News, Fake News and Not News

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Recently we were thinking about the news. What makes news? Then there is the discussion about fake news. At Wikipedia we found a page that is about Fake news websites: “Fake news websites (also referred to as hoax news, deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation purporting to be real news — often using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.Unlike news satire, fake news websites seek to mislead, rather than entertain, readers for financial, political, or other gain”.

But what about news that is “left out“, as we formulated in one of our blog posts?

“One can safely assume that any information you are presented with has some relevant information “Left Out”. The originator’s perspective, the logic bubble in which he perceives the world and how the information is applied are some possible reasons for the missing information”.

We can also safely assume that editors of media do “leave-out” news, in good faith. However, there could be some doubt about, as Naomi Chomsky pointed out in “Manufacturing Consent“:

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“The mass communication media of the U.S. are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalised assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”

That raises the question if there exists a keyword “Not News” in Google. Could we find “left-out”news in Google? We got only one hit:

Project Censored – The News That Didn’t Make The News and Why is a well researched website featuring the Top Censored Stories of 2015–2016: Covering up police violence by manipulation Wikipedia pages, violations of the Freedom of Information Act, compensations for vaccine injured families, big pharma lobbying, internet surveillance, FBI spying on rebellion at high schools, and lots of other disturbing news not mentioned in the mainstream media.

Admittedly, it’s all in America, but would it be different elsewhere? We earlier described the mechanisms that explain why disturbing news is not published by the mean stream media (See Press Patterns).

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By the way, in addition to “Manufacturing Consent”, we came across an interesting essay about “Manufacturing Normality”. Nowadays political dissent is stigmatised as aberrant or “abnormal” behaviour, as opposed to a position meriting discussion. Political distinctions like “left” and “right” are disappearing, and are being replaced by imponderable distinctions like “normal” and “abnormal,” “true” and “false,” and “real” and “fake.”.

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Group Obedience

Have you ever stopped yourself from speaking up at a meeting because you felt that the idea or suggestion would not be appreciated or ridiculed? Groupthink is a phenomenon where the desire for group cohesiveness and a quick decision cloud the judgment of the people in the group. The decision taken is often less than ideal. Consequently, identifying warning signs of groupthink is vital. 

images (1)Bay of Pigs was a plan that many knew in advance would fail. Yet the American President J.F. Kennedy went ahead with the plans to try to invade Cuba despite the fact that several of the general knew that the plan would backfire.

Another example is the Challenger explosion, which was a disaster that occurred in 1986 where seven people died. Engineers of the space shuttle knew about some faulty parts months before takeoff, yet the signs were ignored to avoid negative press and the shuttle was launched. 

imagesFeelings of unanimity and morality within the group lead to the members thinking that everyone agrees. Members of the group may be afraid of controversy and there may be a pressure to conform to the group’s decision. In some cases, there is a pressure to make a quick decision and the group may work with incomplete information. This may result in an idea that is not balanced. Or it may result in a family going to Abilene despite the fact that no one wants to go. ScreenShot2012-01-27at115851AM

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, and author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management”. 

There are a number of ways to avoid groupthink such as finding negative points and risks with an idea (see Thinkibility – Positive & Negative). Asking members outside the group to look at the idea is another way to reduce the effects of groupthink. 

Learning how to spot groupthink is vital. Signs of groupthink are a strong leader, high level of group cohesion and pressure from the outside to make a good decision.

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Pressure of a moral character is difficult to deal with. For example, the suggestion that an idea is better because it is more moral is challenging and difficult to resist since no one wants to be seen as less moral or immoral. Suggestions such as “We all know right from wrong, and this is right” are emotionally difficult to deal with. 

A company should have a Plan B or a contingency plan to minimise risks related to groupthinkThe emotional consequences of groupthink can leave many of the members feeling disillusioned and dissatisfied. Enthusiasm can fade if you feel that you do not support a decision that has been taken by the group.  

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Creating a healthy group working environment helps to ensure that the group makes good decisions. Nominal Group Technique focuses on members independently  nominating priority issues, on a scale of, for example, 1 to 5.

 

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Another method that could be used is the Delphi method. This method helps to structure the communication to ensure that consensus is achieved. Thus these methods try to prevent and minimise the impact of Groupthink.

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It is called Delphi because some researchers assumed that the forecasts by the priests of the Delphi oracle basically were compilations of information the visitors from all over the known world brought in themselves.

Basically, it is not the best strategy to strive for consensus, but for dissent.

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So encourage disagreement, difference of opinion, argument, dispute, disapproval, objection and protest over constructing consent and majority rule.

See also our earlier posts:

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Controlled Behavior by Design

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Design has been used throughout history to control our behavior. Hausmann designed  the broad avenues in Paris with the aim to better control riots and revolutionary uproars. There are designs  that prevent you from lying on a bench, so called anti homeless benches. Citizens have built low viaducts to prevent buses going into the town to prevent low-income inhabitants to enter the town. These kinds of designs aims towards controlling behavior in  a man-made environment.

Sometimes designs are used to  encourage safe or healthy behavior.

  • Speed bumps slow down cars without any need to have a police man present. In some countries speed bumps are called sleeping policeman.
  • Red strips along a road mark the way for cyclists and increase their safety.
  • Sidelines on roads produce sounds when you drive over it, to warn you to stay on course.

Other examples are less innocent, schools, prisons and military barracks are examples of disciplinary architecture.

The arrangement of chairs affects our behavior. Each arrangement produces different interaction patterns.

  • Chairs in a meeting rooms could be arranged along a large table, at the end of the table is  the chairman.
  • The chairs could also be arranged in a full circle, or U-form.

In many merchants ships the quarters of the crews are deliberately designed to enhance possibilities of encounters with other crew members.

In government buildings, the automatic doors are  adjusted in a way that forces the entrants to slow down their speed, which in theory should have consequences for their behavior inside the building (they should act in a calm manner).  Some interpret this as a kind of systemic violence.

Artifacts  have politics. Langdon Winner says: ” The machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority”

We will take this idea somewhat further into the digital age. Are there architectures of control in the digital environment? Could it be that the lay-out of software programs and apps forces specific behavior and exclude other behavior?

Recently we experienced  the downfall of the de Bono Society, an information based and social networking site for people interested in de Bono’s approach to thinking. We assume that the members were familiar with the principles of Parallel Thinking – a fundamental concept in this thinking framework. Parallel Thinking is an alternative for “adversarial” thinking. The aim is to open up possibilities, to explore situations and to escape linear thinking.

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However, the approach to thinking in the de Bono Society was all but Parallel. Often contributors fell into  the trap of proving that statements were wrong, classifying arguments as false or true and blocking discussions that seem to be going in unexpected yet interesting ways. We described this mechanism already in our blog post Dialectical Thinking or Kick-Box Thinking  as basically linear thinking.

Why then was the de Bono Society a failure and a disaster for proving the value of Parallel Thinking? Were the members not skilled enough?

We don’t think so. The contributors were lured into dialectical thinking because of the linear design of site. The lay-out of the site did not encourage parallel thinking. It might even have discouraged it.  The site used the standard dialectical lay-out as used in sites as LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.  It was not designed for Parallel Thinking. As such it had unintended consequences for the thinking performed by its members.

We desperately need software and apps that are deliberately designed for Thinkibility. Software and apps that control our thinking behavior in a more constructive way.

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Remedies Against Groupthink

Groupthink Consequences
Groupthink is described historically by the myth of the Cassandra syndrome. This myth describes a prediction or warning that goes unheeded with serious consequences. The term comes from the story about Cassandra, who was raped by the senior adviser to her father at court. To defend against accusations, she was personally discredited. So Cassandra’s special talent for predicting future unknowns was also discredited, with disastrous results of war and destruction.

Groupthink manifests itself in statements such as,“This could simply not be true. It cannot happen here.” Examples are in government corruption, partiality of judges, sexual harassment of a worker by a superior, pedophilia by priests, price fixing between corporations, doctor’s scams, or fraudulent investment funds.

If no one believes you despite clear indications or evidence that your claims are valid, it may lead to significant physical and psychological issues, such as schizophrenia and paranoia. This claim of insanity awaits whistle blowers. And you can safely assume that in administrative and social elite situations, by definition there is groupthink.

Remedies against Groupthink
There are a number of answers for groupthink. In formal debate, you may appoint a Devil’s Advocate.  To build in considerations about public safety, legislature can subsidize a critical social movement, i.e. environmentalism. Prosecutors and police may set up contradiction teams to prepare alternative hypotheses about suspects.

Better Solutions Need Better Ideas
A problem is that these remedies are within the pattern of the standard approach of improvement through the criticism of logical reasoning. A hypothesis is proposed and then it must be proved that the statement is incorrect; or a statement can be declared impossible to disprove, so it cannot be a valid beginning hypothesis. The qualification of truth is characterized by attack and defend, win or lose. Hegel rightly observes that this was the dominant condition of exceptional Western progress.

Taken to extremes, we have seen that using conflict to determine truth has drawbacks inherent in Cassandra’s syndrome. Criticism, debate and argument prevents the creative design of solutions.

Six Thinking Hats method
One answers to overcoming the limitations of traditional dialectic thinking is the Six Thinking Hats method, designed by Edward de Bono. It describes the advantages of parallel thinking.  The Six Thinking Hats method was developed around 1982. The Six Thinking Hats has been used worldwide with success by many diverse groups –  large corporations and small primary schools, by government juries and activists.

Photo:  Crowd Thinking by fotographic1980,

The Role of Criticism

Find the Truth
Someone once asked me “How can we increase people’s willingness to accept criticism and enhance their ability to find the truth?”

Personally, I do not believe that human nature can be changed. For example, the idea that another banking crisis can be prevented by people calling for less greed, does not make sense to me. There must be a definite consequence or a benefit for change to happen. Are laws, rules, procedures, and rituals that were designed to reduce the avoidance of criticism and encourage the search for truth working as intended?

Criticism has a function
First, criticism has its own purpose and function. It prevents people saying stupid or untrue things. It is the possibility of criticism that makes people careful and forces them to use logical thinking. So it is good that people are sensitive to criticism and strive to avoid it.

But there are disadvantages to avoiding criticism, given a culture where people derive their self-esteem from being able to think intelligently and independently. This is especially true in the United States and Northern Europe. Both cultures owe their prosperity to the presence of criticism. The development of technology, medicine, and economy would not have been possible without criticism of existing concepts and ideas. Hegel rightly observes that dialectical thought was the dominant reasons for exceptional Western progress. That is why the ability to review, test, and correct thinking is fully institutionalized in the educational systems and professions of these cultures. A drive to avoid criticism is what causes both social and legislated rules to exist.

Better Thinking
The ability to correct reasoning has become a dominant part of defining how to think, commonly in the term “critical thinking.” It is supposed to be built into the “rigorousness” of college level courses. There is an assumption that college level study will automatically lead to better thinking. In these cultures, a person’s status and ability to think is primarily evidenced by their education. The admonition, “To get a higher status job, students should do their best in school and especially in college,” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As a consequence, all well-paid staff positions requiring thinking have a prerequisite of higher education credentials. To apply for a well-paying job, a person at least needs to have a college degree because this implies they been qualified for thinking.

However, it appears that educational systems have gradually evolved to produce professors. If a person has only a master’s degree, they can be considered to be a failed professor.

Finally, regardless of the rather sloppy assumption that years of scientific study will automatically lead to real better thinking; the ability to correct reasoning has become a dominant part of the self. However, as an alternative, you might also derive a sense of the self from being able to paint.

It is interesting that most people are not concerned about the fact that they have moderate skills in painting, sports, or in raising children. These skills do not determine their self-image as much as the ability to think.

The answer to,”what do you do for a living?” is the most common determination of a person’s cultural identity. Someone could just as well derive a sense of their identity from being a painter, excelling at sports or being a parent. It is interesting that most people are not concerned about the fact that they may have inadequate skills in those areas. If you want to pursue study to become a recognized musician or artist, you still at least need to have a high school diploma to qualify for admission to a music conservatory or art college, as well as having completed college prerequisites before taking studio classes in your discipline, regardless of your previous experience.

In these cultures, none of these skills or situations determine socially recognized value as much as the ability to think.

Thinking and self-image
There are many compelling reasons to avoid criticism; avoiding personal insult, avoiding consequence from disagreeing with those in authority, social pressure to conform, or avoiding the assignment of blame or extra work. To avoid criticizing others about their thinking seems to avoid many repercussions and “keep the peace.” Even though anyone can clearly note “the Emperor has no clothes,” appearances of agreement can easily become a higher priority than being truthful, reasonable or offering ideas for improvements.

Because the primary role of criticism is to eliminate, it leads to uncertainty, which in itself can be uncomfortable. Uncertainty reveals there is a risk being taken by answering unknowns. Uncertain situations where answers need to be found that are coupled with a time pressure can exceed a tolerance limit for finding the best answers. This situation may justify extreme reactions, especially when having to presuppose social opinion. A phenomenon of second-guessing an extreme version of conformity is likely to emerge as a coping strategy. Groups will tend to decide on a priority need to follow badly designed solutions based on insecurities, fears, or radical reactions, in spite of clear signals of incorrect reasoning.

Disastrous in practice
One can see the disastrous consequences of groupthink in situations where  under time pressure decisions are made, such as in police investigations that are broadly in the social spotlight, the management of football clubs  or political parties which are under  criticism of public figures or in company’s boardrooms where the losses are piling up.

Photo:  By 143is (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons