News Spin … One Famous Example

On April 24th, 2009, Al Gore testified before Congress about global warming. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R Tenn) wanted to know if Gore would personally profit off of the cap-n-trade legislation under discussion.

In response to this legitimate question, Al Gore stated,

“…Every penny that I have made, I have put right into a nonprofit, the Alliance for Climate Protection, to spread awareness of why we have to take on this challenge.”

Just to confirm, Rep Blackburn again asked, “…you know, are you willing to divest yourself of any profit? Does all of it go to a not-for-profit, that is an educational not-for-profit…?”

Gore reiterated,

“Every penny that I have made has gone to (the not-for-profit). Every penny from the movie, from the book, from any investments in renewable energy.”

Al Gore didn’t hide his petulance at the line of questioning, so he didn’t come off great. Even so, Representative Blackburn seemed fairly satisfied with his answer. Check out the original, unedited testimony as can be found on C-SPAN:

Original, Unedited Testimony

Newscast Video: Edited to Mislead

Nearly a week later, the O’reilly Factor reported on Al Gore’s testimony. However, the Fox producers cut out key components from the video. What parts? You guessed it – the two sentences I cited above, where he confirms that money made off of his investments in clean energy went directly into a not-for-profit charity.

See for yourself. Here’s the Fox version of the Gore / Blackburn exchange:

Did you notice anything missing? Did you notice the selective edits? Could you feel how the narrative pushed the viewer to believe that Gore was profiting off of his message?

Immediately after the edited testimony clip, Laura Ingraham asks, “did she (Rep Blackburn) get the, uh, question, actually answered?”

If Fox had shown an unedited clip, the answer would have been yes – he answered, “uh,” her question twice. But in the selectively edited Fox video, the host and guest laugh, as if Al Gore never answered at all.

That’s a lie.

While the raw testimony in the first video may have left you satisfied in Al Gore’s answer, or even unsure of his motives, the Fox video was unambiguous. The clear intention was to lead the viewer to conclude unequivocally that Al Gore was profiting off of his global warming advocacy. Even though he wasn’t.

Just one of a Sampling of Lies

This is but one of many examples of how Fox spins its own narrative to tell a story that is patently false.

This is how Fox news lies.

Resources and acknowledgements:

Beyond News Spin: The Sycophant Filter

A sycophant filter has been deployed on the Fox news website.  I’ve already pointed out how Fox producers selectively edit video testimony to tell a story that is far from the truth.  Now, we have proof that on their website, they’ve deployed bots that actively filter out comments critical of Trump, and let through comments that praise Trump.

They’ve erected a sycophant filter.

Test it for yourself.

1. Jump to the comment section of this hateful op-ed: 

http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/07/12/dont-tread-on-me-trump-hating-traitors.html

Do you see any comments containing this direct quote?

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Depending on how far the sycophant filter has evolved when you check the comments, you may or may not see this bot-evading post:

“T.his is 0b.vi0usly ver.y hig.h le.vel an.d 5en.sitive inf.ormation bu.t i.s p.art o.f Rus.sia an.d it.s g0vernm.ent’s sup.p0rt f.or M.r. Tr.ump.”

No? Despite the fact that many redditors have posted a direct quote from an email from Rob Goldstone to Don Jr., you’ll not see them anywhere. Here is the quote:

2. Create an account on the Fox news website, and post that quote

Click on the Sign In button, and choose, ‘Sign Up’. Put in your email address and follow their instructions for the remainder of your account setup. Log in, and post the following:

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” – Rob Goldstone

3. Log out, then pull up a fresh browser where you’re not logged in.

Logged in as an anonymous reader, try to find your comment. It’s not there.

4. Log back in and look at your comments.

Your comment appears now. Your comment has been ghosted. (only you can see it).

5. Or – skip the work and watch someone else expose the Fox Sycophant Filter.

In this video, reddit user u/UnconnectdeaD creates various accounts, posts pro Trump and anti-Trump posts, and shows how the sycophant filter works in real time:

As an American, I take pride in our 1st amendment. One of our fundamental freedoms is that of speech. We are supposed to live in a society free of from censorship. I take the first amendment seriously. Here, on state party TV, the sycophant filter is running amok. It’s as unAmerican as Soviet state propaganda.  Fox news is pretty much Russian state TV.

Resources:

Who is Rob Goldstone:
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40567707

Dive into the Reddit Rabbit Hole here: 
https://www.reddit.com/r/politics/comments/6nb4w7/dems_read_trump_jrs_emails_on_house_floor/dk86v03/

What’s True?

How does a team of people tease out facts? How do they and identify and cull out spin-based, cherry-picked, out-of-context, half-truths? Lately it seems people can’t even agree on basic premises, so how can a team of people come to any conclusions with confidence?

I’ve been reading and discussing this topic with colleagues, and in doing so, have come across some approaches for working together to figure out what’s actually true. Here’s what I’ve found.

Erin Meyer’s thought-provoking book, The Culture Map, describes how people in various cultures argue. While there’s a wide range of styles, more fundamentally, there are some differences in goals. In some cultures, a goal may be to convince others of a particular initial position. In others, the goal is to discover universal truths.

Truth-seeking, regardless of initial positions, seems the more useful goal. But this can be difficult, as it requires we detach ourselves from outcomes. When you’re not accustomed to detaching your ego from your beliefs, you may not even know where to start. So here are some ideas.

Do as the the French

In The Culture Map, Ms. Meyer tells of her time living in France. There, she observed people arguing vigorously, sometimes forcefully. They seemed rude, even happy to offend. They were indifferent to being judged.

To Ms. Meyers, these arguments felt like irrevocable fights. However, once conversations moved on, she discovered that the formerly fired-up French would become amiable with each other, as if uninjured, even care-free. Indeed, they often complimented each other for making insightful arguments. As if moving on and letting go was no big deal. They not only enjoyed arguing, they seemed happy to take up just about any side of an issue.

For the French, this vigorous yet judgement-free mode of arguing seemed to come naturally. In fact, it had been taught. Ms. Meyers notes that French students are explicitly taught to disagree openly and from multiple vantage points, all the way through their schooling:

“French students are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis, synthesis, first building up one side of the argument, then the opposite side of the argument, before coming to a conclusion.” – The Culture map, p. 201

In other words, to find the essence of a matter, the French train themselves to inspect an issue from many perspectives, and then compare. They naturally shift into this mode when talking in a group, even socially. And they effortlessly move from one view to another as needed.

Persuasion – a misguided goal

As an American, I’ve found that my countrymen – in the home and at work – have a very different goal from the French when they argue. Sure, they may think they’re seeking truth, but really, the main motivation is to convince others of their initial opinions. We stick to initial premises and remain there, steadfast.

This doggedness brings to mind the age old fable of the elephant, where blind people, each feeling a different body part, incorrectly identify the elephant as snake, tree, fan, rope, etc. By sensing through one perspective only, they see only one view and mistakenly come to believe it. They fail to see the elephant.

True picture of an elephant requires seeing all sides.
Sticking to one perspective leads to a limited, and often incorrect, view.

Why do we get so tied to our initial positions? Why are we so unwilling to try on a new view, like the French do? I suspect it’s because, having not practiced the French methods, we conflate our identity with our arguments, we find comfort in joining teams, and we unwittingly succumb to confirmation bias.

When beliefs = identity

I am not my opinions. You are not your beliefs. This is obvious. Yet, often, we take smug pride in the opinions we’ve adopted, and judge others harshly for opposing opinions they espouse. We identify with whole ideologies. We’re self-satisfied in our rightness, and derisive toward those who believe otherwise. If our objective is to persuade, then conflating identity with belief may in fact be a strength. However, if we aim to discover the truth, it’s counter productive.

Over my nearly twenty year career in silicon valley, much of it in the product planning department at Altera Corporation, I witnessed many colleagues, myself included, become so married to their projects or plans, that their projects became part of their persona around the office. I share examples in my upcoming book titled, Align: Discovering Customer Information that Matters, due out from Dover Publications in the fall.  I saw people develop their very identities around their product plans. In these cases, the results were predictable. People would find themselves going on what we called fishing expeditions, where they’d ask loaded questions in order to get  customers to tell them what they wanted to hear. Fortunately, we’d developed a sophisticated signal to discretely call these infractions out when they occurred. It involved a covert under-the-table identifying of the shin of the culprit, then swiftly kicking it. Looks would be exchanged, and we’d get back to asking open ended, customer focused, future focused questions.

Confirmation bias feeds the ego

When we argue to convince others we are correct in order to gratify our egos, we become even more prone to  confirmation bias. This is a behavioral trait you may recognize. It’s where we hear what we want to hear, seek out data that supports our beliefs, and suppress data that disproves our opinions. If a person identifies with specific beliefs, they may be more likely succumb to this counter-productive bias. We seek out evidence to validate our opinions, because, in effect we feel that data is validating us. Conversely, when ego isn’t part of the equation, there’s nothing for confirmation bias to feed.

Tribe

Political tribes (even within organizations) come with them a set of beliefs. When we identify with political tribes, we adopt the beliefs. I wonder if that further inoculates from the truth by convincing ourselves that arguments from the other team are invalid at the outset. We may hear that the ‘other team’ consists of evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with hidden, oppressive agendas. This narrative – if believed – neutralizes arguments emanating from that other team. People may be motivated to actively discount opposing views, rather than allow any honest consideration.

When we tie identity to opinion, cave to confirmation bias, and join opinionated tribes, the thesis-anthithesis-synthesis method of truth seeking is rendered nearly impossible. We stop ourselves before we begin. We remain stuck, anchored to original positions. In this paradigm, to abandon our viewpoint is to denounce our very selves, or be traitors to our teams. Those are painful steps to take.

If it’s so hard for us to detach our identities from our ideas, why does it seem so easy for the French? Let me remind you, this skill is not necessarily a function of their DNA, but rather, it’s due to deliberate training. This is good news – it means this detachment can be taught.  The French have developed different mindsets. As their goal is simply to discover the truth, they find themselves, not in opposition with people arguing a counter-argument, rather, they see themselves as being on the same team with the ‘other sides’.  They argue in order to seek the truth, not to stroke their egos. To them, to confuse identity with argument would be non-sensical.

What Can We Do to Discover What’s True?

It’s easy to say, “detach identity from opinion,” but how does one accomplish it? In my research, I’ve discovered three specific strategies that can transform the team from persuaders to truth-seekers.

  • Be the Devil
  • Adopt a Veil of Ignorance
  • Cultivate Unlimited Positive Regard

Be the devil

In Erin Meyer’s book, she recommends using the phrase, “I’m playing devil’s advocate.” Immediately, people understand that you are not personally taking up a position, but that you are simply trying to get the group to look at an issue through another lens. It makes them more willing to hear the argument as they’ve let go of judging the person.

Veil of ignorance

I know not my gender, race, tribe, class, position in society, bank account balance, neighborhood, tribe, nor identity.
I AM NOT ME. TRUTH IS, I COULD BE ANYONE.

Discussing this topic with my high school classmate, Paul Mariz, he suggested looking to philosopher John Rawls, specifically to Rawls’s concept of a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’  Rawls asserts that, in the pursuit of crafting competent and fair policies, policy makers should start at an ‘original position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’ In this initial state…

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”   – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil_of_ignorance

In other words, forget who you are. Imagine that, before entering the room, you roll the dice. Your gender, race, class, connections, education and bank account could be anything. Suddenly the absolute justness of an idea may snap into stark relief.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Still another technique is to adopt the mindset of a psychiatrist. When psychiatrists work with patients, they adopt ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the patient.  In this mindset, it becomes easier to hear what others are actually saying. It’s easier to separate their humanity from their opinions, or from their tribe.

Note that …

  • The ‘veil of ignorance’ removes your identity
  • Cultivating positive regard for your opponent removes their identity.
  • Arguing as ‘devils advocate’ signals that your identity is not to be conflated with your argument.

These three tactics can help us cut the tie between identity and idea, and work with others to find common ground and discover what’s true. Use them regularly. Practice arguing like the French. Take the opposing view, and bring your best critical thinking to the argument. Or, start a debate club where people can feel free to practice arguing the other side with impunity.

If we used these techniques regularly with our teammates, I wonder if we could improve our decision making and accomplish more collectively. Maybe we could move past tribal identifications and widen our view of what’s possible. I wonder if we could come to a better understanding of what’s really true.