Thursday, 24 September 2015

Data Mining And Twitter – How To Uncover The Truth

I AM AN AVID CONSPIRACY FAN, and I’m not ashamed to say that their theories fascinate me; although I’ve yet to discover a single one that can withstand detailed scrutiny. However, in a similar vein, I’ve yet to find any that do not contain one or more truthful, verifiable elements – elements that can, in most cases, be easily confirmed so that the lies surrounding them might also be taken as facts.

I’ve spent most of my life investigating conspiracy theories, in one way or another: from deconstructing subversive enemy propaganda to determine what hostile intelligence agencies had learned, in the military, to subsequently using those skills in a journalistic environment to uncover the truth for my readers. I must also admit to often ‘aiding and abetting’ the disseminators of those untruths by supplying them with further tittle-tattle, which they could then include to add weight to their arguments (and assist me to map their network).

We conduct our lives amid an information war. which, if conducted responsibly, can ensure that the truth is upheld and society can evolve, unhindered – but it only works with a free press cooperating with a transparent government…

In an ideal world, all those responsible for manufacturing untruths and disseminating them for their own nefarious purposes would be exposed for what they are, their lies ruthlessly dealt with, and the truth restored as a consequence; but we no longer live in such a society. Lying is now accepted as the modern norm and liars defend their actions by arguing that, although their actions were wrong, we all lie, so it is just a matter of degree.

Politicians no longer lie – they spin (which is much more acceptable); manufacturers no longer claim – they advertise (creating a wealth of advertising agencies devoted to creating a fantasy world); and charities no longer present their case – they employ the same advertising agencies as the manufacturers to construct slick emotional appeals with which to ensure their excessive executive salaries are paid. Emotional appeals – precisely the same techniques that were once banned from our life insurance industry, before the ‘cooling off’ period was introduced.

Society’s priests (politicians, religious leaders, lawyers, teachers, charities, and subsequently judges) – have seemingly all conspired to create a society whose main currency is sympathy for offenders, rather than the victims of their crimes. Defence lawyers are skilled in the art of misdirection, by using powerful emotional techniques to elicit sympathy in jury members – and they fall for it every time.

Biologically, our brains are divided between their left and right-hand sides, and we employ each in a different manner. We employ one for logic, in which we infer connections from our actual experiences – and the other for imagining and determining connections from what we have not. It is the latter that propagandists, conspiracy theorists, and others that wish us to believe their lies, target to control what we think – and emotion is the key that unlocks the power for them to do so.

I’m a photographer, and I’m fully aware of just how powerful an image can be on an emotional level; but, in order for it to ‘work its magic,’ it needs to be seen in its original context. Unfortunately, powerful images can also be taken out of context and used to enhance another’s departure from the truth. These days, very few media outlets employ their own photojournalists – preferring to rely upon photo agencies, or stock to reduce their costs. Long gone are the days when a journalist would be accompanied by a photographer to cover a breaking story to produce an accurate report. And long gone are the days when those returning reporters would sit down with their sub-editor to ensure the objectivity of the journalist’s words and the photographer’s extensive coverage. The public demands instant news these days, and there simply isn’t the resources – or the time – with which to do it. Very few photographs are now used to provide a visual account of the accompanying article. More often, they are just a means of visually attracting the reader’s attention, and reinforcing the writer’s spin.

We all need to slow down, and think. The truth never reveals itself instantaneously – and it is rarely contained in a single report. Just as photographers ensure that the images you see are only those they select by careful framing and positioning before they release their camera’s shutter, journalists too select only those words that effectively describe their impressions, or what they have witnessed, in the limited space that is available to them. They are reporters – not authors, who are enviably unrestricted in their number of words.

All journalists are editors, withholding much of which they could say, either to avoid a possible libel action, or because there is no space.

Of course, these days, it seems that you cannot be a journalist without being accused of bias (not unreasonably for most political columnists); but the fact is that political bias is rarely the product of the journalist – or the journal for which they write. Bias originates from the sources journalists use to uncover the details of a story, and as soon as there is a political element: the public relations department of the various parties are immediately engaged. It is exactly the same problem encountered when pursuing any large company for comment – you won’t get one unless the outlet you represent can be relied upon to represent their organisation in a good light.

There are now more people employed in public relations departments than there are journalists in the media industry – and few bastions of the Free Press remain. The vast majority have chosen to sup with the devil in order to retain their sources – only to find that, once they do, alternative sources that might have provided them with another angle, or be privy to a potential scoop, desert them entirely. The BBC, with its EU funding and promotion of liberal attitudes that only some of its viewers share, has ensured it can now only play catch-up with all the other players, and is no longer capable of breaking news. Once an outlet dispenses with its integrity, reliable informants and whistle-blowers immediately desert them.

It is a bleak time for the truth, and Twitter provides a window through which to observe the evolving chaos…

I use TweetDeck, and my lengthy preamble is designed to provide a background to my logic in using it the way I do. Some of which I now have to say might be of use to fellow journalists; but I am mainly addressing young Twitter users in how to use the desktop app as a means of separating fact from fiction when tracking the news on that network. I am also hoping that what I have to say might provide parents, and teachers, with a practical way of teaching our children how to think for themselves

The method I employ is based purely upon logic, and is derived from the way I was taught to grade intelligence sources in the military. In essence, it takes any source of information – be it an individual or organisation – and continually compares what that entity reports to verified facts, in order to establish a level of trust.

As I reveal my particular method, you might like to consider just how fundamental trust is to the way we all behave, and how we all think…

There are four types of sources in my particular method of deciding who to trust, and the terms I use to refer to them are drawn from playing card suits (reflecting my reckless youth): Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades.

The fact is that, from a very young age, individuals have always fascinated me – and it wasn’t long after being introduced to the delights of Bridge, Brag, and Poker that I began mentally associating those with whom I was playing with the face cards, as a link to remembering how they each played so that I might gain an advantage. Suicidal spades, crafty clubs, enjoyable hearts, and enviable diamonds. You don’t have to use those particular terms, of course, provided your method employs four different categories.

Now, I rarely look at my Twitter timeline. It is not where my attention normally resides. My focus is largely upon my four categories, contained in the four lists that I use TweetDeck to monitor. I reserve my follows for those who follow me, and whose tweets I find interesting – with a view to adding them to one of my lists in the future.

My TweetDeck window consists of seven columns: my four lists; messages; notifications; and my home timeline – in that order – with the four lists arranged in the sequence: Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds. The arrangement works well because my laptop screen is large enough to incorporate all seven columns, and the DM facility, with which I most often interact, is situated next to the lists I am monitoring.

My system works like this…

In the first place, I’m a journalist, and since that is where my heart lies, I assign all journalists to my Hearts list. I like to think that any journalist I encounter is always objective and tells the truth, so, in the first instance, I give them all the benefit of the doubt and assign them to that category – because I would like to believe what my heart tells me.

If any of my lists RT an account that I am not tracking: I examine its profile and activity to decide if I should list it – or not. If it is a normal member of the public, I usually don’t – but if I find their tweets interesting (i.e. a potential source), I might break my first rule and give them a follow.

Diamonds evolve from my Hearts list. It is retained only for those Hearts that have remained objective, truthful, and unemotional when reporting the news. The moment they spin facts or otherwise attempt to influence their followers: they are immediately removed from their red category and assigned to Clubs. They might have sinned in a tweet, they might have sinned in their published piece, or they might have sinned in a broadcast. It does not matter. They have broken my trust – and I will always be wary of believing anything they might say again. From now on, anything they do say will be thoroughly checked against my Hearts and Diamonds.

Journalistically, Clubs can only be used to further confirm.

Spades bury the truth, and are never to be trusted; but they warrant a list because it is they that are a rich seam from which to compile an investigative piece. Journalistically, they can also be used to confirm – by denying the facts reported by Hearts and Diamonds.

The important point to note is that there is no forgiveness, and emotion is never employed. Just because someone is a nice fellow with whom to have a pint, makes us laugh, or otherwise entertains us: is no reason to believe what he or she says.

It does not matter why a person lies. Many people, unknowingly, repeat the lies of others; but behind all those innocent statements hides someone, or some organisation, who has knowingly manipulated them into repeating what is untrue. If a Heart or a Diamond can be manipulated, it changes colour and becomes a black Club – and it can never, ever, return to becoming a red. In effect, all Clubs promote misinformation – knowingly or not.

If you are a journalist, reading this, you will have noted that I have specifically omitted the term ‘verify’ and have only employed the word ‘confirm.’ That’s what we need to do, right? Confirm everything before going to press? But confirmation is not verification; because, unless our piece concerns only breaking news without a substantial background, we often don’t have the time or resources to track down the original source that gave rise to our piece, and ensure its validity. Quite rightly, where possible criminality is involved, we often leave verification to the police, who specialise in that area (hoping that what we have written will encourage them to get off their fat arses – and sometime soon).

The important point is that just because numerous people confirm their belief to be the same, does not make that belief true. It only proves that they share the same belief as others. There is no doubt that what they believe should be reported, in the public interest, but, too often, the way the story is written reinforces their belief and encourages our readers to believe it too.

The key to verification is to focus upon what is being said, and not necessarily the person saying it. In order to get to the truth of the matter, it is simply not enough to associate people with what they say. In order to verify what is being said, you need to identify from where the source obtained the information; track down that source – and then keep repeating the process until you can interview the primary source of the information to ascertain its validity, and the source’s motives in repeating it to others.

I mainly used TweetDeck and Google to research that Tara Davison piece – employing TweetDeck in the same manner as I outline here, but creating four new playing-suit lists to whose Heart column I first assigned all those young adults and children RTing and commenting upon the stories being spread. It was those feeds that enabled me to see the way in which the propaganda was being disseminated, and our children targeted; and, because Twitter automatically arranges each timeline and provides an age for each Tweet, I was able, relatively quickly, to back-track the accounts and websites being used by the conspirators. I then used Google to reverse timeline various searches to bring the original source to the top of my results, and finally cross-indexed to identify the websites involved in embellishing and twisting the original story. The primary source was then identified by time-lining the individual articles.

I refer to that previous blog here, because it serves to illustrate just how easily people can be misled by simply accepting what others report at face value – especially if what they read is designed to shock and target the readers’ emotions. The fact is that, as soon as you permit someone to play your heart strings: you deny yourself the ability to think logically; you disengage your critical factor; and you permit others to do your thinking for you.

You should always reserve your emotions for those you trust; and not permit others to manipulate you.

Provided you stick to the rules when using this TweetDeck method, and do not engage your emotional brain to be tempted to forgive a trespasser, you will no longer be misled by those whom seek to deceive you – and you might also find yourself applying the same system, mentally, to categorise your friends and acquaintances. I certainly hope so, because in the chaotic world that society’s priests have created: knowing who to trust is the only means of ensuring that you and your loved ones will emerge unscathed.

As a footnote, I can report that my own news lists consist of 50 Spades; 123 Clubs; 452 Hearts; and 45 Diamonds. Like they say: “the truth is out there” – and my red suits currently outnumber my black suits by almost three to one.

So the truth is not yet lost in the information chaos that surrounds us; you just have to decide who you should trust to report it – by always paying attention, and following those four simple rules…

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