Category Archives: Society

How do you know I’m telling the truth?

Deep in the Amazon rain forest, they do a really marvelous thing.

Have I seen it for myself? Well, no. Did I hear it from an eyewitness? No again. Truth to tell, I read about it on the internet.

Aerial view of Papuri River

The Papuri River in South America (photo: Andre Baertschi)

I need to back up and start from the beginning.

Dave Thomas, in a recent article titled The Revolution Will Have Structured Content, describes how the language of a culture will reflect whatever values the culture finds most important.

Thus, for example, “if we require Mr., which says nothing about marital status, before a man’s name but either Miss or Mrs. before a woman’s name, we are saying that the most important thing to know about that woman is her marital status.” And that’s why, over the last half-century, the use of Ms. has become prevalent.

A grammar based on evidence

Now, Thomas asks, what if a culture placed a high value on truth? Would its language evolve a grammar that would help a listener to evaluate the veracity of a given statement? Continue reading

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Communication and tomorrow’s forecast

clouds

In 1854, John Ball, newly elected to Parliament, stood in the House of Commons to suggest that, just a few years hence, it might be possible to predict London’s weather 24 hours in advance.

He was drowned out by laughter.

Not much more than a century and a half ago, the notion of forecasting the weather sounded preposterous. So let me tell you a story.

Because you’re reading this blog, you probably make your living by communicating. As communicators, we don’t always enjoy the same prestige as scientists, inventors, and the other “movers and shakers” in our world. We might be tempted to think that they’re the ones with the ideas; we only communicate about their ideas. Yet the story of how weather forecasting became reality is a story of communication. Continue reading

Policing the public square

No doubt you’ve seen the news. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone up to Capitol Hill this week to answer questions from several different Congressional committees. They want to know what Facebook is doing about privacy breaches and interference by foreign actors.

In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg said:

“It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It’s not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”

Zuckerberg and Besmehn

Mark Zuckerberg and assistant Andrea Besmehn arrive on Capitol Hill (photo source: NPR)

So, as NPR’s Camila Domonoske points out, Facebook now admits that it’s a content publisher, not just a technology platform on which other people create content. That’s big news.

Here’s even bigger news: Continue reading

When the censors come

Remember when a British Library patron was barred from reading Hamlet because an “overly sensitive” Wi-Fi filter decided the play was too violent?

The press reported the story incredulously, focusing more on the folly of using faulty software than on any actual effort to block people from seeing content that somebody deemed inappropriate.

Even when I wrote about the episode — citing our ethical obligation, as journalists and technical writers, to serve our readers with content that’s truthful and complete — I regarded true censorship as something far away and remote. It happened in places like China, where authorities tried to silence the late dissident Liu Xiaobo. But not here in the democratic West.

That was four years ago. Since then, the faraway threat of censorship has come to our doorsteps. Continue reading

Content questions: Critical Thinking 101

In my first content questions piece, I cited Robert D. Kaplan’s Washington Post article, in which he describes how people use content to distort and deceive — how information becomes misinformation and then the misinformation is amplified.

wolf in a forest

Reader Mark Baker proffered this comment:

This is an old wolf in new sheep’s clothing, but there are so many wolves now, and their sheep’s clothing is such a bad fit that we can always see their paws and teeth sticking out.

I respectfully disagree.

This is not to pick on Mark, with whom — based on his subsequent comments and on other conversations we’ve had in this forum — I agree on most things. But here, at least, I think he understates the problem.

Sure, sometimes it’s easy to spot the content frauds. Just like in Cold War-era spy movies, you knew who the bad guys were because they had Russian accents.

But many wolves are better at masking their true selves. Social media, especially, makes for effective masks. It’s easy to pretend you’re something you’re not.

(It’s been 25 years since Peter Steiner’s famous “nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon in the New Yorker. How much has really changed since then?)

Exposing the wolves

We try hard to spot the wolves behind the masks. We look for trusted allies who can curate the content we receive. And we instinctively turn toward people who resemble ourselves — our tribe.

That exposes some of the wolves, but not nearly all of them.

To expose some wolves, we need to stop judging their appearance and start judging the things they say (or write).

In other words, we need to think critically. Continue reading

Content questions: a crisis of trust

We’ve been talking about content, about who gets to decide what is and isn’t appropriate, and especially about what happens to the content you publish.

A lot of it comes down to trust. Can we trust the content we encounter? How do we know? And, of course, how can we create content that people will recognize as trustworthy?

Meet the Edelman Trust Barometer. Published by the Edelman research firm, the barometer is an international study that focuses on the degree to which people trust “institutions” — defined by Edelman as government, business, media, and NGOs.

Richard Edelman speaking in the video

Richard Edelman (screen shot from The Battle for Truth)

I don’t think I’m off base if I interchange the term content providers for institutions. After all, the content we consume — the content on which we base our opinions and our worldview — comes predominantly from government, business, media, and NGOs. And the content you create probably falls into one of those categories.

The newest Trust Barometer finds that people’s trust in institutions — or content providers — is dropping precipitously, especially in the U.S.

In the words of CEO Richard Edelman, “the United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust.” Edelman even posted a short video, titled The Battle for Truth, in which he said (emphasis mine):

  • We don’t have shared facts. Therefore, we lack rational discourse.”
  • Silence is a tax on truth, and we have to speak up.”

By speaking up, Edelman means that it’s incumbent on every institution — every content provider — to “fill the void for quality information.” Trustworthy information.

I don’t disagree with him. But I doubt that every content provider is willing or able.

What do you and I, as consumers of content, do then? Continue reading

Content questions: is the human element worth a try?

At a time when the news media is under intense scrutiny, when people struggle to distinguish reliable information from “fake news” from merely biased news, how will we decide — and who will decide:

  • When is content inappropriate?
  • Who controls the content?
  • What if content is used to deceive?

I posed these questions last week, with emphasis on the information, or the content, that we create. And I asked how we — the content creators — will shape the answers.

Answering the content conundrum

Steven Brill interviewed on CNN
Steven Brill, interviewed on CNN on March 4, 2018

Here’s one answer, from Steven Brill, whose Wikipedia page calls him a “journalist-entrepreneur.” Brill’s new project is called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard, whose launch date has not been announced, will try to “help consumers distinguish between sites that are trying to get it right and sites that are trying to trick people.” Those are the words of Brian Stelter, who interviewed Brill for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” earlier this month. Continue reading

Content questions: will we have the answers?

This is about information: who controls its flow, who uses it, and who watches you when you use it.

This is about you. Because you access information — or content — on the internet, and because you probably create it as well.

Will someone have the power to tell you what content is and is not appropriate? Who controls what happens to the content you publish? Will someone use your content to deceive or mislead?

Just this month, 3 news stories have brought these questions into sharper focus. Will we, as writing professionals, have good answers? We’d better, because I don’t know if anyone else will.

When is content inappropriate? Who decides?

Advertisement captioned Don't worry, it's just Twitter

Scene from a recent ad appearing on Twitter’s website and in movie theaters

On March 1, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey promised to start measuring the platform’s “health” as a first step to freeing users from trolls and propaganda. (Josh Bernoff does a great job of  breaking down the announcement.) Admitting that “we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of Twitter’s free-for-all format, Dorsey promises to get busy and fix the problem.

Can he fix it?  Can he put the lid back on Pandora’s box? It strikes me as too little, too late. Continue reading

7 words you can’t say at CDC

According to its mission statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency of the U.S. government, “increases the health security of our nation.”

CDC logoIt does so primarily in two ways: researching diseases and their cures, and informing the public about its findings. For example, you might remember CDC’s role in warning citizens about the zika virus in 2015.

A few words might be missing

Soon, however, when you get information from CDC, a few words might be missing. Reportedly, senior officials within the Department of Health and Human Services recently decreed that CDC and other HHS agencies are forbidden from using 7 words in their official budget documents.

(This is a developing story. On Sunday, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald called the report about the 7 words “a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.” The word mischaracterization leaves wiggle room: it’s reasonable to assume that there was discussion about avoiding certain words — even if it wasn’t an all-out ban.)

George Carlin with the 7 words superimposed on his photo

Credit: Scott Smith (@stampergr) on Twitter

Here are the 7 forbidden words:

  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • fetus
  • evidence-based
  • science-based

What does it mean when words become non-words? As anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, it’s an attempt by those in power to impose control.

They know something I’ve known throughout my writing career: words matter. A lot.

By changing the words in the conversation, do the people in charge at HHS think they can change reality? No. I don’t believe they’re that foolish. Not all of them anyway.

They can’t change reality, but they can change the way in which reality is discussed. If they change the terms of the discussion, they can influence the way people think.

When nothing can be described as evidence-based or science-based, there’s no longer a need to question a finding that’s unsupported by evidence.

When transgender is stripped from the vocabulary, they can more easily dismiss the health needs of thousands of our fellow ci.tizens.

When they stop saying vulnerable, it’s easier for them to overlook human beings who are vulnerable and who need help.

The Florida tides

It brings to mind what happened in Florida a few years ago. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered its staff not to use the terms climate change and global warming in any official communications, emails, or reports.

This despite the fact that, according to a New York Times article, “when many cities in Florida flood, which can occur even without rainfall during the highest tides, fish swim in the streets and people wade to their cars.”

But the nabobs in the Department of Environmental Protection, even as the bottoms of their trousers get soaked, need not trouble themselves with the thought that this is anything more than a random natural phenomenon.

What can we do?

There’s a lot at stake here. Although it’s tempting to smirk and roll our eyes, we mustn’t dismiss this as mere bureaucratic foolery. Instead, we need to call it out for what it is: an attempt by those in power to impose control.

Be wary of gaslighting — of any attempt to change the way reality is perceived. Don’t let Why don’t we talk about x any more? turn into X never happenedAll of us share a duty to know the truth and hold fast to it.

Finally, even if HHS won’t use those words, by golly we can use them. And we should. Question what this government tells you — and don’t be afraid to answer back, What about the vulnerable ones? What scientific evidence do you have for this?

Never let them forget that words matter.

A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.

379px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)