Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Unproven doesn't always mean Untrue

The Atlantic's McKay Coppins posted an excellent cautionary piece on the hazards of believing rumor sites.

The Guardian has a good article today about how the Russians weaponized unfounded accusations to spread doubt among Democrats.

The difficulty is sorting Not-Proven from Not-True.

This is the key misstep Woodstein made during their Watergate coverage, reporting something that was true in a way that was poorly sourced and could be denied, jumping to a false conclusion (Haldeman was indeed complicit but their source had not said so to the Grand Jury because he wasn’t asked. If he had been asked he’d have fingered Haldeman. This misstep led to their editor explaining how if they aim too high and miss they all––all the culprits––feel safer.)

Not Proven does not mean Not True. It can turn out to be untrue. The argument in favor of its being true flows from the probable cause that motivates the inquiry. The smoke/fire test. Reporters and grand juries do not like to waste time on false stories. Not unless they are captive to a prejudiced narrative, as happens with biased news operations and prejudiced legal systems.

But we are in a bewildering logical environment where doubt is an industry. Teaching and selling skepticism of scientific consensus is an industry. Disbelief of truth and belief in falsehood is aggressively taught by one side as a patriotic virtue. Their obedient followers make the Right quicker to mobilize. Conservative voters’ lack of any doubts about their own narrative makes their anger easier to channel and activate.

Progressives and liberals tend to be skeptical and demand facts, but when the Left feels ten steps behind the Right in a key race, we sometimes jump the gun. Which then tends to increase our hesitancy once we’ve discovered an error. It increases our uncertainty and makes us more vulnerable to subsequent scams. “Better to not do anything than to do something foolish.”

That is the kind of weaponized doubt the Russian bots and trolls set loose on the Democrats, aiming specifically at Democrats in key swing states. (I suspect a lot of women hesitated to vote for Hillary because they were afraid they might elect a first woman president who ended up being charged as a criminal or tarred with one of the many bogus accusations the Russians were disseminating.)

Skepticism is unequally distributed Right and Left. The Right is only skeptical toward the Left while persons on the Left have a tendency to have some level of skepticism across the board.

From Quora: are liberals more gullible than conservatives? (No.)

From MotherJones: the brain differences between conservatives and liberals.

The MSM’s rule of reporting only what was firmly sourced and true tended to protect Trump from the worst accusations sticking because Republicans believed Not Proven meant False as it related to negative stories about Trump. Anything negative about Hillary was assumed to be true, which was demonstrated by the outrageousness of some of the stories. They disbelieved the outrageous truth about Trump but believed the blatant falsehoods about Hillary.

There is also the “fair and balanced” standard, the false equivalency habit among avid news consumers: if something awful is reported about a Republican it is only fair to assume equally awful must be true about their opponent.

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