Algorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy

by Paul Braterman

Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.

The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump's emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author's UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.

Lying is lying; bullshit is different

Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.

Post-TruthThis book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson's chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world's largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions others who have helped spread bullshit, including his own readership. I had planned to write a piece simply based on the book, when the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story broke. I cannot claim to do that story justice, with new material surfacing daily, but will try to show how the separate themes involved relate to each other. Bullshit, fake news, targeted messages, and the manipulation of opinions, including yours and mine, are now inseparable, as recent disclosures show.

In which connection, let me urge all readers who have not yet done so to check and adjust their Facebook settings; you will find my own detailed instructions here, and CREDO's here. When I did this, I was horrified at how much information I was allowing to be harvested, and by whom, not only about my own preferences but about those of my friends.

I, too, have spread bullshit. As in the false claim, which I passed on unexamined,2 that a close family member of a senior Conservative politician had shareholdings in a scandal-ridden company that has been strangely successful in securing government contracts. Here we have the distinguishing features of bullshit. Highly emotive, tailored to appeal to a certain audience, effective clickbait, difficult to ignore, a plausible and indeed in this case well-warranted central concern, and an allegation so sticky that the very act of refuting helps spread it (which is why I have not named names here, although I am sure that many readers could supply them).

As a safeguard against such behaviour I have now taken the Pro-Truth pledge, which includes a commitment to fact-checking information before passing it on.

Indignantly calling out bullshit plays into the hands of its producers, but it is difficult to resist the temptation. We all enjoy drawing attention to the wickedness of our opponents. The added attention that bullshit brings makes it lucrative to give it coverage, and thereby help it spread. Hence the enormous amount of coverage given to the Trump campaign in 2016, when media deeply opposed to him gave him billions of dollars worth of free advertising.

It takes minutes to dream up a fake news story, much longer to show that it is not based on evidence, almost impossible to show (especially to the satisfaction of the target audience) that it is false, and totally impossible to wipe out its emotional impact. .And the impunity with which Trump can continue to assert that millions of fraudulent votes were cast against him, or that his inauguration parade through a larger crowds than Obama's, shows just how invulnerable bullshit is to rational examination, or even direct photographic evidence.

Fact checkers offer some defence against bullshit, but they get much less attention than the offenders; Ball (p 240) reports that the fiftieth most popular fake news story got more attention than the most popular single fact check. We can also expect, if fact-checking catches on at all, the rise of highly partisan or even downright dishonest alternative fact-check sites. Moreover, there is the interesting problem of knowing which sites to trust about what issues. I have more sympathy than Ball with those Corbyn supporters who deeply mistrust the BBC's reporting of UK electoral politics. Fact checkers themselves can become victims of lurid attacks, such as the attacks by the Daily Mail on Snopes. And according to a Gallup poll, only 29% of Americans trust fact checkers anyway while two thirds get their news through social media.

US, 2016


Daney Williams/Bill Clinton composite from The Sun, under the headline "WHO'S THE DADDY?"

In the US 2016 elections cycle, the Trump campaign relied heavily on bullshit. Take for example the resurrection by Breitbart and the Drudge Report of the claim by Danney Williams, who is black, to be Bill Clinton's illegitimate son, although they surely knew that this story had been proved false by DNA testing 17 years ago. Danney (coached, one suspects) had even asked for access to Monica Lewinsky's famous blue dress, which some readers may remember. In a typical twist, the Drudge Report made a secondary story out of the fact that CNN had decided to give no coverage to the non-story, making it appear that this was part of an MSM (Mainstream Media) conspiracy, and taking the opportunity to quote Danny extensively on how badly the Clintons had treated him. So we have at once a calling into question, however absurdly, of the Clintons' concern for minorities, an opportunity to resurrect Bill Clinton's personal failings and the difficult question of how Hillary should have responded to them, and a smearing as co-conspirators of the MSM. In the UK, the Sun also reported Williams' claim.

Discouraging Hillary's supporters was vital to Trump's strategy, and a very recent study (not yet peer-reviewed) suggests that this aspect may have been important enough to swing the election, with effective fake news stories asserting that Clinton was in "very poor health due to a serious illness", that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump (8 percent), and that Clinton while in office had approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, "including ISIS".

Other popular campaign stories included Obama banning the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, white female bodies found in freezers with "black lives matter" carved into their skin, someone having been paid $3,500 to protest at a Trump rally, the Pope endorsing Hillary Clinton for President, the much more popular Pope endorsing Donald Trump for President (more eye-catching because more ridiculous? Or are Trumpophiles more likely to click on bullshit?), and a story that I clicked on myself, attributed to a non-existent Denver newspaper, about the suspicious death of someone involved in some non-existent investigation regarding the Clintons. During the election campaign, manufacturing bullshit became a cottage industry in one small town in Macedonia. One Made in Macedonia story, claiming that in 2013 Clinton had said that Trump should run for president, earned 400,000 shares on Facebook.

A weapon


Emma Gonzalez tearing up a shooting target. Conservative social media modified this image to show her tearing up an iconic representation of the US contitution

When faced with uncomfortable arguments, bullshit is at once defence and distraction. Consider, for instance, the gun lobby's response to the survivors of the Parkland High School mass shooting in Florida, and their campaign against the laxity of US gun laws. For example, a media image showed Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors, tearing up a gun range target. A doctored image, showing her tearing up a copy of the US constitution, was reposted by the actor Adam Baldwin, who has a quarter million followers.

Fake news sometimes shades into satire, especially in areas where (as Poe's Law points out) satire has a hard job competing with reality. Thus I really did believe, on the basis of a Facebook image, that Ken Ham had written "Only 4400 years old!" on the Grand Canyon National Park entry sign, although I very much hope that if I had read the full story in the Babylon Bee, I would have immediately seen the joke.

In Britain, and elsewhere

12millionturksBullshit was centre-stage in the Brexit campaign with its misrepresentation of the UK's membership dues, and claims in the Sunday Express and (page now deleted) on InvestmentWatch (a far right US site) of twelve million Turks about to immigrate to Britain (Turkey is not even a member of the European Union, nor likely to be). A more recent example in UK politics is the claim by Ben Bradley MP, Conservative Party Vice-President for Youth, that Jeremy Corbyn had been a spy for Communist Czechoslovakia. Now Corbyn really did have coffee, twice, in that most secretive of hideaways the House of Commons tea room, with an accredited Czech diplomat. And the diplomat really was a spy, although his report, released from Czech government archives, said that he learnt nothing of interest. Faced with a libel suit, Bradley apologised, paid a substantial undisclosed sum in settlement, and withdrew his allegation. (For further dismantling of the non-story, this time from the BBC, see here. Corbyn gave the money to charity, including a food bank in Bradley's constituency.)


Sir Richard Dearlove sharing his concerns with The Telegraph

Yet Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-chief of MI6 from, continued to say (as the Telegraph reported at length) that Corbyn has questions to answer.4 Such is the nature of bullshit; refutation is never enough to stop those whose agenda it serves from spreading it. And Bradley is still in place as Vice Chair for Youth at Conservative Central HQ, and Gavin Williamson is still Defence Secretary.

Some bullshit generators are after the money, others (as we have seen) are unscrupulously boosting their own cause, and yet others are most interested in displaying their own superiority. The hoaxer Paul Horner, responsible for the paid protester story, told the Washington Post that he had made it up to prove how dumb Trump's supporters were, citing the fact that Trump's campaign manager had posted the story without checking it. But why should he check it, when it was so much in his interests simply to accept it? And this links to one of their deeper problems; all of us accept much more readily, and with much less scrutiny, what we are happy to believe.

For the degree of harm that bullshit can do to our democratic institutions, consider the recent Italian elections. Here the two "outsider" parties, the far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, who now between them dominate Italian politics, pledged as part of their election campaign to do away with compulsory vaccination. The anti-vaxx movement in Italy, as elsewhere, derives from Andrew Wakefield's long refuted 1998 study alleging that childhood vaccination was linked to autism, which has now generated a world-wide conspiracy theory involving the medical establishment, governments, and of course the pharmaceutical companies. In Italy, 5% of the population are now vaccine rejecters, with a further 10% being hesitant about their use, and, as you might expect, measles is making a comeback. The Five Star Movement, which garnered almost 1/3 of the votes in the 2018 General election, has gone further, running a network of ostensibly independent and wildly popular websites using headlines like "THE TRUTH THEY ARE TRYING TO HIDE FROM US", and claiming that the US was behind the smuggling of would-be immigrants from North Africa to Italy, and was deliberately destabilising the Middle East in order to deny China access to the region's oil. Much of this nonsense, like much of the nonsense on US social media, is traceable to Russian sources.

What happens when one side of an argument deliberately embraces bullshit? Then calling out bullshit can be made to seem like a partisan position.

I should add here that I am well aware that almost all of my examples of bullshit show the ruthless Right attacking what is, relatively speaking at the least, the Left. Is this a correct appraisal, or does it merely reflect my own prejudices? I would be glad to learn of more examples of Left against Right bullshit, if there are any.5

A sticky story, no matter how absurd …

Mere absurdity is not enough to stop bullshit, as the Pizzagate conspiracy theory shows. Readers outside the US may not have heard of this theory, which alleged that hacked emails showed the Clinton campaign was conducting a paedophile ring from a pizza shop in Washington DC, with types of pizza order being code for different kinds of sexual gratification. This absurdity spread among right-wing websites, and came to be associated with one particular Pizza Hut. As a result, employees and performers there were harassed and threatened, and one vigilante entered the restaurant with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, and fired three shots, fortunately without causing injury (he was jailed for 4 years). The paedophile ring story was also quoted by pro-government newspapers in Turkey.

YouTube helped spread this theory, by bringing it to the attention of potential recipients via its recommendation engine, which has 50 million users a day. YouTube was effectively funding bullshit, since videos promoting the theory got advertising revenue from major companies, directly related to number of clicks.

Computational propaganda; a structural problem

Political bullshit was with us before the rise to dominance of on-line news sources, but developments over the past decade have made things far worse. Philip N. Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford, studies of fake news and elections, and way back in 2014 he coined the phrase "computational propaganda" to describe what was happening.

Opportunity for such propaganda is built into the very fabric of mass social media. Targeted ads and "suggestions" protocols are not optional features; they are what Facebook is for. People join groups that they agree with, and discussion among like-minded people moves consensus further away from the middle ground. Facebook's recommendation system makes things even worse. An investigator for Buzzfeed, having signed up for antivaxx sites, found herself getting recommendations for groups about Pizzagate, the perils of fluoride, chemtrails, and Flat Earth.

Facebook also makes it easy to propagate fake news under false flags. Thus the page "Native Americans United", apparently from the Dakota Pipeline protesters, with the message "Love water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother," was produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm. The same people also gave us a page "Black matters", ostensively part of the Black lives Matter movement. Special Prosecutor Mueller has indicted 13 members of this troll farm, though they are clearly unlikely to ever enter his jurisdiction.

False news has a further advantage over reality on social media because it is generally more novel and attention-grabbing. Thus an analysis of Twitter shows that false news spreads faster, deeper (longer chains of transmission), and more broadly (total number of tweets) than true news. This seems to be the work of individuals, rather than bots. See here; full report here.

Breitbart, Brexit, and Cambridge Analytica

In The Guardian, Chris Wylie, one of the people involved in refining computational propaganda, describes links between Facebook, Russia, Bannon, Brexit, and his employer, the now notorious data-processing company Cambridge Analytica. (For more on these links, and the possibility that the Brexit campaign broke UK election law, see here) Political forecasting and targeting emerged naturally for him from his field of fashion forecasting and targeting, with which it has a great deal in common. If I know about your politics, that helps me guess your taste in shoes. This is interesting to shoe salesmen, who will find a more receptive audience among this or that political group. Now reverse the flow. People who "like" a particular brand of shoe are more likely to respond to a particular political message. Such relationships may be impossible to predict, but emerge naturally from scanning large amounts of data, and Facebook users who responded to "personality test" bait were giving away a mass of information, not only about their own "likes", but about those of their Facebook friends. Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University researcher who obtained the data later used by Cambridge Analytica, compares the method to that used by Netflix in targeted recommendations of films, and while others have drawn attention to the lacklustre performance of such methods in assigning personality type, Kogan reportedly claims 85% accuracy in discriminating between Republican and Democratic voters.

HubBackgroundL:Cambridge Analytica's front page image. Message superposed: "Data drives all we do. Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior."

How did Cambridge Analytica come by all that information? According to the New York Times, it had $15 million from a major hard-Right Republican donor, Robert Mercer, and interest from

Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah

Robert Mercer and his Daughter Rebekah, also deeply involved in the 2016 campaign

Stephen Bannon, Trump's political adviser at that stage. (The Mercer family are major donors to Breitbart, in which they own shares.) Cambridge University's Aleksandr Kogan had acted completely legally in paying Facebook for permission to post a personality questionnaire, which enabled him as an academic exercise to harvest viewing and "liking" data, not only from the

The effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica's campaign is seriously questioned by social scientists, and I suspect that some of the eagerness to focus on their role comes from reluctance among the losers to accept responsibility for a disastrously misjudged campaign.

But there are plenty of reasons to take these claims seriously, on both sides of the Atlantic. The [US] Advertising Research Association gave Cambridge Analytica its David Ogilvy Award for matching ads to viewers in the Trump campaign. Current investigations of possible illegal spending by the Vote Leave campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum have exposed close links between that campaign, and the company called AggregateIQ, effectively a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica. According to a statement made by Dominic Cummings, formerly posted on the AIQ website, "Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of Aggregate IQ. We couldn't have done it without them."

The Irish Times reports that this quotation has now been removed from the AIQ website. It also reports that Kanto, another opinion management company with strong links to Cambridge Analytica and to UKIP, has been hired by Save the 8th, defenders in the upcoming referendum of Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion.

Julian Wheatland, former Chair of Oxford West and Abingdon Conservative Association, has just been promoted to CEO of Cambridge Analytica

For more on the technique, and on an actual conference bringing together Facebook and shabby advertisers of fake pills and "clean your computer" scams, see Bloomberg's report here.

How to respond?

At the individual level, I again commend the Pro-Truth Pledge, by signing which I have committed myself (among other things) to critical examination of sources before I repeat material. I would also re-emphasise the importance of refraining from drawing attention to outrageous fake news, since this plays into the hands of those who manufacture it. That is why, here, I have linked to reliable secondary sources when reporting on these.

For social platforms to block the most extreme content, Ball suggests, may be part of the solution, but who's to say what is extreme? Do we really want Facebook deciding what may or may not be said in public?

Do we trust governments to do so? The governing parties in the US, Italy, and pro-Brexit UK have been beneficiaries, if not indeed instigators, of fake news. Sometimes the Government as such is itself the fake news source. Historical examples of this abound, and one EU member, Hungary, is one today.

The Drudge Report, according to Wikipedia, was prominent in promoting the Swiftboating of John Kerry (fake news that sabotaged his 2004 US Presidential campaign), the Bill Clinton illegitimate child story, and many others, including false claims that the fires that recently ravaged California had been started by immigrants. Yet Facebook has been criticised for omitting The Drudge Report from its "trending" list, on the grounds that this is a form of censorship.

The censorship issue is real. Last month the Malaysian Government published plans to jail publishers of fake news for up to ten years. But who decides what news is fake, and if a Malaysian prosecutor were to say that a piece like the one you are now reading is fake news because it casts aspersions on the Government's credibility, how likely are the courts to disagree?

Worse, a dictatorial government may itself require Facebook, as a condition of continued operation within its borders, to remove material that it does not like, and Facebook has acceeded to such requests already in Russia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Israel

A few more words about Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says he wants to get people into "meaningful" Facebook groups. But our earlier comments on Facebook recommendations show that this may not be a good idea (except, of course, for Facebook). This may also be the right place to mention Facebook's intimate relationship with the murderous regime of Pres. Duterte in the Philippines, possibly signalling a new development in social media.

Zuckerberg has been apologising for Facebook's invasions of privacy, and promising to make its opt-out settings more transparent, for over a decade, and as I write is scheduled to do so yet again in testimony to Congress. (For more on how open Facebook has been to abuse and how long this has been known, see here). An open letter, demanding, among other things, that Facebook start notifying users whenever they have been exposed to fake or malicious content, has gathered over a million signatures. Zuckerberg does promise that "if we find that someone is improperly using data, we'll ban them and tell everyone affected", a much weaker commitment (especially as there is no clear definition here of "improper"). And Facebook users are now promised a link at the top of their newsfeed that may meet the case; I reserve judgment until I see it.

I think that a close reading of Zuckerberg's testimony shows many matters that should, urgently, be made the subject of new legislation. For transcripts see here and here. I am not optimistic.

Ball's suggestions

Ball's book makes a number of recommendations, but diagnosis is always easier than treatment. Avoiding the seduction of bullshit requires hard work and conscious deliberation, and expecting this online may be far too much to ask. Nonetheless, here his recommendations are:

To politicians, don't explain, don't criticise on details, since that just draws attention back to the main message. Don't just focus on fake news, which is just part of a hyper-partisan political scene. To candidates, don't present yourself as against the system, since you don't want to destroy its legitimacy. Don't let yourself be pigeonholed as part of the establishment; consider how people like Farage, Trump, and Johnson have succeeded by presenting themselves as opponents of an establishment of which they are in reality privileged members.

To schools, teach media literacy. To the media he says, watch your headlines (I would add that it does not help that the headlines are written by editors, not reporters). For instance, USA Today had a headline, "Trump: Clinton won popular vote because millions ‘voted illegally'". Such a headline will do more to keep the claim alive than to quash it. Keep it simple and transparent. Reconsider the traditional goal of writing as if from nowhere (i.e. with omniscient impartiality and no editorial bias). Your opponents will disbelieve your claim, and they may well be right. Get outside your bubble, and take your audience outside theirs (Buzzfeed, Ball says, is experimenting with links to Facebook posts covering diverse positions.) Do not overestimate the value of fact checking, since factual error may be unimportant compared with the general flavour. Publicise corrections as fully as the original misstatements. Critically examine sources; remember the existence of agencies whose sole job it is to sell catchy stories regardless of truth. Build a new kind of public media (what?) Loss of confidence resulting from scandals such as improper police activity, the behaviour of the banks, Westminster politicians' expenses, and abuses by the press, have collectively combined in the UK to undermine confidence in established sources and institutions. I myself have noticed the expression "MSM" (Mainstream Media) being used as a pejorative on sites with which I otherwise tend to agree, and this unfortunately places NPR and The Guardian in the same category as Fox TV and the Daily Mail. In the US, a study by Public Policy Polling showed 69% of Trump photos agreeing that the news media is an enemy of the American people. And Trump himself accuses all his critics and those who challenge his statements of spreading fake news. So those most in need of input from the MSM are least likely to be open to it.

To readers and voters he says, get outside your bubble. Engage what Kahneman calls "system two", the deliberative and reflective. Get a sense of scale; his example, the estimated cost of benefit fraud is £1.3 billion/year, which sounds like a lot, but is tiny as a proportion of £780 billion annual government spending. Be as sceptical about claims you agree with, as claims you don't. Try not to succumb to conspiracy theories. I would point out, however that there really are conspiracies, and that much of this piece concerns them. Ball himself refers to the 2016 report from the NATO Defence College on Russian Information Warfare, and how it seeks to obfuscate issues and undermine institutions. So there really is a conspiracy to spread conspiracy theories.

Ball concludes by saying that if "we are all part of the problem, we can all be part of the solution". This seems to me wildly optimistic. Bullshit was with us long before present-day mass communications. It is so easy and so profitable that it will not go away. The sheer volume of information now flowing makes it impossible to monitor at the corporate level, while encouraging superficial scanning at the individual level. The problem of bullshit cannot be solved. The best we can do is to manage it.

1] For the dismantling by the New Statesman of a typical story in The Canary that I had assumed to be accurate, see Is it true that a PR firm full of Blairites is orchestrating the Labour coup? (I choose this example because the New Statesman is on the left of British politics, the position that The Canary also espouses.

2] There could be other examples of which I'm unware.

3] There should be great concern about how these confessions were obtained, but that is another story.

4] Some of us think that Sir Richard has questions to answer regarding his role in the preparation of the thoroughly misleading dossier used by the Blair government to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but that's yet another story.

5] Bernie v Hillary may be a special case, since it seems likely that the Russians were working for Bernie so that Hillary would be weakened.

Gonzalez image, Don Moynihan via Twitter. Mercer and Wylie images from New York Times. Ham-grand Canyon image from Babylon Bee

L: Cambridge Analytica's front page image. Message superposed: "Data drives all we do. Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior." Danney Williams-Bill Clinton composite via The Sun. Sunday Express image via Guardian. Dearlove image from Telegraph.