Wednesday 3 December 2014

Why you should use your critical thinking skills, whatever the information source

I'll begin this article with an admission that I made a mistake. I always try to be careful that the infographics I create for social media are completely accurate (or clearly marked as satire when they're jokes), however on Sunday 30th of November 2014 I shared an infographic made by someone else without properly fact checking it (the one in the article header).

It turns out that the image I shared was slightly misleading. The nine images of incredibly sparsely attended debates in parliament were perfectly accurate, but the two below claiming to be debates about MPs pay and expenses were just stock images of the House of Commons. The infographic in question was then cited in a Spectator article by Isabel Hardman entitled "The menace of Memes: How pictures can paint a thousand lies".

I apologised as soon as I realised that I'd made a mistake in sharing a partially inaccurate image, but also took note of the fact that Isabel Hardman's article was also misleading for the fact that that it implied that the image was deliberately inaccurate (made in bad faith), rather than the result of a quite obvious mistake (made in good faith), and also because it made the ludicrous argument that so few MPs bother to turn up to some debates because "it is more constructive to be outside the Chamber during those sessions". The author casually dismissed all of the perfectly accurate pictures of incredibly sparsely attended parliamentary sessions (on the war in Afghanistan, child sex abuse, preventing knife crime, drugs laws, the effects of Iain Duncan Smith's brutal welfare "reforms" on disabled people, the living wage, recognition of Palestine, tenancy reform, and Syrian refugees) as if they were probably just unconstructive waste-of-time type debates that might have been better had nobody bothered to attend them at all!

Had Isabel Hardman done the vaguest research on how someone might have mistakenly concluded that the two stock images were what they were claimed to be, she would have easily found this article on the BBC News website, and this article on the Daily Telegraph website which both lazily used old stock images to illustrate their articles about parliamentary debates on MPs pay and MPs expenses.

The following day Isabel Hardman was invited to participate in a BBC Politics "debate" on social media images. I use the word "debate" in inverted commas because the "debate" consisted of Isabel Hardman, three MPs (the subject of the criticism) and the host, who showed her own bias by incessantly repeating the word "misleading" over and again. There were five individuals lined up against social media, and not a single representative to stand up for social media. It's hardly possible to conceive a less balanced "debate".

The BBC Daily Politics "debate" didn't make the slightest effort to draw any kind of contrast between "misleading" social media content and accurate social media content (of which there is lots), and neither did it admit that the source for one of the "misleading" images was almost certainly a misleadingly illustrated article about an MPs expenses debate on the BBC's own website!

The general tone of the whole "debate" was that social media is untrustworthy compared to politicians and paid journalists. Isabel Hardman even complained that "people trust the Internet more than they trust newspapers or politicians".

After stuff like the Hillsborough lies and cover-up, the "sexed up" Iraq dossier, the countless parliamemtary expenses scamming scandals, phone hacking, David Cameron's countless lies about the NHS and the national debt, the "misplaced" dossier about the Westminster paedophile ring, and the shockingly biased mainstream media campaign against Scottish independence - is it any wonder that people are more inclined to assume good faith when it comes to a picture their friend has shared on Facebook, than the utterances of a career politician or a paid journalist?

Isabel Hardman came across as a lot less condescending in the BBC interview than she did in her Spectator article, and she freely admitted that "the [9] pictures at the top did actually represent the debates", so it's clear that nine out of the eleven images used in the infographic were perfectly fair representations. The problem was that (like the Daily Politics presenter) she fell into the trap of assuming bad faith. She assumed that the creator of the image had deliberately set out to mislead, when the truth is self-evident: The creator of the infographic was clearly a bit naive in assuming that the mainstream press articles about the MPs pay and expenses debates were accurately illustrated, rather than lazily blathered with old stock images of completely unrelated parliamentary debates.

Even though the Daily Politics debate was so one-sided and openly hostile to social media I'm glad I watched it for the fact that the intensely smug Labour MP Jamie Reed made a truly remarkable admission that just goes to show how the current crop of career politicians consider their roles in our society. He said "you get business done on the telephone, you get business done face-to-face, you really don't achieve much in the chamber". Essentially this is an admission of what many people already know: Virtually all of the important decisions in our so-called democracy are made without democratic scrutiny in unrecorded "chats" between government ministers, civil servants, unelected lords, professional consultants, corporate lobbyists and the like, while the House of Commons serves only as an anachronistic rubber-stamping process, where MPs are free to completely ignore the actual debate then flood into the chamber at the end to cast their votes in the way they have been instructed to by their parties.

In my view MPs should have to sit through at least 80% of the actual debate if they are to be allowed to vote on the issue, and all "chats" between politicians and people like professional consultants and corporate lobbyists should be recorded so that they can be subjected to democratic scrutiny. Politicians and their friends in the media certainly won't be earning back any public trust simply by conducting a hopelessly biased and one-sided attack against social media, instead of fundamentally reforming the way they go about their own business.

After cautioning against making bad faith assumptions it would be wrong of me to state categorically that the reason for this hopelessly one-sided "debate" on social media was the journalists' abject fear that social media is allowing citizen journalists to spring up and provide competition to the professional journalists of the mainstream media like them, and the politicians' fear that social media can be used as a tool to hold corrupt/lazy/incompetent politicians to account. Let's assume the best and say that the BBC has simply strayed so far from it's public service remit that there wasn't anyone at all within the entire Daily Politics production team capable of thinking that an effort should have been made to find someone to represent social media in order to add a bit of balance to the "debate".

The fact that a debate about social media without a single representative of social media is considered acceptable output by the mainstream media just goes to show how unfit they are to be moral arbiters of anything. At least when you follow someone on Twitter or follow a page like mine on Facebook, you know we're opinionated, but at least we're not trying to hide our biases behind a reputation for neutrality that has long since been burned like a pile of old tyres that a farmer can't be arsed to get rid of properly.

To conclude I'll return to my admission of my mistake at the beginning of this article, and the fact that I made a public apology for it on my Facebook page as soon as I could. I think this is where a clear distinction can be made. The BBC were totally unprepared to admit their role in misleadingly attributing a completely unrelated stock image to a debate on MPs expenses (which would have changed the nature of the debate from "misleading social media to the lazy use of stock images on BBC News articles). Career politicians are notoriously unwilling to admit their mistakes (best evidenced by the typical politician's apology where they apologise for "any offense that may have been caused", rather than actually apologising for the offensive thing they've said/done). If it was the Spectator, or any other mainstream media publication making the mistake, we all know the apology would be hidden away in minuscule text on page 94 in a tiny box underneath an advert for dishwasher tablets that appears weeks or months later, not in a high profile statement that is posted as soon as the person becomes aware that they've made a mistake.

Perhaps one of the great things about social media is that it frees the individual to follow news from people they have learned to trust, rather than allowing a single newspaper or broadcaster to drip-feed their biased new agenda to them. Hence huge numbers of people have been made aware of things like the TTIP corporate power grab, the WCA disability witch hunt or the Tory "gagging law" through social media sources like my Another Angry Voice page, 38 Degrees or Atos Miracles, not through the biased and agenda driven coverage presented by the mainstream media.

Of course mistakes will be made on social media, but it is how people deal with their mistakes that is a true indicator of their trustworthiness, not the slickness of their presentation or the unanimity of their so-called "debates"

 Another Angry Voice  is a not-for-profit page which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only sources of income for  Another Angry Voice  are small donations from people who see some value in my work. If you appreciate my efforts and you could afford to make a donation, it would be massively appreciated.

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Update: Two things have come to my attention. The Spectator journalist is actually called Isabel Hardman, not Hartman - I have updated the article to correct this spelling error (apologies to her for the spelling mistake). It has also come to my attention that Isabel Hardman is a BBC employee who has actually worked on the Daily Politics show, something that was not mentioned at any point during the (2 BBC journalists and 3 establishment politicians vs 0 social media representatives) "debate".

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Priti Patel and the ludicrously hypocritical 50% turnout rule for Trade Unions

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Rupert Murdoch's evil empire
12 things you should know about the Daily Mail slurs against Ralph Miliband
The case for .. proportional pay for MPs

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