Friday, 12 October 2012

Facts Or FUD? When You're Right To Worry

I'm annoyed at the constant barrage of posts and articles designed to scare me into submission or action over one thing or another. Mind you, FUD is effective and... okay, I'm not beyond using it myself, though I tend to be more honest about it. But how can you tell whether or not something you're told is worth getting worried about?


Okay, let's be honest here, I've used FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) to get people to sign petitions against ACTA, etc., because they were genuinely bad. The trick is not to exaggerate or do it too often or nobody will take you seriously. There is a time when you've got to get attention, after all, or nothing will be done. But there are people who simply make stuff up and people fall for it every time because


  • it appeals to their personal prejudices

  • it appeals to the base part of their natures, e.g. greed or pride

  • it instills fear of loss of property, rights, or privileges

  • it makes them feel part of an exclusive group with privileged access to this information

  • it is aimed at the particular racial, social, or political group of which they are part

Prejudice


Right-wingers are conspiracy-theory-prone, which goes all the way back to the days of Ronald Reagan's administration. He said,


Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.


and expounded on the idea of American individualism, which is promoted by the Right,


We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.


While this is indeed a noble idea, it often means that you're expected to attend to your own needs by yourself instead of being a burden on the state.


Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.


When Reagan talked about "government" in a negative way, he purposely kept the meaning open, as Libertarians and the Right do today. Government, it seems, is only bad when it's helping people who can't help themselves and who can't access charities, who can't do enough for them anyway. Try to get some sensible legislation to protect the environment and he'd say,


Approximately 80% of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let's not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from man-made sources.


daisyYes indeed, we totally need to be rescued from the nefarious... Mother Nature?! Okay. So the flowers are out to get us. Right. Thanks for the tip. Better nuke 'em from orbit, just to be sure. The point is, if you're constantly being bombarded with quotes like that, framed in different ways and the direction in which comments are spun, you're going to believe it, especially if it comes from your preferred media. And by "preferred" I mean the ones that you take seriously.

I got a telling-off from one fellow who insisted on "framing" arguments as he thought best. The other word for that is "spin." A fact is a fact, whether it's convenient or not. If the thing you believe is only on your preferred outlets, it's widely debunked by fact-checkers, but you insist on believing it because of the way it's "framed," you're being manipulated. Think for yourself!

Appeals to pride, etc.


We all love to be thought of as clever or special. I'm friendly with people who have their preferred economists, whose words of wisdom they trot out from time to time. It's as if Von Mises and Krugman have proxy slapfights all the time, it really is. When we're presented with information that affects our pride, our desire to acquire, or anything like that, we need to be on our guard. This stuff is usually push-me-pull-me so it offers you the chance to be empowered, then takes it away unless you agree to what's on offer.

Again, the right is very keen on this: they'll bang on about personal responsibility and refusing to pay for medical services as a public good, etc., even if it means they pay more for these things personally. What they forget is that if the costs were spread as part of a state or local authority program, they'd end up paying less anyway. Leave it up to the individual in a free market system and you end up paying more because some people end up using emergency services, which are more expensive. This pushes costs up for everyone because not all of the people who go to the ER end up paying all of their bills. But hey, at least they didn't pay for a contraceptive for some hussy, right?

On the left it's about poor li'l orphans and kittens, etc., going without, and they get to be all righteous standing up for them. While charities do pick up the slack, it's important to note that charities discriminate according to what they're set up to cover. If charities alone could cover the costs of delivering public services, they'd have done it by now. Freeing up income by charging lower taxes won't help matters much because people donate to those charities that they deem worthy, which leads to charities competing for funds. Ever seen the chuggers in the city centre on a Saturday afternoon? "Chuggers" is what we in Manchester call "Charity muggers" and laws have been passed to limit their numbers. Human nature being what it is, if public services were all devolved to charities, the number of charities would explode to collect all that money. They'd certainly compete more and many would end up suffering.

This is why it's so important to look at the facts and be guided by precedent. If it works somewhere else, it works.

Property, rights, and privileges


Never do the cries of anguish get louder on Google Plus than when there's been a shooting, especially a mass shooting. Nutters with guns seem to pop up every year in America. This year we've had at least two. Zacquary Adam Green wrote an excellent article about this on Rick Falkvinge's blog which bypasses the FUD and gets straight to the point.


A nuanced discussion about mental illness, and how it can be not only treated but also prevented, is what we ought to be getting out of this tragedy.


Well, yeah. These are NUTTERS, remember. Sort 'em out, end the problem. Another damn good argument for socialised healthcare. Get that done and we can stop howling for and against gun control. I kid you not, though, the very mention of the words "gun" and "control" freaks the conspiracy nuts right out. It's entertaining if you're in the right mood. A simple look at the facts, though, will make a few things very clear: there's a plethora of decent people with guns who aren't a threat to anyone and are really quite decent, shooting is fun, and if we deal with the social problems and other negative factors, gun control will become a non-issue. The point here is, if you're afraid of losing a privilege, etc., look at what is really going on in terms of laws being enacted, provide solutions to the causes of the thing everyone is upset about, and work on ways to implement them.

Exclusive groups


I've been talking a lot about conspiracy theorists because I know so many of them. I don't always make fun of them, though I do like to poke at the egregious ones. "Obama the gay Muslim terrorist murderer" is one of my favourites. It's just so funny! When you realise that the people spouting this crap are as racist as hell, you tap the side of your nose and twitch your eyebrow because you know it's not about the President being any of those things. These people are the ones who say, "It's called the White House for a reason." They're not racist, they assure us. No more than I'm a web designer and blogger who lives in Manchester. It's just that WordPress is a great CMS and I like to play with the CSS to change the themes I use. Okay, I admit I've been seeking out and using responsive themes in my builds so they work well on mobile phones. Does that make me a bad person? I advocate for Open Source and some of my best friends use Joomla and Drupal so I can't be that bad!

I'll stop now.

The point I'm making is, the illusion of being privy to a hidden secret is all about buttering you up to make you feel special, and therefore more open to suggestion. When I got told off for "Socratic attempts to manipulate" a Libertarian I'm friendly with, I didn't bother to mention that I'd made a public comment to that effect in order to help the Liberal guy I was talking to feel better about Libertarians, and at least consider being more friendly to them. And I actually said that in the damn post. I know he reads my posts and comments so I knew he'd see that. I'm honest about where I'm coming from, is what I'm saying, and people who try to convince you that you're privy to a hidden secret are usually spouting BS. You know this is a fact when they start tapping you for money. It's usually dodgy SEO and work-from home marketers who do this, so when I see it as part of a conspiracy theory (this is where the economists are invoked), I dismiss it.

Again, you're looking for debunkage, available information from mainstream sources, and opinions from people on the other side. Somewhere in the middle is the truth.

Racial, social, or political group


Being part of a community group, particularly if it's a minority or tends to be marginalised leaves you open to targeting. If you're non-Anglo-Saxon, a member of a society, or involved in politics, you will almost certainly be targeted, particularly if you tick more than just one box. I'm a political activist, I tend towards social conservatism, and I'm a geek. I get targeted for all of that mostly because I associate with politically-minded geeks. Some of these are prone to conspiracy theories and others are more prone to general hysteria.

I'm friendly with Liberals and Libertarians. These guys. This makes for some rather interesting discussions, particularly when it's about dealing with social issues. They've stopped banging on about the minimum wage because they're distracted by the election. The advantage I've noticed of being identified as a member of one or more groups is that you have access to a pool of information that they're happy to pass on. The disadvantage is that it's not always accurate and on the right they're always trying to "purify" your views. On the left they tend to spin to the worst case scenario so if an extremist nutter goes on about "bashing the gay out of boys," they imagine huge vistas filled with concentration camps for LGBT citizens. The fact that a preacher actually mentioned doing this doesn't help. Now getting from where we are now to there is a big, big leap, but it's unlikely to happen. What we should be worried about is the way LGBT citizens are treated now, not in a possible dystopic future.

Conclusion


FUD of the kind in this Fox article, which accuses "leftists" of "Google-bombing Mitt Romney, is carefully presented so they're not directly accusing Google, just providing quotes, etc., from other people who are. The funniest part is the inclusion of an assertion by a "doctoral student" that Google is one of the most left-leaning companies in the Fortune 500. When people or groups are demonized like that, I usually make fun of it but repeated accusations, not to mention the not-so-subtle shaming, can really hurt people. I look forward with amusement to hearing of the attempts to mount a successful boycott of Google, but what of those who aren't as big and powerful? That's when it stops being funny. Be aware of the framing and placement of words and phrases, and if the article or item provokes a visceral emotional response in you, the thing to do is check the facts. It may very well be an attempt to manipulate you. If it checks out across the board and at the fact-checkers, it's true.

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