Lies, statistics and the problem of social media

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… lies, damned lies, and statistics …

This phrase is often attributed to Mark Twain, who attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, who joins a long line of late 19th century political figures using the term. While the phrase has sometimes been used to promote the strength of statistical research, it is more commonly used to allude to the manipulative nature of providing statistics to support a cause.

What once was considered a rhetorical turn-of-phrase has become a stark reality in our meta-data driven society. People on both sides of an issue beat each other mercilessly with a mountain of assumed facts, quotes, and statistics that are driven by one side of an issue and intended to force the submission of the other side.

Because of all the noise, often lost is a genuine desire to gather information from multiple sources in order to make a reasoned decision. This is coupled with an aversion to risk admitting that we may not know something in its entirety, or may even have been wrong.

As we have been encouraged to segregate ourselves into smaller and smaller people groups, a larger distrust of those who are not of our ilk has grown which exacerbates the problem. The problem is not just the skewing of facts to suit our positions, but a general decrease in real knowledge, and an apparent aversion to the accumulation of knowledge because it may challenge our presuppositions about a particular topic.

John Locke seemingly takes a position based on the observation that a world in which all people enjoy the same unlimited right to speak, knowledge will be arrived at by a means of public discourse wherein all ideas are continuously vetted and subject to constant review. In light of this position, a conclusion is drawn that society benefits from speech that is unwanted to the extent that it should cause individuals to constantly scrutinize their own positions, prevent knowledge from going stale and denying any one person the opportunity to declare themselves the final arbiter of knowledge.

An unknown author has stated that “branding and politics are ruled by those who can mount the most entertaining ‘noise’ on the most effective platforms.” We can see the effect of restricting information most clearly in this arena. The term “fake news” is bandied about by every side of the spectrum to deride the opponent and to guide the reader or listener in a specific direction that usually is self-affirming.

The logarithms devised by the internet companies are intended to feed you the information they have harvested from your previous searches and not to provide actual news. Most media outlets are also feeding specific outputs to appeal to their preferred demographic by crafting news instead of reporting actual occurrences. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like allow a person to post information, true or not, directly to an audience that is eager to believe their chosen provider.

If we do not take the time to fully educate ourselves, to listen to opposing ideas, and to speak to one another, then we can only expect a further degradation in our knowledge and civility. Until then, we might well say …lies, damned lies, and Facebook….

Rep. Sage Dixon represents Bonner and Boundary counties in District 1A in the Idaho House of Representatives.

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