Treason and text messages: whom to trust and what’s the truth?

In a world filled with opposing narratives, competing dogmas, and active disinformation, how to make sense of important, rich and complex new data?


As I had an hour to kill this afternoon before a meeting in the City, I took a walk around the Tower of London. Dodging the teaming tourists, I passed by the riverside Traitors’ Gate, where those deemed enemies of the reigning monarch bid farewell to freedom (and vital body parts).

It’s a timely reminder of treachery, as today the US Department of Justice published a rather significant report [PDF summary] on (alleged) traitors in the FBI. It includes a long analysis of the now-infamous Page-Strzok text messages. This public document is potentially a “snowball” of fact finding that triggers an “avalanche” of further revelations about past and present high crimes.

Time will tell — and this isn’t the place for me to engage in a political polemic. The report does, however, fit in the newsletter theme of the Future of Communications, since it provokes a severe challenge of media interpretation. In a “post-truth” world of fake news and fraudulent narratives, how can we each make sense of something as complex as this? Whom can we trust to tell us the truth? In the ongoing war for our minds and public opinion, which side to take?

As I’ve written before, the experience of growing up with one parent in a religious cult, and the other not, sensitised me to how our cosmology can readily become disconnected from reality. If you want to stay grounded, then you need to adopt extremely rigorous “epistemological hygiene”. Here are a few things I’ve picked up on my own journey of awareness that may help to you to stay “conceptually clean”.

Sanity is aspirational at best, delusional at worst

Anyone who has ever taken psychedelics (no comment!) knows that we inhabit a simulation playing inside our head. Once you’ve fiddled with the tuning knobs, that’s an undeniable fact. We receive inputs from the world, and then our brain makes up a semi-plausible story. If you want to experience this without psychoactive substances, then watch the following video. Remember to count VERY CAREFULLY. Don’t read ahead!

Are you good at counting…?

For those of you who did as you were told, you will now have experienced a “negative hallucination”. We actively edit out things that don’t fit our expectation, even when they are right in front of us! So you can’t even believe your own eyes, let alone the reports of others.

If sobriety is the unfortunate side-effect of a lack of alcohol, then sanity is the transient absence of attractive delusions. Like a stopped clock, we’ll all get it right sometimes! In theory this effect should give each of us considerable humility in our forthright opinions, but that appears rarely to be the case (myself included).

In the context of something as complex as this DoJ report, be patient in allowing time for the most salient data to be identified and consensus to form. We’re all actively editing out what we don’t expect to see, and cannot easily tell when we are doing so.

The “feeling of knowing” is a useless guide

The book “On being certain: believing you are right even when you’re not” captures this idea in the following simple paragraph. Read it carefully, paying attention to your feelings as you do so.

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Confusing, no? Now, having heard a single word — kite — read it again. That’s the difference between the “feeling of not knowing” and the “feeling of knowing”! The problem is, navigating truth by this “feeling of knowing” is utterly useless in the context of complex problems, like interpreting legal reports and political conflicts.

You have to use firm logic, not flimsy emotions — so in this instance your (strong) feelings about Trump’s administration (pro or con) have to be ignored. That’s not easy, which is why few can do it. (It’s also potentially why “autists” are unusually good at some information problems, as we’re not so easily swayed by the feelings we don’t experience as strongly!)

Always ignore headlines, summaries and press releases

As Stalin may or may not have said, “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.” Likewise, those who write headlines, executive summaries, and press releases have ample opportunity to selectively spin any content, twisting it to fit their preferred narrative. It may not be a welcome reality, but you have to do the hard legwork yourself. No short cuts!

In the telecoms policy world, I’ve forced myself to read through many tedious publications on “net neutrality”, so as to acquaint myself with the (often deficient or wrong) views on offer. If all you did was try to make sense of the matter from the newspaper headlines and opinion pieces, you’d never have enough grounding to make an intelligent choice.

In the case of this landmark report, if you want to be taken seriously as a commentator, then you have to read it. It’s long. It’s possibly rather dull in its detail, even if the content is politically incendiary, lending credence to the existence of an institutional coup attempt against the present US administration. The next best thing is to consider the views of those who have read it thoroughly; everyone else is just recycling talking points.

Trust conservative institutions for liberal problems (and vice versa)

The world needs people of both a conservative and liberal outlook. Too much of the former and you have a brittle and boring society; too much of the latter, and party can get badly out of hand. Neither is better, and we need continuity and novelty to work in symbiosis. Every time I see a conservative homophobe, I think “no more musical theatre for you!”; and liberals who denigrate warriors are automatically signed up for active military duty, if only in my dreams.

The conservative nature is to hold things of longstanding value in high esteem. That which has withstood the test of time is naturally deemed to be of higher virtue. There is a concept that captures this idea — the Lindy effect — which broadly states the future applicability of an idea is related to its existing longevity. The Bible and Greek philosophers are examples of life guides whose ideas are likely to be in vogue for a long time to come.

In this DoJ report’s case, the separation of powers and the processes of law are ones that have extremely strong pedigree. We should pay great heed to this endeavour of fact finding, which is deliberately separated from the process of indictment and prosecution (let alone media commentary). Putting people in prison is (in a well-functioning society) deliberately difficult, but conversely those who end up there deserve the fate.

At some level it is unsurprising that a (small ‘l’ and ‘d’) liberal democratic movement has gone off the rails, requiring a (small ‘c’ and ‘r’) conservative republican set of institutions to offer corrective measures. But before any right-leaning reader begins to gloat, the converse is equally true. Coming back to telecoms, “net neutrality” may be an unhelpful framing, but at least the liberals initiated the debate of what is a fair and just use of network resources in the face of oligopolistic ISPs.

Seek out victim stakeholders whenever possible

For a variety of reasons, I have come into contact with many victims of cults, emotional or sexual abuse, and general life trauma. As a values-driven person, it seems that people trust me with their untold pains, and my sense of justice drives me to pay attention and get involved. As an example, see my write-up of the tragic story of Helenor Bye.

What I have found over the years is that whilst your own lived experience is the “gold standard”, the “silver standard” is that of victims of negligence, crime and corruption. By this I don’t mean generalised victim complexes based on identity politics, but rather those who have directly experienced the wrong. They will expend great energy seeking truth and justice, with no ulterior profit or power motive.

In the context of interpreting this report (and those like it), those who are most loudly accusing others of wrongdoing are quite possibly just covering for their own crimes; but those who are loudly demanding restitution for their own losses are the most reliable guides to the truth. If I were to make an example of the Clinton Foundation, I would be paying close attention to the Haitians objecting to their ethics. These are just heuristics — not hard rules — so should be taken lightly.

Use discernment about disinformation

If information is power, disinformation is a superpower. The world is awash with knowingly fraudulent data and faked stories. The dark side of great knowledge is the ability it gives to manipulate others: no need for costly coercion when they automatically bend to your will, believing it to be their own.

Accept that you’ll sometimes fall for distracting and discrediting data. It’s inevitable. Whilst I can be pretty confident that the world is round (I’ve ringed and pinged it), reptilians are just ordinary lizards and snakes, and Hershey’s “chocolate” is inedible, there are many other things I am far less sure about, and some I (and you) will guess wrong.

We are all subject to emotionally-driven decisions and beliefs. I could point to many dead-ends I’ve followed, only to later discover my profound foolishness. It would be unwise for me to recount the depth of my folly here in public! That said, the danger is to reject everything someone else offers to you just because one piece of their data is “crazy” in your outlook.

Accept that progress in sense-making frequently requires unlearning some things. Go easy on yourself if what you have to unlearn was the result of being duped by disinformation. It’s very ordinary, as we’ve all been “hacked” to some degree, since nobody is immune. Indeed, being “clever” can be a positive handicap, leading to conceit about one’s superior reasoning.

In the case of this DoJ report, it is (so I am told!) evidencing widespread and institutionalised corruption. The media is a party to the battle, not a disinterested observer. Understand that you’re in an active memetic war zone, are already a combatant, and must armour up accordingly.

Learn how propaganda works

Edward Bernays is the anointed “father of public relations”, which is the polite way of describing commercial and poliiical propaganda. The main purpose of propaganda is not to make you believe that true things are false, or the other way around. Rather, it is to signal which beliefs are socially acceptable. When you see a Coke advert, is says that liquid diabetes is a great thing to serve to your friends, and they won’t criticise you for it.

Furthermore, as Bernays himself said “But being dependent, every day of the year and for year after year, upon certain politicians for news, the newspaper reporters are obliged to work in harmony with their news sources.” The journalist’s wage depends on satisfying his or her stakeholders, and you come below the proprietor, editor, news sources, and advertisers.

Just as airports now exist to serve shops, not airlines or passenger, you should adjust your expectations of honest and independent inquiry from mainstream media. It’s like asking Coca Cola for dietary advice: what exactly did you expect them to say, other than “drink lots of what we sell!” — whether it is good for you or not.

For me, the reportage of journalists is of zero value in this DoJ report matter, since the cost of critiquing it exceeds any possible information value. The interesting commentary is all from independent parties — military and intelligence analysts, legal experts, historians and philosophers. If you know where to look, even Twitter has a few gems of analytical insight.

I’ve probably skirted as close as I dare to the political on this occasion. My core competence is computer science, not world affairs or media criticism. Nonetheless, I hope this offers you a few valuable things to chew over. We certainly live in interesting times, but I don’t experience that as a curse. At least, not yet… but then again, I’ve stayed well away from treachery and treason. So I hope not to have any important part of my anatomy lopped off by anyone soon!

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