Algorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy; (1) Bullshit

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.

This 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 now get their news through social media.

An earlier example; the swiftboating of John Kerry

Political bullshit is not new. Consider Karl Rove and the swiftboating  of John Kerry in the 2004 US presidential election.

John Kerry, in 1971, speaking out against the Vietnam War, via NPR

Patriotism was an issue in that election, where the 2003 invasion of Iraq was portrayed as a triumph. The election pitted John Kerry, a much-decorated hero of the Vietnam war, against incumbent, George W Bush, who had spent the war in Texas. The swiftboating was the allegation that some of the evidence for John Kerry’s awards for gallantry were based on his own reports (partially true, in the nature of things), and therefore fraudulent. A sensational claim, from an ad hoc concocted source with no credentials (“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”, a group formed for the sole purpose of promoting this story, and with a beautifully engineered name; who would dare show disrespect for veterans, and aren’t we all in favour of truth?). But so attention-grabbing that the claim was widely reported news, facing Kerry’s campaign with an impossible dilemma. Should they ignore the story, on the grounds that it was obviously ridiculous? Or should they rebut it, as if it were a matter worth discussing?

Conspiracism and imprecision

Conspiracism is one particularly corrosive form of bullshit, that undermines the legitimacy of sources, takes allegation as evidence (Trump’s People are saying”), and creates a paranoid situation where denial is affirmation, since “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” And as always, the grain of truth; there really are conspiracies, the conspiracy to promote conspiracy theories being among them. Consider Mike Huckabee’s contribution to the conspiracy theory that says Barak Obama was born in Kenya and that his much-examined birth certificate is a forgery: “I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough.” Like many of Trump’s seemingly incoherent ramblings, Huckabee’s statement is impossible to refute, because it is devoid of actual content. He claims reason to be troubled, but does not tell us what that reason he is. All he is doing, is inviting us to reject reality.

The case of Judge Scalia

Trump himself is a notorious serial bullshitter, contemptuous of truth. In his campaign, he insisted on the guilt of the Central Park Five, who had been convicted of assault and gang rape on the basis of confessions,3 although they had long since been cleared on DNA evidence. Other notorious examples include claims that Obama born in Kenya, and that the death of Judge Scalia was somehow suspicious. To a conservative talk-show host who had suggested it was murder, Trump replied (and CBS News, like numerous others, solemnly reported his words)

They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow. I can’t tell you what—I can’t give you an answer. You know, usually I like to give you answers. But I literally just heard it a little while ago. It’s just starting to come out now [emphasis added]

Cibolo Creek Ranch, where Scalia died at age 79, Flickr via Wikimedia

Note that in this example, as in many others, Trump’s meaning is clear but his words do not actually amount to a definite statement. We are left, not with a specific accusation, but with an impression that something is badly amiss, and that there will be more to follow. As Ball points out, this tactic, of creating attention by the mere promise of more to come, was much used by Joe McCarthy in his anti-Communist witchhunts, and there is indeed a direct link between Trump and McCarthy’s organisation via McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn.

US, 2016

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.

Danney Williams-Bill Clinton composite via The Sun

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 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.

A weapon

L: Emma Gonzalez tearing up an NRA shooting target. R: Doctored image in which the target has been replaced by a copy of the US Constitution. Comparison via Don Moynihan on Twitter

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.

Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis and the Ark Encounter Museum, uses the National Parkentrance sign to date the Grand Canyon to Noah’s Flood. This did not happen.

In Britain, and elsewhere

Sunday Express bullshit and retraction. Composite image via Guardian

Bullshit 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.)

But Bradley is still in place as Vice Chair for Youth at Conservative Central HQ, and Gavin Williamson is still Defence Secretary. And Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-chief of MI6, has continued to say (as the Telegraph reported at length) that Corbyn has questions to answer.4 The bullshitter can always say that there are “questions to answer”. There are indeed questions, because he has magicked them into being, simply by referring to them. But he hasn’t said what they actually are. Thus the victim stands accused, without evidence, of unspecified offences, and with the burden on him to prove his innocence. Such is the nature of bullshit; refutation is never enough to get rid of the sticky smear.

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

Part II will discuss the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the role of Facebook, and possible responses to what I see as a fundamental threat to what remains of democracy.

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.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily. 

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on April 23, 2018, in Politics, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I loved the first sentence so we all have to tread carefully but if your a dog owner you will be well aware the problem. Your knowledge of politics and what’s going on in the world far exceeds mine . Apparently computing has now reached the stage of faking videos so any one can be viewed saying anything with the right manipulation; a nightmare for utube.
    The media is responsible for distortion even without fake news. About 700,000 babies were born in England and Wales last year but we all know an awful lot about the recent royal addition to the population. Crowds gather outside the hospital , tourists chatter excitedly , all true but is it all giving us a true perspective on life?
    I tend to read the BBC news but flick through the constant reference to celebrities and what they are doing or not doing but I had to smile when I saw their new gimmick , a box which said : in a hurry all you need to know for today.


  2. In regards to the Trump BS machine, readers may be interested to learn more about Roger Stone, a long time Republican dirty tricks operative (going back to Nixon) who is kind of the philosophical father of the Trump BS machine. Stone is the coach who wrote the playbook, and Trump is the current quarterback of the team.

    The playbook goes something like this (Stone explains it better in the above documentary).

    The media is not a public service, but rather a profit seeking business enterprise. Trump instinctively gets this, being a ruthless businessman from New York, the media capital of the world. The business model of the media is to use drama to build audience, and thus ad revenues. Anybody who feeds the media drama will be rewarded with lots of free advertising.

    The best example of this happened less than a mile from our house. Remember the Florida preacher who kept threatening to burn the Koran? He was a complete total nobody who sold used furniture on eBay for a living, and led a church with less than 50 members. But he knew how the media works, and he worked it, thus becoming an international news story. Point being, the media will give free advertising to literally anybody if the subject can provide the needed drama.

    A more troubling example is the partnership between media and terrorists. Each party provides the other with what they need, so the relationship continues no matter the death toll.

    One partial solution to BS overload may be to avoid getting sucked in to the day to day partisan shootout and focus instead on the biggest issues. Nuclear weapons seem the biggest issue to me, and it’s not really a partisan one, given that both parties and candidates in the American 2016 election ignored the issue almost entirely.

    There are a handful of issues which if not addressed successfully render all other issue irrelevant. If we’re focused on these single points of failure we won’t hear most of the BS, the most effective way to defeat it.


  3. In the article linked to above, Gary Marcus is reported to have said…

    “It’s (science) about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.”

    To me, this example of science culture mythology is the most dangerous bullshit we should be addressing. What makes this myth particularly dangerous is that it is in part true, and those selling it are typically very sincere and very well educated, which tends to make the bullshit myth sound very credible.

    The part of Marcus’s statement that is true is that science culture does relentlessly question scientific conclusions that have come before.

    The part of his statement that is myth is that science culture does NOT question the philosophical foundation of science, our “more is better” relationship with knowledge. When it comes to this relationship, science culture blindly accepts what came before without challenge, and without even realizing that is what it is doing. In science culture the unquestioning blind faith in our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is so strong that the validity of that relationship is taken to be an obvious given which need not be examined or defended.

    This myth is dangerous because:

    1) Scientists have a great deal of cultural authority.

    2) The ever accelerating knowledge explosion which arises from the “more is better” relationship with knowledge is inevitably going to produce vast powers beyond our ability to manage.

    Wait, did I say “going to”? Well that’s obviously wrong because it’s already happened.

    If I walked around all day every day with a loaded gun in my mouth would you say that I am successfully managing my firearm? If I typically found this situation too boring to discuss, would you consider me to be a highly irrational person?

    How is that example any different than a science fueled culture which has thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert aimed down it’s own throat, an ever pending self erasure event which is seen to be less interesting than the million other topics which clog the intellectual blogosphere?

    At the heart of this insane situation are scientists with great cultural authority selling themselves self flattering bullshit, which they then pass along to us with innocent irrational sincerity.

    It’s not a scam, but it’s still bullshit. Very dangerous bullshit, the most dangerous bullshit.


    • It will be clear to those who have followed my writing that in my view, which is different from yours, scientists do frequently question the philosophical foundations and overall value of their work. However, I don’t want to pursue this here because it is too far from the main topic of the post.


  4. Well, ok Paul, as you wish.

    Good luck trying to find something more important than our “more is better” relationship with knowledge to write about.

    For a future article, I would very much welcome you offering specific examples of scientists who have publicly stated that the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which science is built upon is leading us at an ever accelerating rate towards the collapse of modern civilization. I would love to meet scientists who are taking on the outdated science culture status quo and risking their careers in the process. I would be grateful to learn of such insightful brave folks, should they actually exist.


  5. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    The problem of Bullshit (technical term) in political life. It is also find in most activist-centred groups eg Creationists, Ultra Greens, fractivists anti-vaxxers and the rest of them


  6. While mostly not attacks, these are some examples of self promoting BS from the left:
    1) The photoshopped picture of Hillary Clinton in the situation room when she was not.
    2) Hillary Clinton claiming to have been under sniper fire when she was not.
    3) Including rumors of a video inciting the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi when Secretary Clinton knew terrorists were responsible.
    4) Joe Biden’s comment to a diverse audience that Republicans “…are gonna put y’all back in chains” (could be argued to be a metaphor but not clear).

    I am not a fan of either side, just offering some balance to the discussion.


  1. Pingback: The dismantling of democracy, manipulation by algorithm, and what to do next; Part 2 ofAlgorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy | Primate's Progress

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: