Fake-News: Maajid Nawaz, the SPLC, and the New York Post

With all this talk of post-truth, post-fact, and fake-news, it would seem like deception is a rather new phenomenon. Of course, deception has always been with us, but I do think something has changed. Firstly, society at large has lost faith in institutions, and so has lost interest in the notion of a source being authoritative. Secondly, in many ways, we have reached peak information, at least in a psychological sense. These two intersecting problems inculcate the spreading of falsehoods by undermining most peoples critical faculties. In other words, even though there has always been deception, our current context has given deception a particular advantage, and thus has precipitated its influence and severity.

The ebb and flow of trust in institutions and authority is itself not new. Watergate had a particularly undermining effect in the 1970’s, as was to be expected. However, today, this lack of trust in institutions is more diffuse, owing mainly to the increased access to information (whether true or false), combined with the availability heuristic. We are way more likely to remember all the catastrophes than to appreciate all the incremental things that make life better. Now, with the internet, all sources of information are on neutral footing. Which in itself is not too problematic, but for the untrained it can take time to determine that Natural news is less credible than the New York Times.

More credible, of course, does not mean infallible, but credibility is time saving. No one has an infinite amount of time. I can’t do a deep dive on every story. I also can’t be every where at once. I rely on the fact that somebody somewhere is providing me with important and accurate information. This is where the problem exacerbates. Once we lose trust in institutions, who is credible? How do we determine who to listen to? Who to trust? The short answer is that most people begin to trust only that information which comports with their own world view. To a certain extent, people do this anyways. We are prone to seek information that doesn’t challenge us. However, with an appropriate appreciation of authority, you might be more compelled to conform to the facts. After all, people who put in the time to be experts in their field are probably more qualified then those on the outside. It is in this sense that expertise should hold some public clout. The issue is that when authority has been undermined the crank seems to be as equally credible as the expert. It is therefore, in times of institutional distrust, hard for a lay person to determine the credibility of experts.

For journalism, credibility is harder to measure. There is some indication that trust in news institutions is declining, but it still remains fairly high. However, trust in the information provided by these news institutions seems to be lower. Part of the problem is that news institutions tend to have an ideological slant. Some have recently taken this ideological slant to be evidence of the fake-news phenomenon, but it is actually the inevitable outcome of news being reported on by humans. Stories with an ideological slant are not necessarily fake, they are often true with specific facts, but come prepackaged with a narrative. The issue is that, in some sense, the news is always grey, or various shades thereof. By contrast, fake-news is simply false. Facts that are made up out of whole cloth, as opposed to being ideologically bent.

The proliferation of fake-news is due to the distrust of media institutions causing all reports to be in some sense authoritative regardless of their source, combined with the time saving propensity to accept stories at face value that comport with readers world view. Although fake-news can be uncovered rather quickly by more authoritative media outlets, the effects often remain. However, conflating fake-news with biased news can further exacerbate this trend towards media distrust, and it is important to recognise the difference.

As a case study, take for example, this story found in the New York Post, about the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to Paul Sperry, the Southern Poverty Law Center buried data that suggested an increase in Trump inspired hate crimes against white children. To begin with, the New York Post is a tabloid, that is famously known for its sensationalism combined with a flagrant right-wing agenda. Sperry himself has spent the last part of a decade writing books about how Muslims are infiltrating the US government, of which there is little evidence. He also wrote piece after piece about the Hilary Clinton e-mail probe, which, to at least some credible legal scholars, was really a non-issue. None of this is definitive proof that the New York Post story is false, but it highlights some issues that might point towards its credibility.

What makes this story of particular interest is that Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim reformer who was recently labelled an anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, immediately shared the New York Post piece over Facebook and vigorously defended it. I have defended Nawaz against the SPLC, and agree with him that labelling him an anti-Muslim extremist is illiberal and should be criticised. I understand why the New York Post article would be appealing to him, given how the SPLC has tried to undermine his credibility, but what saddens me is his response to the criticism of the New York Post article:

The ctrl-left is as post truth as it complains the alt-right is. And arrogant for not seeing it. Both disregard facts that don’t suit their narrative. Both scrutinise opposing news to a high degree, yet digest news that suits their confirmation bias willingly.
Dogma is dangerous. Ditch it.

I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with its application in this particular instance. Part of the problem was that there was no corroboration of the New York Post story. Furthermore, every source used by the Post was blatantly against the SPLC. This, combined with the credibility of Sperry and the New York Post I believe warranted a certain amount of skepticism as opposed to the immediate acceptance provided by Nawaz. The only people who seemed to run with the piece were white nationalist groups like Storm Front, conspiracy theorists like InfoWars, and Nawaz. One of these things is not like the others.

Eventually the SPLC responded to the New York Post piece. It turns out that the Post, according to the SPLC, mischaracterised the data they supposedly withheld in their report. As they put it:

We asked in the survey whether educators had “heard derogatory language or slurs about white students” because we were concerned about all students.   About 20 percent of the respondents answered affirmatively to the question – a statistic that we readily shared with the Post reporter.  We included in our report a number of comments from educators who answered the survey question affirmatively. Our analysis of the comments showed that the language in question almost never was actually directed at white students; more often it was expressed as disappointment and frustration with white people in general for having voted for Donald Trump. Out of approximately 10,000 comments in which educators described specific incidents at school, only 103 – or about 1 percent – involved statements that could be interpreted as anti-white. Of those, fewer than five were directed at white students.

Contrast this with how the Post framed the interaction:

Asked last week to provide the data, SPLC initially said it was having a hard time getting the information “from the researchers.” Pressed, SPLC spokeswoman Kirsten Bokenkamp finally revealed that “about 20 percent answered affirmatively to that question.”

Bokenkamp did not provide an explanation for the absence of such a substantial metric — at least 2,000 bias-related incidents against white students — from the report, which focuses instead on “anti-immigrant sentiment,” “anti-Muslim sentiment” and “slurs about students of color” related to the election.

Now, one could argue about which side adequately framed the interaction, whether the information was readily supplied or eventually revealed after a lengthy time of prodding, but this hardly seems like some kind of cover up. The choice to omit some of the data seems rather benign in the context provided.

Maajid Nawaz, as these things go, never responded to the SPLC’s clarification. The Post, Storm Front, and InfoWars never offered retractions. Everyone’s narrative remains firmly intact.

The problem highlighted by Nawaz’s response to criticism, is that the spectre of fake-news or post-truth, can be used by anyone to deny truth. Fake-news simply becomes news I happen to disagree with. Facts, again, become irrelevant.

But what are the facts here? Was the Post really wrong? Did the SPLC intentionally withhold the information? I don’t know. That to me is the big issue with fake-news; our credulity in the face of world view supporting information. People tend to be radically opposed to not knowing, but lacking knowledge is probably more common than having it. We therefore speculate about motives and intentions when evidence regarding motives and intentions are hard to come by or difficult to interpret. It is hard not to see the SPLC as being evil when they have personally (and wrongly) attacked you, but it does not follow that they are wrong about everything. Once you have made wrong-doing an essential part of a groups character, it is difficult to catch yourself subconsciously interpreting data in an attempt to further bolster that narrative, though it might be factually deficient.

Take, for example, the recent case where four black teenagers assaulted a white teenager and live streamed it on Facebook. This was a terrible crime, regardless of what the motives were, and yet social media, and the news, were constantly trying to figure this part out. Was it a hate crime? Was it inspired by Black Lives Matter? Is this the fault of social justice warriors? Sure, the perpetrators call the victim white and say ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ while harming him, but they never explicitly state “We are doing this because we wish to slaughter white people”. They also never mention Black Lives Matter, but it is possible, in some convoluted way, that they were inspired by some of the rhetoric around the Black Lives Matter movement. It is also possible that this whole thing was staged by our lizard overlords, but maybe some things are less likely than others.

There is some evidence to suggest this was a hate crime, although it seems weird in the context that one of the perpetrators was the victims friend. Weird, but not definitive. reality tends to be far more messier than our narratives. There is absolutely no evidence that this is linked, in any way, to Black Lives Matter. But there remains a lot we don’t know, and that might always be the case when it comes to violent crimes. Adding speculation to fill the gaps in our knowledge is at the very least useless, and at its worst utterly harmful to the goal of maintaining a reality based society. I have no problem calling this incident a hate crime if that is what the facts demand, but I also see no problem with withholding judgement until more facts are in. Though I do agree this case doesn’t necessitate the degree of public scrutiny it has received when compared to the larger American context. Conservatives may feel that attacks against whites are a real and growing issue, but when your feelings do not correspond to the facts, it is your feelings that need to change.

The take home is that reality is messy. We should try our best to hinder our propensity to want to add narrative to events which lack sufficient information. We should learn to be alright with not knowing. However, when there are clear facts, we should be willing to accept them, even when we find the facts to be unpalatable.





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