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Fake news vs. "counterfeit social proof"--lecture summary & slides

Basic organization of talk I gave at the Lucerne conference (slides here).

I.  The public’s engagement with fake news is not credulous; it is motivated.

II.   “Fact checking” and like means of correcting false belief are unlikely to be effective and could in fact backfire.

III.  “Fake news” of the Macedonian variety is not particularly consequential: the identity-protective attitudes that motivate consumption of fake news will impel the same fact-distorting position-taking whether people are exposed to fake news or not.

IV.  What is potentially consequential are the forms of “counterfeit social proof” that the Russian government disseminated in the 2016 election.  These materials predictably trigger the identity-protective stance that makes citizens of diverse outlooks impervious to the truth.

V.  The form of information that is most likely to preempt or reverse identity-protective cognition features vivid and believeable examples of diverse groups evincing belief in action-guiding facts and forms of information.

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Reader Comments (37)


Fake news” of the Macedonian variety is not particularly consequential: the identity-protective attitudes that motivate consumption of fake news will impel the same fact-distorting position-taking whether people are exposed to fake news or not.

So, a brick really is a wall after all?

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan - a brick is a wall in the sense that symbols matter. There's a famous story about Richelieu, while planning a military operation, having unfolded a map on a table, where another man pointed and said "...then we cross the river here..." and Richelieu observing "your finger is not a bridge" (votre doigt n'est pas un pont). Map is not territory, but you start there.

For a current example: I personally don't believe there are any actual Nazis around. But you'd think we're overrun.
Looking up literary commentary on the death of Roth? Lindbergh with Nazi cross in background.
Or a mathematical physics blog about new particles discovered at CERN? Literally Hitler.
Not new - some years back at the opera the curtain went up for Act II, half the theater applauded at the scenery, the other half booed, the conductor had to wait quite a while before starting with the music.
And not to forget the idiotic post on illegal migrants by gen. Hayden, who actually used to run CIA detention camps:

None of the above is Russian, for the record.

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

It wasn't the symbolism I was pointing at with respect to Dan's opinion on Macedonian fakery, it was the inconsistency between Dan's opinion here and his opinion on evidence in court. Obviously, not a clear-cut inconsistency, as the two situations are quite different. But, why can't Macedonian fakery also accumulate to substantial wavering of posteriors due to a thousand paper-cuts? Also, doesn't severity of position matter?

As for your allusions, Ecoute, let's hope that overreaction at backreaction won't lead to a litigious counterreaction, as is now in the news.

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jordan Peterson sues Wilfrid Laurier University for defamation.

Just when I thought irony was dead, someone kills it all over again.

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I know - I had to check if was fake news - but it's not:

Unless it's one of those deep fakes.

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan -

I actually also checked a couple of times to see if it was fake.

Not finding any such evidence, I looked around for comment threads to see if there was any pushback from his anti-pc supporters. Haven't found any. The only comment thread I found was a reddit thread which was almost totally iin support, including Olympic-level pretzel twisting to explain why this isn't another snowflake attack on free speech.

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Well, suppose the faking is from Peterson himself - suppose that he doesn't care if he wins or loses, because by losing, he gets Wilfrid Laurier to defend free speech. But, it seems he could lose just because this particular speech was not intended to be public, hence no public free speech defense is needed. Also, is there a frivolous suit possibility in Canada? Would it then be considered frivolous to know you'd lose or believe you should lose, but still want the suit to go forward?

But, I'm not sure I'd mind much if he wins. University admins get almost as much love from me as do paywall-only publishers of publicly funded research, and cats. Also, although I've never been compared to Hitler, there have been times when Stalin and Mao have come up. Maybe I should consider the possibility that such instances could be used to supplement my retirement income...

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Peterson has standing under Canadian law because the Wilfrid Laurier administrators called him a Nazi and Canada is one of those jurisdictions criminalizing speech involving any of those 6 million (exactly, not +/-1) alleged Nazi victims. A more ridiculous law is hard to imagine, but it's on the books. And the statement may be construed as public speech, no matter how it started.

But the major action is expected in the US, after that shakedown outfit known as SPLC had to pay damages and apologize for labeling yet another innocent a "hater".

And the ACLU, lately overtaken by snowflakes, makes another fat target. I'll come back and post the WSJ article in its entirety in a moment, this is summary from a blog

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

As promised, paywalled WSJ article. Fair Use.

The ACLU Retreats From Free Expression

The organization declares that speech it doesn’t like can ‘inflict serious harms’ and ‘impede progress.’
Wendy Kaminer

June 20, 2018 6:17 p.m. ET

The American Civil Liberties Union has explicitly endorsed the view that free speech can harm "marginalized" groups by undermining their civil rights. "Speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality," the ACLU declares in new guidelines governing case selection and "Conflicts Between Competing Values or Priorities."

This is presented as an explanation rather than a change of policy, and free-speech advocates know theACLU has already lost its zeal for vigorously defending the speech it hates. ACLU leaders previously avoided acknowledging that retreat, however, in the apparent hope of preserving its reputation as the nation's premier champion of the First Amendment.

But traditional free-speech values do not appeal to the ACLU's increasingly partisan progressive constituency--especially after the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. The Virginia ACLU affiliate rightly represented the rally's organizers when the city attempted to deny them a permit to assemble. Responding to intense post-Charlottesville criticism, last year the ACLU reconsidered its obligation to represent white-supremacist protesters.

The 2018 guidelines claim that "the ACLU is committed to defending speech rights without regard to whether the views expressed are consistent with or opposed to the ACLU's core values, priorities and goals." But directly contradicting that assertion, they also cite as a reason to decline taking a free-speech case "theextent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values."
In selecting speech cases to defend, the ACLU will now balance the "impact of the proposed speech and theimpact of its suppression." Factors like the potential effect of the speech on "marginalized communities" and even on "the ACLU's credibility" could militate against taking a case. Fundraising and communications officials helped formulate the new guidelines.

One half of this balancing test is familiar. The "impact of suppressing speech"--the precedents that suppression might establish, the constitutional principles at stake--is a traditional factor in case selection. But, traditionally, the ACLU has not formally weighed the content of speech and its consistency with ACLUvalues in deciding whether to defend it.
Tension between competing values isn't new to the ACLU. Given its decades-old commitment to defending civil rights and liberties, the organization has long navigated conflicts between equality rights and freedoms of religion, speech and association. The guidelines assert that "no civil liberties or civil rights value should automatically be privileged over any other." But it's clear that free speech has become second among equals. Where is the comparable set of guidelines explaining when the ACLU should decline to defend gay-rights claims that infringe on religious liberty or women's-rights cases that infringe on due process?

The speech-case guidelines reflect a demotion of free speech in the ACLU's hierarchy of values. Their vague references to the "serious harm" to "marginalized" people occasioned by speech can easily include the presumed psychological effects of racist or otherwise hateful speech, which is constitutionally protected but contrary to ACLU values. Faced with perceived conflicts between freedom of speech and "progress toward equality," the ACLU is likely to choose equality. If the Supreme Court adopted the ACLU's balancing test, it would greatly expand government power to restrict speech.

In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), for example, the ACLU defended the First Amendment rights of a Ku Klux Klan leader prosecuted for addressing a small rally and calling for "revengence" against blacks and Jews. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Clarence Brandenburg's conviction, narrowly defining incitement to violence as speech both intended and likely to cause imminent illegal action. Brandenburg made an essential distinction between advocacy and action, which progressives who equate hate speech with actual discrimination or violence seek to erase.

The ACLU would be hard pressed to take Brandenburg's case today, given its new guidelines. The organization hasn't yet endorsed a ban on hate speech, or a broader definition of incitement. The guidelines affirm that "speakers have a right to advocate violence." But even if Brandenburg managed to pass the new balancing test for speech cases, some participants at his rally were armed, and, according to the guidelines, "the ACLU generally will not represent protesters who seek to march while armed."

All this is the ACLU's prerogative. Organizations are entitled to revise their values and missions. But they ought to do so openly. The ACLU leadership had apparently hoped to keep its new guidelines secret, even from ACLU members. They're contained in an internal document deceptively marked, in all caps, "confidential attorney client work product." I'm told it was distributed to select ACLU officials and board members, who were instructed not to share it. According to my source, the leadership is now investigating the "leak" of its new case-selection guidelines. President Trump might sympathize.

Ms. Kaminer, a former ACLU board member, is author of "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU" (2009).

(c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Yet more Fake News from TIME magazine sob story - debunked.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

cultural cognition goes meta:

Unfortunately, can't find non-paywall version of:

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan - a paywall is actually evidence of reliability in a journal. Obviously evidence is not proof - and especially in politics or psychology I doubt many journals can pass the Bohannon test (he has a PhD in molecular biology).

"..Dr Bohannon set up a sting operation by writing versions of a paper falsely claiming that a molecule found in lichens inhibits cancer. The papers featured, he says, “laughably bad” methodology and a shocking conclusion that the molecule is “a promising new drug” despite an absence of clinical trials. He attributed the papers to fictional biologists at made-up African medical institutes and then submitted them to open-access journals. Of 121 chosen from a blacklist, 69% offered to publish the paper for a fee, and even when he turned to journals on a whitelist of supposedly trustworthy open-access journals, 38% of the 167 he approached fell into the trap."

If anyone can't access the whole article I can come back and post it, but you get the idea.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage


Yes, to some extent (importantly decreasing), paywalls are evidence of reliability. Of course, there are much better ones, such as reading the paper in question, examining its methodology, references, conclusions, etc. - all of which become off-limits to me when dealing with paywalls.

I note the irony of you suggesting that perhaps I should believe what I can't read in preference to what I can.

BTW - I suppose you've seen:

which has given me a new appreciation for Kim Kardashian. Although, still not Hedy Lamarr territory.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

LOL Jonathan - so much of "news" is fake that I've acquired new respect for The Onion's take on the alt-right:

White Nationalist Movement: Myth Vs. Fact

Over the past few years, the white nationalist movement in the U.S. has seen the addition of more members and received significant media coverage. The Onion debunks some common myths about white supremacism in America.

MYTH: The alt-right movement is secretly a neo-Nazi movement.
FACT: The alt-right movement is openly a neo-Nazi movement.

MYTH: White nationalist beliefs are mainstream now.
FACT: Noticing white nationalist beliefs is mainstream now.

MYTH: White supremacists hate people of color.
FACT: They’re not wild about women either.

MYTH: The movement’s goal is for whites to live separately in an ethno-state.
FACT: Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire already exist.

MYTH: White supremacists value preserving culture above all else.
FACT: Skrewdriver should not be considered culture under even the most generous interpretations of the term.

Oh, and in case you wondered about "Skrewdriver" it's a band.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

article from The Onion (cont'd)

MYTH: White nationalism is just a fringe political movement.
FACT: Let’s not waste our whole day dissecting the word “fringe,” okay?

MYTH: President Trump has explicitly endorsed white nationalists.
FACT: He doesn’t endorse white nationalists; he just hangs out with them every weekend and most weeknights and is one himself.

MYTH: White nationalists believe discrimination against white people is worse than discrimination against any other group.
FACT: Holy shit, yeah, that’s true. They honestly believe that.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Jonathan -

Seen this?:

“Fact or opinion? New research finds who best tells the difference”

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Yes - I linked that Pew study downstairs. I'm kind of disappointed that they didn't check if the ability is moderated by over-selection errors - as for instance if pubz higher ability to discern facts as facts on Fox News is correlated with thinking fact when really opinion (instead of just thinking fact when really fact, which is all they tested).

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan -

It is indeed plausible that a high level of innovation in a given country spurs the development of liberalization values, and that a high level of liberalization values prompts governments to increase the supply of education.

That was certainly what I was thinking about before I got to the limitations section.

Along those lines, I'm a fan of Amartya Sen. I always trot out his work when "skeptics" try to explain that fossil fuels = economic growth and freedom.

June 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


sorry, don't get the brick-wall connection.

June 24, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I may be mixing my metaphors too liberally. What I meant to point out is that your dismissal of the potential influence of Macedonian-style fake news appears to contradict your belief that, in court cases, judges should not dismiss evidence due to its apparent (to the judge) epistemic lightweightness.

For example, consider someone with good Bayesian belief updating but low ability to discern fact from fiction, and whom has been subjected to many Macedonian-style fake news instances. Even suppose that this person already has priors pointing in the direction that those Macedonian-style fake news instances are leading them (which, perhaps due to the bubble-ness of their network, is what made them more likely to encounter this Macedonian fakery). Later, they encounter a factual news item opposing those Macedonian-style fake news instances. However, they have adjusted their posterior following the Macedonian exposures too far for the opposing factual news item (to which it is a prior) to repair, whereas if they had no such Macedonian exposures, the factual news item would have a likelihood ratio large enough to kick their posterior over into factual belief.

There's other potential cases to consider - such as even if the above subject never encounters the factual news item, or even if that news item's likelihood ratio is insufficient to kick their posterior over into factual belief following that Macedonian exposure, there are political implications to the strength of their belief. Are they more likely to vote? Are they more likely to call their representative? Are they more likely to impact the beliefs of others in their social network?

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan - I understood you to be saying that to the liberal mind, a brick, instead of partial evidence, actually is a wall.

It's the difference between perception and reality.

Ignoring the difference, and translating that ignorance into policy inevitably leads to disastrous results.

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Fake news” of the Macedonian variety is not particularly consequential: the identity-protective attitudes that motivate consumption of fake news will impel the same fact-distorting position-taking whether people are exposed to fake news or not.

How does one measure some kind of inflection point where this description has explanatory power?

Looking at the example of consensus messaging, Dan seems to think (if I understand it correctly) that the identity-threatening nature of consensus messaging has enough valence to point to a direction of causality = "consensus-messaging" ===> polarizing conservatives. My own sense is that the "consensus-messaging" has relatively little causal power, and that "consensus-messaging," in balance, becomes just another data point that those already identified on the topic of climate change use to reinforce their preexisting identity orientation.

Here, Dan seems (if I understand it correctly) to describe a dynamic mire similar to the mechanism I see in play w/r/t "consensus-messaging."

Is there some theoretical framework for determining an inflection point at which external influences gain more valence than preexisting orientation. If so, then how would that theoretical framework be applied to various real-world contexts?

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Ecoute -

- I understood you to be saying that to the liberal mind, a brick, instead of partial evidence, actually is a wall....

I would suggest that in reality, there is no theoreticsl mechanism that could frame "the liberal mind." One may as well try to herd cats. No coherent construct could explain "the liberal mind," except, perhaps, one that similarly explains evil, or irrationality. Or perhaps we could just suffice to say that "the liberal mind" is simply a deformed, defective, and/or under-developed "alt-right" mind (I. e., the mind of a sort which doesn't contradict nature)?

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I don't know any Macedonian (or Russian, for that matter) trolls, but I know my own friends, and they move fast:

"...A Twitter user who goes by Sam Lavigne compiled the list of ICE agents’ identities, titles and locations. In a tweet on Tuesday morning he says he “scraped LinkedIn for people that work for ICE.”
Lavigne created the database in response to ICE’s “inhumane” efforts in on the border, according to his archived Medium post...."

The link will be blocked by the software if original is posted, so I will edit it - stars must be replaced by website full name, "dailystormer" to access the link.


June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Jonathan - it would be sufficient, but not necessary. Some of you are just misguided :)

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Well, Ecoute, just to demonstrate (yet again) that liberalness doesn't somehow prevent me from perceiving group differences - here's some evidence (just another brick, no doubt) that anti-vaxx beliefs are asymmetrizing over time (Joshua, this contains longitudinal goodness!), as well as some further evidence that social science doesn't dismiss asymmetry out-of-hand:

non-paywall non-downloadable version here

I know - a rather crude segue. But your segues don't exactly set a high bar, Ecoute.

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

This study finds that PBEs in California kindergartens increased disproportionately in Republican and conservative neighborhoods during the study period. Results are consistent with recent cross-sectional studies linking conservative identity and vaccine opposition,
but go beyond existing research in two ways. First, the longitudinal analysis reveals an important shift in the relationship between partisanship and PBEs that occurred around 2008 and continued until 2013.

Geeze. Might anything have happened in 2008 to animate conservatives so as to increase their likelihood to reject evidence produced by traditional institutions of science?

Nah. That's just crazy thinking.

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


That is pointed out later:

Though it is not possible to identify the broad social-political forces that led to this increase using these data, the timing of the shift does coincide with partisan conflicts related to the Affordable Care Act. Future research should examine whether polarized debates on the government's role in health care contributed to growing conservative opposition to state-mandated immunizations.

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Anti-science? You MUST be joking.

For proof, look at the children of white - non-extreme-left - people. All are vaccinated, as are our dogs, with every vaccine known to medicine. OF COURSE the opposition is to subsidizing vaccinations for what is known as spiclets / niglets. The Orientals are every bit as educated as we are and know to vaccinate their children without waiting for state subsidies.

Gentlemen - with respect, I find it absolutely STUNNING that it took you so long to figure out the blindingly obvious.

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Ecoute -

The Orientals...

Do you have any data on China people?

June 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I must consult my controllers in St Petersburg in re China people - somehow I missed the original memo:

June 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Content same as in above link, but this time by 2 lawyers in today's WSJ

"...The collusion narrative therefore hinges on the more generic assertion that Russia aimed to help Mr. Trump's election, and that the Trump campaign reciprocated by embracing pro-Russian policies. Yet despite massive surveillance and investigation, there's still no public evidence of any such exchange--only that Russia attempted to sow political discord by undermining Mrs. Clinton and to a lesser extent Mr. Trump."

June 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage


I try to draw the best inference I can from best available evidence. "Brick is not a wall" requires me only to give due weight to opposing interpretations or opposing evidence, even if I don't find that evidence sufficient on its own to change my mind. So I'm open to whatever argument or additional proof you adduce.

Also, although not evident from summary or slides, I explicitly describe my positions as informed conjectures or hypotheses, a good starting point for those collecting evidence on "fake news." The best studies I've seen so far seem to be roughly equivalent to my surmises.

June 25, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Was just making sure you weren't being dismissive of incremental effects and their massive Macedonian multiplier.

"The best studies I've seen so far seem to be roughly equivalent to my surmises." Thankfully, no true Scotsman has a confirmation bias.

June 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Whence WEIRD? Blame the RCC!:

First, we hypothesize that, in adapting to the social worlds created by intensive kin-based institutions, human psychology shifts in ways that foster greater conformity, obedience and sensitivity to relational contexts but less individualism, analytic thinking and cooperation with strangers. Second, to account for part of the variation in kinship intensity, we hypothesize that Western Christianity, beginning around 500 CE, gradually implemented a set of policies about marriage and the family—the MFP—that was a critical contributor to the eventual dissolution of the intensive kin-based institutions of Europe. By 1500 CE, this left many regions of Western Europe dominated by independent, monogamous, nuclear families—a peculiar configuration called the European Marriage Pattern. This two-part theory implies that the Church, through the MFP, inadvertently contributed to what psychologists have termed WEIRD psychology.

June 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

From WEIRD to weirder:

June 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

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