Sunday, January 29, 2017

Living in Alternate Universes: Are you a Jingoist, Progressive, or Treehugger?

Quantum physics suggests that there are many different universes, with our current world being embedded into just one of infinitely many other universes. Currently it seems humans on earth are breaking up locally in many different multiverses. Based on most recent history, I would group these different multiverses into three main universes. Each of these universes has its own reality, defining fact or fiction for the inhabitants of the universe. Each universe is inhabited by its own tribe, with its own belief system. The three tribes are the jingoists, the progressives, and the treehuggers. While members of these three tribes are spread out around the world, living side by side, they are living in different worlds. Members of these three tribes live in all countries, although usually members of one tribe rule a particular country. The jingoist tribe, currently on a roll, wants to recreate the national states of the early twentieth century with strong borders protected by fences and walls. The members of the progressive tribe, believers in a global world ruled by capital and technology, just got back from their annual January trek to Davos. Together with the members of the third tribe, the treehuggers, who want to conserve nature and the environment, they are currently on the defense against the jingoists. 

With the election of Donald Trump, the jingoistic tribe has gotten its clear leader. Some European representatives of this tribe are Germany’s Frauke Petry or France’s Marine Le Pen.  The jingoists believe in the “good old times”, they believe in “God and Fatherland”, they want to “#makeAmericaGreatAgain”.  They think that their country is the best, and that potential troublemakers are best kept out, if need be by force. They want a strong army and police, to keep crime at bay.  They cherish the family as a bulwark against evil from the outside world. They are very suspicious about new ideas. They will help their neighbors, but don’t think the state should generally support the weak, and refuges should be kept out. Their motto is “help yourself, then God helps you”.

The progressive tribe believes into continuous progress through science and technology.  Politicians like Germany’s Angela Merkel or Canada’s Justin Trudeau are role models for this tribe.  Among industrialists, Elon Musk, or the late Steve Jobs stand out. Their goal is to reach the Mars and live forever through clever exploitation of the advancements of science. They think that global networking is key to overcoming all obstacles, they preferably do that at gatherings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos every January.

The third tribe are the treehuggers. They believe that the world’s resources are limited, and are afraid of unabashed exploitation of nature. The also don’t trust unquestioning scientific progress such as genetically modified crops, or fracking to get access to more oil. They congregate in in Global Warming summits, and self-organize in groups like Greenpeace or the WWF. Pope Francis, inviting scientists and world leaders to Rome to discuss Global Warming, has become a champion of their cause. They don’t believe in growth at any cost.

It seems to me each of these tribes has their own strengths and weaknesses. Based on their belief that local is better than global, jingoists will compartmentalize in their nation states, so they will mix less with others different from themselves and become more homogeneous within their local echo chambers. Scientific and technical progress will come – obviously – through the progressives, but there are many examples where the progressives have gone wrong. For example, applying scientific results about increased fuel efficiency, lead was added to fuel, which turned out to be a pretty bad idea for our health. And while medicine is making huge progress, the price gauging of drugs of some progressives, where pharmaceutical companies make huge profits by lifting the price of unique lifesaving drugs from 40 dollars to 38,000 dollars in two years is just unethically mindboggling. The treehuggers finally, while they mean well, do not really have convincing answers to many global problems other than stopping the rapid destruction of the environment to preserve nature for future generations. On how to feed and take care of these future generations, they stay extremely vague.

The point I would like to make here is that each of the three virtual tribes is living in their own reality, and is defining their own truth. Law and order, family values, and God and fatherland are the undisputed foundation for the jingoists, as is unquestioning belief in progress through science and technology for the progressives, and the quest to conserve the environment while restricting growth for the treehuggers.

Through Coolhunting in social media, on newsfeeds, Twitter, Wikipedia, and online forums we can try to shed some light on these alternate realities.  When looking at news, key topics, and social networks among the key people in each of these universes, we can make these three echo chambers transparent, and try to increase awareness among the different tribes for alternate realities. You will find same examples in earlier blogposts. What is fake news for one universe, is fact for another!

Monday, January 02, 2017

Fact-checking Fake News - "It's easy to lie with statistics; it is easier to lie without them."

What is fact? And what is fiction? What might be seen as a fact by one person is seen as fake news by somebody else. Depending on political orientation and cultural background people quickly categorize news as fake or fact.

When beginning of November 2016 right-wing fanatics constructed “pizzagate”, they were claiming that owners and customers of a popular pizza restaurant in Washington were running a covert pedophile operation, directed by a group of people around Hillary Clinton. The mainstream press agreed that this was a fake news smear campaign constructed to damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation and the liberal agenda. Nonetheless, a significant group of the US population took the rumor at face value, see my previous blogpost.

Even “facts” published in highly respected newspapers such as the New York Times can be seen as fiction by other news media. For instance, in a recent article in the New York Times, whistleblower Ed Snowdon was depicted as a puppet of Russian spy agencies in a report produced by US government agencies.  The report listed various claims by US intelligence agencies as “facts”, which, according to other journalists, were not true.

In God we trust. All others must bring data (W. Edwards Deming)

To make sense out of emerging news and to decide whether to categorize them as fact or fiction, it would be useful to track their origin and identify the main promoters of a particular news item. Harvard statistician Gary King and his colleagues have done as much tracking the flow of fake news in China. According to Chinese urban myths, there are up to 2 million microbloggers in China who are paid “50cent” per post by the Chinese government to drown out critical voices on social media and spread news favorable of the government. In a research paper, King and his team have been identifying the “50cent” microbloggers spreading news supporting the Chinese communist party on Sina Weibo and other Chinese blogs. King and his team grouped the posts into five categories: (1) taunting of foreign countries, (2) argumentative praise, (3) non-argumentative praise, (4) factual reporting, (5) cheerleading. Using sophisticated statistical and machine learning methods mining an e-mail archive leaked from the Internet Propaganda office from Zhanggong district, they showed that these “50cent” bloggers primarily engage in a massive amount of positive cheerleading with little to no central oversight, to some extent debunking the urban myth of a vast shadow army of bloggers at the beck and call of the Chinese government.

However, the key problem with the analysis of Gary King and his team is that the analysis tools they used are so complex that only somebody with a graduate degree in statistics has a chance to understand it, and nobody except the team doing the analysis has the full insight into the results. As Winston Churchill reputedly said “Do not trust any statistics you did not fake yourself.”  The average reader thus has close to zero chance to actually understand why the statisticians came to their conclusion. It therefore boils down to trust: does the reader trust the conclusions of the analyst/statistician/journalist?

Faith-based and Science-based Belief Systems

As has been repeatedly shown, humans are much more likely to trust and accept as true news close to their own beliefs and values. What this means is that it depends very much on the belief system of an individual whether a particular news item is accepted as fact or as fiction.  Each individual has to decide for her or himself what is fact and what is fiction. 

At least in the Western world I therefore group the major belief systems into two opposite stereotypes:
  • Faith-focused: Believing in God, nationalistic, supporting the military, less formal academic education.
  • Science-focused: Believing in science, political correctness, with advanced academic (college) education.

In the US electorate, there is high overlap between the faith-focused segment and Republicans, while the science-focused demographics are more leaning Democrat. As conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh said “…fake news is the everyday news”. According to Limbaugh,… mainstream media “… they just make it up.”

Tracing the Source of Rumors – Turning it into Fake or Fact

To make up one’s own mind about a new rumor, it is therefore extremely helpful to see who is supporting a particular claim, and find out where it originates. For example, article talk pages on Wikipedia article are an excellent starting point for drilling down on fake news. For instance, this fake news about the Berggruen Institute  - a perfectly legitimate institution - right on the Wikipedia talk page of the Institute claims that the Berggruen institute is a “shill for US intelligence/related functions”.

The following example using Condor Coolhunting illustrates how to find the influencers behind a rumor, in this example about “fake news” itself, and shows how to identify their belief system:

To gain a quick overview of the most influential people tweeting about “fake news” in the sense of Rush Limbaugh, I collected 18,000 tweets on December 27, 2016 with the hashtag #fake2016facts. The picture below shows the retweet network. Note the connected component in the core, with just three people being highly central, and the “asteroid belt” in the periphery of the people whose tweets are being ignored and going into the void.

When running Condor’s influence determination algorithm, which looks at who injects new words into the discussion first, and how quickly these words are picked up by others, we find that the most influential people are not the same as identified in the previous picture. Rather a new group of influencers emerges, which is also part of the connected component in the center, but somewhat more peripheral in the network. Their tweets are picked up by more prominent and popular bloggers, who then spread them in the rest of the twittersphere.

Looking at the content of the tweets about fake2016facts, we find that the tweeters like Trump, Obama, and Jesus (shown in green), and loathe Hillary Clinton, election, Russia, Russians, and (some) Americans (shown in red), but not America. Black words are neutral.

Next I analyzed the contents of the self-description of the people tweeting about fake2016facts. Words like Trump, America, Christian, God, Family, and Mom appear in a positive context (shown in green), while words like conservative, politics, and lists are also popular, but used in a negative (shown in red) context.

To resume, it seems that tweeters about #Fake2016Facts – showing a high distrust of mainstream media - are predominantly part of the faith-based belief system.

GalaxyScope  -  Our Web Tool to Find Influencers

We have created an early prototype of a tool that allows everybody to enter a few keywords describing a “fake news candidate”, and see who has been speaking about it on Twitter, where it was mentioned on Wikipedia, and on which blogs and Websites it prominently appears.  The screen dump below shows the search results for “pizzagate”


Green nodes are Wikipedia pages, orange nodes are Twitter users, and blue nodes are Web sites and people mentioned on Blogs and Web sites.
The picture below shows another fake news candidate, looking at the social media network emerging from the search for “DNC hack”, the suspected break in of the Russian secret service into the e-mail server of the Democratic National Committee right before the 2016 US Presidential Elections.

You can try it out for yourself by visiting “” and clicking on “people scope”. Let me know when you find some interesting fake news networks.