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Fake news - a socio-psychological analysis of falsehoods - overview, and proposal

 We seem to be living in the age of untruth. We have reached the point where we can no longer be sure of the truth of almost any statement t...

 We seem to be living in the age of untruth. We have reached the point where we can no longer be sure of the truth of almost any statement that circulates in society.  Because any information can be false, the truth of any public statement can be doubted, and about any information can be said to be false, and there is almost certainly someone who will say that the given statement is actually false, regardless of the fact that the information is really false or true. We have reached the limits of the liberalism of social information.

However, these are really just personal viewpoints about reality. Why can there be so many different opinions?

Now, as always, through our freedom of will, we are able to form different opinions about the same thing, and we can explain the same thing in different ways. Our diversity of opinions comes from the diversity of our abilities, our current knowledge, our experiences, and our intentions. Every person is able to see the world differently, from his or her own unique perspective.

Diversity is part of human nature, which actually helps us to understand the world. No one can understand reality alone, it is the collective effort of humanity that enables us to know the world, in which process, the after-observation phase is the creation of a variety of viewpoints, thoughts, ideas, and explanations through thinking.

Obviously, however, the many interpretations cannot all be correct, cannot all be true and appropriate to reality. The first phase of interpretation must be followed by a selection among the various explanations, which is achieved by thinking in the form of doubts. The result of doubt is the conclusion which, in fortunate cases, brings us closer to reality.

In our search for reality, we are constantly proposing alternatives, choosing among them through a process of skepticism, and our choices shape the way we see the world as we try to reinterpret our viewpoints through new alternatives. Misstatements, falsehoods, and untruths are an inevitable part of this process.

Therefore, doubt, questioning the truth of a statement, is obviously a natural and necessary part of the process of understanding. Useful doubt gives us the opportunity to get rid of erroneous views. Therefore, well-intentioned doubt has a useful function. Useful doubt is asking questions about the subject that have not yet been answered, searching for the real veracity of a statement thought to be true.

But there is also a less positive kind of doubt, where the real function of doubt is to deny the truth. Ignorance-based doubt is doubt based on the absence of knowledge that already exists; foolish doubt is doubt that challenges truth that is already accepted; imagination-based doubt is doubt that invents alternatives that are independent of reality in order to challenge knowledge; and malicious doubt is doubt that deliberately distorts or denies known truth.

There is a positive side to this doubt. Foolish doubt can be useful, because truths already known may turn out to be untrue and inaccurate, and rationally conducted foolish doubt can lead to new insights. Imaginative doubt can also be useful, sometimes leading to the discovery of new knowledge. Well-intentioned doubt, though it often seems to be an obstacle to the application of reality, can be useful and is therefore not unnecessary.

We often think of doubt as foolishness and the doubter as mad, but doubt is actually part of human nature. Doubt is characteristic of human thinking, it comes from human fantasy, from the limitlessness of human imagination. It is only the current level of intellect that sets useful and useless limits to the innate doubt about reality.

But doubt is not only motivated by the desire to know the truth. Doubt, and the new explanation that comes with it, influences how we see the world and is therefore capable of manipulating the viewpoint of individuals, groups, communities, and society as a whole. The role of malicious doubt is to covertly create suspicion of the accepted interpretation and/or to suggest a new interpretation for some hidden purpose.

Doubt, not for the purpose of understanding, for the purpose of manipulation, deliberately created by distorting or denying reality in order to achieve a hidden purpose, a hidden goal, even just by creating mistrust, by creating doubt about the accepted reality.

Human beings are special creatures because human intention does not necessarily determine the actions that are taken. Human intention can always remain hidden; intention exists only in the mind. The truthfulness of the action performed, such as the actual declared intention, is only an indirect verification of the real intention.

The true intent and purpose of malicious doubt can therefore remain hidden. Malicious doubt typically achieves its intended purpose by creating distrust of the accepted interpretation, which then helps to achieve the hidden purpose. And malicious doubt, the conscious denial of existing reality, the deliberately false explanation (misinformation), can be used effectively as a tool for manipulating the community because it can be operated and function in a covert manner, i.e. with hidden intent and purpose.

The deliberate manipulation of the community through misinformation to achieve a hidden agenda has always been, and continues to be, a commonly used tool to influence society. The deliberate creation and dissemination of fake news has always existed. What allows it to have a much greater impact today is the greater speed with which information spreads and the volume of people it reaches.

We have increasingly effective tools and methods for disseminating information. In the beginning, for a long time, information could only be spread by the spoken word. Later, methods of recording information were developed that made it possible to reproduce information independent of understanding and acceptance. Writing came first, and information was reproduced first by hand copying and later by machine printing.

Then came the much more efficient electronic recording, reproduction, and distribution of information. Radio and television could now reach the masses in real time, simultaneously. Today we live in an age of even more efficient digital information recording, reproduction and distribution. Through interactive digital services and virtual social platforms that can potentially reach the whole of society, anyone and everyone can now distribute information they create, whatever it may be, quickly and efficiently, potentially reaching the masses selected according to expected interest.

In today's free speech societies, anyone can say almost anything, and if it attracts interest, it can spread quickly through the community by being shared. Because it's easy to produce and reproduce information that can reach the masses, we live in an age of memes.

Memes are widespread individual actions shaped by the information generated by ideas in society, which become social habits that define the behavior of society. Memes are created by people and spread efficiently among people through shared information. In fact, memes provide the diversity of society that is the basis for the evolutionary adaptation of human society

A society that allows freedom of thought and the formation of a variety of memes is more adaptable to environmental changes through memetic diversity than a censored society that restricts information, but it is also more sensitive and responsive to a variety of external and internal conditions. Liberalism of expression does not free us from misinformation, but rather encourages and contributes to the manipulation of society by false information, which is otherwise also a characteristic of censored societies.

Censorship and total freedom of information can also be an obstacle to reality. The sensitivity of liberal societies to change makes these societies seem more unstable than societies that censor information, but if the liberalism of information tends to the knowledge of reality in society, the instability that comes with sensitivity can quickly be followed by a more stable state than before, i.e. the apparent instability is actually an inherent consequence of the flexibility of these societies to change.

Societies that censor information are not flexible at all, and although they appear to be more stable, they are much less resilient to change, especially if the censorship of information does not tend toward knowledge of reality, which is also a general feature of these societies.

In both deliberately restrictive societies and those that allow complete freedom of thought, it is possible to create intentionally manipulative memes that are independent of, or even contradictory to, reality, and that can spread across a wide swath of society. And memes are worth creating. On the one hand, memes can generate influence and power, especially political power in society, and on the other hand, due to the profit-oriented nature of today's social media, the distribution and spread of linked and overlapping information, related to information that spreads widely and reaches large masses, provides financial income.

In order to increase power and/or wealth, the goal is to create memes, information with appropriate content that spreads well in society. Reality is not a criterion for the existence and dissemination of information, in fact, reality is often an obstacle, a barrier to achieving the goal of creating interesting, attention-grabbing, and therefore well-spread information.

Why is human thinking only loosely tied to reality? Why is untruth, often even obvious untruth, acceptable?

Humans discover and invent things, that's how the human mind works. It is also our ability that has helped the human race to dominate the living environment.

Human thinking seeks, describes, and explains correlations; it is the way we know and come to know reality. The inner urge to understand and explain the world helps to know, but does not guarantee the validity of the acquired knowledge.

If the acquired knowledge of our inner urge to know has no positive feedback from reality, it can also lead to false conclusions. However, positive feedback from reality is not a necessary criterion for the fulfillment of the urge to know. We are capable of accepting anything as an explanation if it fits our established worldview, if it fits our various preconceptions that exist in many forms.

The knowledge and prejudice shaped phenomenon called the opinion bubble, a type of behavior based on the biased selection of information, has evolutionary advantages, such as forming behavior that reinforces group membership, but it also creates a difficult to overcome barrier to knowing reality if it does not fit our biases.

The human mind, with our inner urge to know and understand, searches everywhere for causality (pattern). And in the process of recognizing existing cause-and-effect relationships, and often even before, if supported by formed biases (extrapolation from previous experiences), the "must-find-explanation-of-events" attitude typically often assumes a consciously acting intention (agent) causing the events that have occurred, instead of thoroughly searching for nature-based cause-and-effect relationships.

If a stone flies in the air and I can't find a natural explanation for its movement, I explain it as someone throwing the stone on purpose to achieve some supposed goal. This follows from the necessity of explanation, where we try to exclude chance as a cause of reality.

Then, if we continue our doubt to find an explanation and we continue to search for a cause, we may find an acceptable natural cause of the change (pattern), or we may find an existing intention behind the change (agent), or, if the information found still does not provide a definite explanation, especially if the events directly affect us, we usually want to stick to suspecting a hidden intention rather than conclude in chance for the cause.

Reality can often be complicated, reality can often be difficult to understand, especially when we don't have enough information. The relationships that cause the world to change are complex, but still, because of our inner urge, we have to create some kind of explanation.

If a stone flies in the air, it could be caused by a volcano somewhere throwing it, or of course it could just fall off the side of a mountain, but if that flying stone almost hit me, the most likely explanation is that someone threw it on purpose to hit me. Then, if I look for the cause, I might find the natural origin of the stone's movement, but if I look and don't find it, or don't look because it's difficult to find it, we systematically stick to the explanation based on supposed intention, even if there's no evidence for it, because there has to be an explanation, and accepting chance is a kind of lame explanation for the phenomenon that directly affects me.

This is the attitude that has led mankind to know the world, and at the same time causes the existence of falsehood, which, if nothing else, often manifests itself in the assumption of an external intention. The existence of falsehood is a natural consequence of the need for explanation, and the assumption of an external intention is always a suitable way to explain in the absence of knowledge. That is why God exists for us. 

But an external, unknown intention can actually exist in reality. Maybe the rock that hit me was thrown at me on purpose, because it has happened before, and I have done it to others secretly. Especially the causes of social events can easily be assumed to have intention, even if it is unknown, since this kind of events are inherently caused by human actions, and when chance is not acceptable, and the cause, which may be emergent phenomena, is difficult to understand, intention is the inevitable explanation. And when intent is not generally known, not obvious to know, or difficult to detect, the existence of hidden intent is the most likely explanation.

Such secret intentions, conspiracies, and thus conspiracy theories about major social events can often be the presumed causes. Conspiracies, the hidden intentions of groups acting in coordination, have existed in reality and therefore can exist actually, and conspiracies are always easy to suppose and easy to understand, even if they cannot be a real explanation for the unknown or not understood social phenomena.

When the cause of reality is not obvious, not known, and difficult to explain, especially when events affect us in reality, denying a possibly existing natural, scientific cause as an explanation, and explaining the event as the purpose of an intention of a supposedly existing secretly operating power, forming explanations as conspiracy theories based on fantasy or deliberate misinformation, for the purpose of popularity, and or political and material gain, is worthy to suggest, and easy to fabricate. Therefore, it is possible and politically and financially useful to assume a hidden and covert intention and propagate this information that is used as an explanation, even if it has no proof with reality.

Why is the information that is not generally accepted and classified as secret popular among the people?

Knowing something that others don't know, especially if it seems to be special and secret information, means a privileged status in the community. I can feel important and special if I know some information that is not public or generally known. To be in possession of information marked as secret is a special privilege, so the validity of information marked as secret is something less worth questioning, because its recognized untruthfulness removes the value of secrecy, the benefit of knowing it. It is useful to spread untruths or partial truths, manipulated information in the form of secrecy, because then it can propagate more quickly and with less content checking among the people susceptible to the information.

What social group is most susceptible to information that is not generally accepted, that challenges the accepted truth?

There is a social stratum which, although it does not form a cohesive group (a group based on common interests), is particularly characterized by suspicion and doubt about the truthfulness of officially accepted, commonly held positions.

For evolutionary reasons, human beings begin to learn about their environment and socialize into society in a vulnerable state. In this vulnerable stage of life, in which a person is unable to assert his or her own will, or can assert it only to a very limited extent, life is determined by the intentions of external authorities, parents, relatives, and the close community. At this stage of development, which is not necessarily limited to childhood, if a person is socialized in an aggressive, distrustful environment, an imprint can form and lead to a distrustful personality bias toward external authority that will accompany the person throughout his or her life.

The condition formed by imprinting is more difficult to change than to prevent. The attitudes and behavior of people socialized in this way are such that those who usually make statements, assertions that must be accepted, i.e. those who claim to have authority, whose actions cannot be challenged because there is not enough information about the causes, or because it is difficult to understand the reason for the assertion, or simply because it is just ordered to be accepted, are suspicious, likely to be dishonest, probably manipulative, and even potentially dangerous.

This suspicious, distrustful social group, which can be large or small depending on the actual functioning of the community, is susceptible to rejecting the officially accepted, commonly held position, and therefore can be easily manipulated by information that seems understandable and useful to them, even if it does not offer a real alternative, and can be easily mobilized by appropriate, seemingly true, but manipulative information against the existing system or against the perceived or real social group that represents the order, i.e. the persons supposedly in power and their actions.

How can false information be effectively used as a tool of power?

The structure of social authority can be undermined by casting doubt on the credibility of the established system through the dissemination of information that appears credible, is largely based on bias, and is labeled as secret, because for the susceptible group, especially those who are adversely affected, even if only subjectively, by the events or activities of the established system, this susceptible group is biased toward such information, and for them the statements of the power representing the established system are presumed to be untrue by prejudice. For this segment of society, the information that challenges real or perceived social power, and the news source that disseminates such information, is perceived as more credible because of personal preconceptions.

The memes formed in this way, which are deliberately manipulated information according to the desired goal, can form a community of shared interest from a group that does not even initially belong together, through the function of the memes as determining behavior. The formation of the group is motivated by the similar biases typically carried, the common habits that emerge from shared memes, and by the human desire to belong to a social group.

Once a group is formed on the basis of shared memes, the cohesion of the social group, the need to belong somewhere, and the strength of belonging together increase with more similarly formed memes, which may be based only on shared rejection without a commonly accepted positive goal. In this group, the information circulated among group members is considered credible, biased truth by accepting the veracity of the statements without checking their actual validity.

Members of society who have experienced real or even perceived discrimination are particularly susceptible to fake news. A group that is actually or even supposedly oppressed, segregated and marginalized by a group that is supposedly (it may not even exist in reality) or actually powerful is particularly susceptible to "alternative" truths that seem to imply a hidden agenda against them. For them, there is a need for alternative truths and solutions, and for them, a sense of importance, a sense of specialness, and a need to belong to a group, a sense of being part of a group, a sense of cohesion are of paramount importance.

A society that is susceptible to and manipulated by fake news has well-defined characteristics. The emergence and maintenance of such a society, even if it is not capable of functioning effectively, is not developmental, and is not sustainable in the long term, can be created intentionally or even instinctively, and can be exploited by false information by the group of people who intensely seek or seize power. Typically, this form of behavior is the actual method used by authoritarian regimes that tend toward dictatorship.

How to combat falsehoods?

There has always been, and always will be, the deliberate assertion of falsehood, because falsehood can generate benefits. The most effective way to counter the use of falsehood as a tool for manipulating society is to build trust when social power operates transparently.

A social power that operates transparently can also censor information without losing trust and limit the spread of allegedly false information through the instruments of power. However, restricting information through the use of power is a risky instrument and could only be used without risk if total social control of power were possible, which in practice is more than an idealistic idea. Achieving social trust in power is a desirable goal, but not a realistic one.

Nor can freedom of information without censorship be an adequate means of preventing the spread of false information. The authenticity of information is not at all a criterion for the dissemination of information; freedom of information is also the basis of falsehood.

The solution to the spread of misinformation is to constantly check statements against community accepted facts in real time and to reliably authenticate information on social media channels.

A credibility review of community information services is already underway, and several countries are trying to enforce it through legislation. Such censorship-like restrictions on information services are being resisted on the grounds of freedom of expression, but the real reason for the protest is more to secure business and political interests, even just by intentionally and purposedly blurring the separation between facts and opinions.

As long as censorship is transparent and supervised by society, it is acceptable and even preferable. A suitable tool for this process has recently come into our hands, the creation of language-based generative pre-trained (GPT) artificial intelligence.

GPT-based artificial intelligence works on the principle of statistical probabilistic analysis of information in the form of language, which is a potentially suitable, objectivity-based method for identifying truths generally accepted by the community, and has the ability to analyze any information from this point of view.

A GPT-based artificial intelligence that generates censorship operates on transparent and objective principles, statistical probability, and its analysis can be reliable if the language module on which it performs statistical probabilistic analysis is suitably structured and contains only information that is generally accepted by the community. The often experienced hallucinations, unreal or non-existent statements of these systems are most likely caused by the many contradictions in information that the many different texts of natural language have and what GPT usually works on.

Of course, it is not obvious what the generally accepted position of the community is. The common position is also the result of discussions, refutations, and negotiations among doubters. However, there is already a commonly used and accepted tool for this in the hands of humanity, the community-created and maintained repository of knowledge in the form of Wikipedia, the open, editable, public, universally accessible encyclopedia.

A GPT-based AI service using Wikipedia as a language module that analyzes social information at the time of its appearance could be a reliable barrier to the spread of fake information as truth. This language module can also significantly reduce the hallucinations of GPT-based AI.

If the published information is factual, the GPT-based authentication service based on a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia can compare the published information with the information in its language module and analyze the content of the published information in real time and compare it with the information in Wikipedia. Accordingly, the information to be published could be published with different labels, such as for example it is

  • consistent with, and does not contradict, accepted facts
  • partial truth, i.e. some statements are true, other statements contradict accepted facts or are speculations of opinion 
  • speculation, i.e. there are no accepted facts on the subject
  • contradicts accepted facts.

It should be the obligation and responsibility of the information provider to use a publicly hosted community authentication service when presenting information. News sources that do not undergo such automatic authentication can be directly considered unreliable news sources.

Of course, news sources may claim that authentication can be suspicious and manipulative and therefore unreliable, while their own news source is not manipulated by authentication and therefore more reliable, which may be a credible argument to people who are biased about the content of the information. Of course, there is also information whose veracity cannot be determined with certainty at the time, and which falls into the category of speculation. Information judged to be speculative may still be true.

This is the argument of news sources that often publish fake news for manipulation, which is otherwise rational and therefore acceptable. However, news sources that deliberately present fake news can be reliably flagged in this case because the veracity of their claims is low, which, if not necessarily determinable at the time they claim that the published statement is true, a post facto analysis of their information makes the discredited nature obvious, and presenting news from a news provider that has been discredited in the past is also unreliable.

The information authentication service can analyze previous information published by news providers, which can then be used to determine the veracity of the news without speculation. If information previously published by a news provider, which can already be verified without speculation, often falls into the category of fake news, even if the news provider criticizes the verification category of the currently published information, the classification of the previously published news can be used to reliably classify the news provider, even if the nature of the classification of the currently published information is questionable.

False information is an inseparable part of human nature, an inherent part of social life. There will always be people who create fake news, and there will always be people who believe it. However, the impact of misinformation can be reduced, which is possible in today's advanced information age, and potential tools exist; all that is needed is the social determination to use them.

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