paths”, which was a metaphor I first heard when I landed in the middle of the dot com explosion. The story goes some university somewhere doesn’t build paths when they first put up the buildings. Instead, they wait for the first snow, and see where the tracks between the buildings come out. And where the tracks fall they put the paths. Another one talked about the worness of objects as an indicator. And in my first meeting with a MediaLab grad in 1999 (who’d been hired as a consultant for the educational software company I worked for) he described to me his major project: Patina, a web site whose pages showed visible signs of wear they more they were read.

This stuff was everywhere in the 1990s, and when Web 2.0 came around it was the founding mythology. I swear, unless you were around then, you have no idea how this cluster of metaphors formed the thinking of Silicon Valley. You really don’t.

And like a lot of mythologies, there’s a lot of truth to it. When I say myth, I don’t mean it’s wrong. It’s a good way to think about a lot of things. I have built (and will continue to build) a lot of projects around these principles.

But it’s also a real hindrance when we talk about disinfo and bad actors. Because the general idea in the Stigmergic Myth is that uncoordinated individual action is capable of expressing a representative collective consciousness. And in that case all we have to do is set up a system of signals that truly capture that collective or consensus intent.

But none of the founding myths — ants and Pringles, Swedish college desire paths, or even Galton’s ox weighing — deal with opposing, foundational interests. And opposing interests change everything. There isn’t a collective will or consciousness to express.

Faced with this issue, Web 2.0 doubled down. The real issue was the signals were getting hacked. And that’s absolutely true. There was a lot of counterfeit pheromone about, and getting rid of that was crucial. Don’t discount that.

But the underlying reality was never addressed. In areas where cooperation and equality prevails, the Stigmergic Myth is useful. But in areas of conflict and inequality, it can be a real hindrance to understanding what is going on. It can be far less less an expression of collective will or desire than other less distributed approaches, and while fixing the signals and the system is crucial, it’s worth asking if the underlying myth is holding our understanding back.

A New Year's Eve Activity (and a New Year's Day Wish)

I made a short video showing a New Year’s Eve Activity around SIFT, and getting serious for a minute with a New Year’s Day wish.

I don’t know how many people know this about me, but I actually study misinfo/disinfo pretty deeply, outside of my short videos on how to do quick checks. If anything, I probably spend too much time keeping up with the latest social science, cognitive theory, network analysis, etc. on the issue.

But scholarship and civic action are different. Action to me is like Weber’s politics, the slow drilling of hard boards, taking passion and perspective. You figure out where you can make a meaningful difference. You find where the cold hard reality of where we are intersects with a public’s desire to make things better. And then you drill.

It’s been three long exhausting years since I put out Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and over a decade since I got into civic digital literacies. I’m still learning, still adapting. And still drilling.

Happy New Year, everyone. And thanks to everyone that has helped me on this weird, weird, journey.