deletedDec 30, 2022·edited Dec 31, 2022
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They misheard the question? Jesus. That’s pretty desperate & borderline offensive to the intellects of your readers.

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My unwritten response to the first post was "Isn't this something obvious that we already know?" I half remember you having written on the topic years ago. That the media lies by means other than straight up fabricating empirically untrue things is so obvious to be not worth mentioning.

Looking at what the media does and declaring that it doesn't lie is however much like having a model of unhealthy eating which only defining having candy as being unhealthy and declaring the person who eats 4 double cheese burgers a day as technically healthy. It misses the point entirely. If someone knows the truth and constructs what they espouse carefully to get people to believe something else they are doing the thing we don't like about lying.

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This is a whole lot of words to say “I define ‘lying by media’ exclusively as falsifying source material, while many/most other people include presentation of false claims derived from true statements to also be lying”

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Perhaps some people are operating with a different conception of “lie” like “lead to believe falsehoods.” That’s the only reason I can think of to reject this, outside the “my opponents are evil liars” bias you propose.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

I am increasingly under the suspicion that all value beliefs are downstream of factual beliefs; terminal values might not be all that different between people. It's like everyone wants a utopia, not a dystopia , (i.e. shared values) and simply disagree on what approach gets us there, and how close we can possibly get to it (i.e. different fact beliefs on like likelihood of various counterfactual scenarios following from each other)

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This was what was interesting about the phenomenon of "fake news" during the 2016 election, before that term was successfully hijacked by Donald Trump to mean "news stories I don't like." There was a wave of what looked like news articles, spread largely via Facebook, that were entirely fictitious. The people writing those "articles" were not journalists and were not trying to be journalists. They made up the stories out of a mix of rumor and complete fabrications, either for political purposes or just as click-bait (this has never been entirely clear to me).

It's unfortunate that the term "fake news" has been so thoroughly tainted, because the existence of those articles was genuinely noteworthy, and it's now harder to talk about them.

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I'm with you on the general point but I think you're being too charitable to InfoWars (and maybe others) in at least some examples.

Take the InfoWars birth certificate one: in addition to all the claims about layers and so on, it says "the document is a shoddily contrived hoax". That is a factual claim which is false. They offer support for that claim which isn't actually convincing, and the support they offer happens to be true but out of context, and I'm with you on calling the supporting evidence "not lies". But "the document is a shoddily contrived hoax" is in fact flatly false, and is asserted by the article itself, not just "someone said".

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> I don’t know why there’s the white border around stuff, I would guess “some kind of image processing something something”...

Yes, that often happens with a Sharpen filter. Sometimes scanners even do this sort of thing automatically.

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It is an interesting point of human psychology that even people deliberately setting out to deceive don't lie.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

> I was surprised to see that all their counterexamples seemed, to me, like the media signal-boosting true facts in a misleading way without making anything up at all. Clearly there’s some kind of disconnect here!

I think the disconnect is simple enough. It closely tracks the distinction between high and low decouplers. To wit, low decouplers reject the very distinction that Scott is making. To them, highly deceptive stories *just are* lying. They don't assign much weight to Scott's distinction between "making up facts" and presenting a badly deceptive narrative.

This could be because of cognitive-emotional deficits on the part of low decouplers. BUT it could also be because they are employing a mental model of the journalists producing the stories and the social institutions in which those journalists work, according to which Scott's distinction doesn't matter much.

FWIW: I strongly agree with Scott's ultimate point that there exists no clear and simple definition of "misinformation" and therefore no primitive action of "banning misinformation." I'm less supportive of the argument he uses to get there.

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When someone knows something to be true and seeks to hide it by emphasizing other things, I would consider that a lie. Sure, its a different kind of lie using avoidance to deceive, but still deceived. Its only a technicality the individual statements are true while the message is not.

"Among other common lies, we have the silent lie—the deception which one conveys by simply keeping still and concealing the truth. Many obstinate truth-mongers indulge in this dissipation, imagining that if they speak no lie, they lie not at all."


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I think an unexplored media environment where this heuristic might also hold is in celebrity magazines. In the past I've parroted sentiments along the lines of "Celebrity magazines just make up shitty gossip" despite never actually reading them myself. In all likelihood celebrity magazine journalists probably play the deference game to unreliable sources that you sketched out; it seems pretty unlikely that their editors would be telling them "Yeah just make up as much drama as you can."

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I didn't disagree with the original, per se. I just fundamentally don't think it's a useful exercise to draw a bright line between "lying" and "being flagrantly deceptive". I agree with the general point that disinformation is difficult or impossible to objectively define. But I don't think that, say, a news outlet repeating a flagrant lie told by an "expert source" uncritically is distinct from "lying" in any way that is important to me.

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I think I can fully agree to the final conclusion: Most people are just trying to reason under uncertainty. And failing, terribly.

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I think if the FBI reported no homicides investigated by Sandy Hook local police, because state police investigated it, and infowars characterized this as "FBI says no homicides in sandy hook", then that charactierization is false, a falsehood on infowars part. I could allow it wasn't an intentional lie at the time of reporting, but the minute someone tells them their error (surely someone told them?) and they do nothing to update the article, it's crossed the line into intentional dishonesty, i.e. lying.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

I've read through and agreed with both articles, but I think your point would be clearer if you went for something a bit less controversial.

https://books.google.com/books?id=5O0DAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false page 46.

Weekly World News - BAT BOY FOUND IN WEST VIRGINIA CAVE- Creature has huge eyes that can see in the ark and big ears the work like radar!

"Scientists claim to have found..."

"Dr. Ron Dillon says..."

"The scientist said..."

"Dillon refused to pinpoint the location of the cave..."

Dr. Ron Dillon, from what I can tell, has never existed, and the whole thing was made up by Weekly World News. However, if they had found an actual scientist named Dr. Ron Dillon to tell them all of this stuff and provide them with photos of questionable provenance depicting Bat Boy, they wouldn't actually be lying at all.

Fundamentally this article, like most articles these days, is written from the perspective of parroting a source's take. While some might consider this to be "spreading misinformation", that is not lying - The only actual fact the media is saying is true is that "somebody told us something". Whether you trust (or expect) the media to actually verify what its sources tell it is another story.

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There's an outright lie right now on the Washington Post homepage. A caption above a graph showing the inflation rate over time states, "Elevated prices coming down, annualized rate shows." The chart shows the current inflation rate is 7.1 percent, down from a high of around 9 percent. Elevated prices are not coming down at all. They just aren't elevating as fast anymore.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

I opened a thread on dsl: https://www.datasecretslox.com/index.php/topic,8430.0.html

People brought up several examples there. You can read the thread. One of the more famous examples was saying that Kyle Rittenhouse crossed state lines with a weapon. There are also a bunch of cases where the media says there's "no evidence" for something that has evidence.

Someone also brought up your own example of people "tested for drugs" when they were actually just asked if they used drugs. I would count that as an outright lie, even though you don't. I disagree that being asked if someone used drugs is a "test".

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In your last link roundup you included one describing how the International Bullitin of Atomic Scientists published a hitpiece "which they knew to be false at the time of publication" (and also fabricated an interview with two scientists they said they spoke to)

Is that a rare example of a straight-up lie, or are you making the argument that the media AND ONLY THE MEDIA always lies by careful omission, and things that aren't the media like IBAS will still sometimes lie in the classic way if they think they can get away with it?

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Even if your fine point about outright lies being rare is correct I am not sure that it justifies your views on censorship. The rise of the internet and forums such as this removed a large amount of material from the analysis that traditionally occurred prior to publication. So while infowars might not lie, its content is the source for many lies that are spread through unmoderated content. Having spent the pandemic swatting these lies on a site I had previously worked for I believe all forums should be moderated to remove direct lies. If the business cannot afford to do this that is their misfortune.

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How about Richard Landes's new book "Can the whole world be wrong?" about the many lies in the cognitive war against Israel (e.g. Muhammad Al Dura)

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At the time, I thought your original post was so obvious, I didn’t bother to read it. Apparently, there is a large contingent of readers who think the media is really that unsophisticated and, from the looks of it, this is heavily biased towards people who just assume right-wing media is outright lying all the time. Hopefully some folks update, because it’s important to see the obfuscation and misdirection at the level it’s actually occurring.

Anyway, my $0.02 is that the only outright lies I’ve encountered in the past few years (ex. “Matt Taibbi is a right wing conspiracy theorist”) get quietly fixed in the amount of time it takes for me to write an angry post calling them liars. I’m not sure what damage that might cause, but it’s questionable if it’s something worth staging a crusade against. The best argument against that stuff is that the media source should indicate they made errors. While I’d love to see that, I doubt I ever will and merely update my personal priors against that agency, hence I read no newspapers nor watch any televised new, but then again I’ve been riding the “don’t trust mainstream media” train since 1996.

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Scott's argument appears to be: so long as the media prints what someone tells them (presumably someone credible), then they cannot be doing anything wrong.

But that's not the role of media. The role of media is not to be the unquestioning sock puppets of experts, but to be critical and professional in their curation of what they disseminate.

MoonOfAlabama.org has a much larger list of "running out of missile" media statements: https://www.moonofalabama.org/2022/10/russia-having-run-out-of-missiles-launches-barrage-on-ukraine.html

This list is 25 different links from March 2022 to October 2022 - and there have been weekly or more frequently than weekly missile barrages in the several months since then.

I repeat the question: at what point does the mainstream media's unquestioning repetition of obviously wrong memes change from credible to credulous, or worse?

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Mar 19, 2023

I remember not being convinced by last week's post. I think I am now.

There's this quote from Paul Halmos: "A good stock of examples, as large as possible, is indispensable for a thorough understanding of any concept, and when I want to learn something new, I make it my first job to build one". He was talking about math, but I'm starting to think it isn't at all domain specific. Scott gave me 8 (adversarially generated) examples, and now I see the pattern.

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Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, the chistian bakers, James damore's memos. All reported in the forms of lies.

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Two points:

1. Maybe most of the straight-up lies are done verbally/on video. E.g. Fox News hosts saying things offhand. (Then you might miss them because you don't watch videos/TV, which, fair enough, but most people do.)

2. People could claim that the cherrypicking/context-missing is *as bad* as straight-up lying, due to the "we subconsciously think something is true when we hear it" effect + most people not thinking critically *at all* about most of what they see.

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I agree with your contention that the media -- even InfoWars -- tries desperately to be technically true and that any deception is almost always downstream of that.

For context, I have a much more positive view of the NYT than many people here. Still, I believe the NYT and InfoWars can both wield true facts to launder unstated but obviously implied conclusions.

Certainly there's still plenty of room to defend the NYT relative to InfoWars by debating the relative egregiousness of their behavior in embracing, interpreting, and spinning those true facts.

BUT I actually think you're ignoring a pretty important component of lying.

If I convey a bunch of true facts to you, knowing that you take them as a broader claim but I don't take even the slightest effort to clarify the scope of my assertion, then I would consider what I'm doing lying. And especially in the relationship between news author and reader, it is misleading to the point of lying if the author is holds back counterarguments/contrary facts that the author themselves find persuasive.

The reality is that InfoWars often publishes stories that its own authors believe are false. That is a form of lying. They are leading horses to water over and over again when they know the water isn't actually there. Meanwhile, I do think the NYT is very much sincere in believing the thrust of most of its articles. The NYT is leading itself to water as well. So it is not generally lying, or at least it is not telling readers lies that it doesn't believe.

InfoWars is lying when it leads readers to conclusions that it does not believe.

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I don't think most people are using "lying" to mean "make factual errors".

Because there's no doubt that the NYT regularly makes factual errors. They have a "Corrections" page (1) to show all the self-confessed factual errors they make every day. From a cursory glance these are both uncontroversial, ie the NYT themselves admit factual error, and occasionally important, ie the NYT exaggerating the number of children hospitalized by Covid by a factor of ~12x. (2)

And yet this doesn't, necessarily feel like lying. Good faith error happen all the time and there's an approved process for correcting them, which is publicly acknowledge your mistake and issue a correction. This happens all the time and, presuming the process is followed, usually without ill feelings. And, fair cop, props to the NYT for having this page. But there must be thousands of factual errors on the page over a year and yet I don't "think" anyone feels lied to about that. Maybe in edge cases, where incorrect information was left uncorrected for a year or more for partisan purposes, people feel lied to, but for 90%+ of the corrections on the NYT corrections page, those don't feel like "lies" and if anything they give the NYT more credibility, not less.

Simply put, I don't understand the difference between "lies" and "errors" in your framework. Because people get mad about "lies", at least in my experience they're pretty forgiving about "errors".

And, to lay my cards on the table and avoid the "view from nowhere" issue, I don't get the whole concept of this series. Are you proposing that there are good censors working for admirable purposes? That Infowars and the NYT don't know exactly what they're doing? Who exactly are these reasonable censors you think are making a good faith error? What evidence is there that "misinformation" is anything more than a fig leaf for ideological censorship?

(1) https://www.nytimes.com/section/corrections

(2) https://www.foxnews.com/media/new-york-times-massive-correction-covid-hospitalizations-children

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I think you're stretching a bit on some of these. The general point you made was fine, but you don't have to claim it applies to every single conspiracy theorist for it to be a valid perspective.

For example, on 5, the title of the article is "NEW OBAMA BIRTH CERTIFICATE IS A FORGERY". This statement is false, and intended to deceive; it's a lie. I believe Alex Jones knew it was false too.

The thing that makes this headline a lie even under your definition is that it makes a statement with certainty, where the evidence is tenuous and doesn't justify that certainty. If the headline was "WEIRD VISUAL ARTIFACTS IN OBAMA BIRTH CERTIFICATE: IS THIS A FORGERY?" then it would not be an outright lie, but that's not what they wrote.

I get that you are making a nuanced point about the low-level factual claims in the articles themselves. But I think the hyperbolic headlines are a big part of the problem here; the headline itself is making a claim of certainty about the interpretation of the facts in the article which is false, i.e. not supported by the evidence. (Consider how many people just read the headline of an article in their Facebook feed, or skim the lede.)

I can see a possible maximally nitpicky reading here of your original claim "Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false" because you think Alex Jones really believes the headline summary is true, in the same the sense that a person having a schizophrenic break can literally believe they are talking to God over 5G, and they are not lying when they make that statement because they believe it is true. However, I don't think that applies here; Alex Jones ('s lawyers) explicitly claimed he was lying about Sandy Hook in his court case; his defense was "Infowars Alex Jones is just a character, this stuff is made up, I wasn't really claiming this stuff is true, and no reasonable person would interpret this as a factual claim". This could just be a thing defense lawyers say, but I think it's likely he's knowingly lying in a bunch of these headlines, because it's profitable for him to print this stuff.

I think you'd have supported your argument better if you conceded the point where it's clearly (IMO) wrong, as a way of making it clear you're not claiming "the media NEVER lies", instead of your actual (and I believe useful) point "directionally, the media outright-lies way less than most people think". Your point is not weakened one bit by admitting that Alex Jones does indeed knowingly lie.

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1. Did you investigate lying by omission? That is when they don't report something a reasonable person might think is obviously newsworthy.

Lying by commission is one thing and maybe (just maybe) that is rare.

2. There was a Princeton PhD on whether the "mainstream" media is partisan, many years ago. This is a different question but perhaps it is related to yours. The way they investigated is by counting how often a media outlet mentions the name of the political party when someone in that party has been caught doing something bad. ("Republican senator Gidd caught lying about credential" versus "Senator Gidd caught lying about credential").

3. Btw, regarding perceptions on whether media lies - many ppl believe their side alone is the victim (regardless of which side that is). I found this very interesting. And told myself maybe that is how I should figure out what side I see as mine!

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So there's this psychology test where you give people a list of words like "ice", "cold", "snowman", "santa", "reindeers", etc. And then you ask them whether certain words appeared on the list. Did the word "santa" appear on the list? Yes. Did the word "apple" appear on the list? No. Did the word "winter" appear on the list?

If you ask a word that's semantically related to the words on the list, like "winter", people are more likely to incorrectly think that word appear on the list than semantically unrelated words like "apple".

I suspect this sort of phenomenon is happening with the comments Scott received. The commenters read a bunch of articles that all gesture towards a particular conspiracy theory, for example the idea that the democrats conspired to commit fraud so that they'd win the election. If you ask them whether any of the articles in that list contain a semantically related piece of content (e.g. in the list of articles you've read, is there an article that says "we've found direct proof that the democrats committed fraud to win the election"?), the commenters are more likely to incorrectly state "yes, in fact, the list does contain such an article!" than if you were to ask about a semantically unrelated piece of content (in the list of articles you've read, is there an article that says "rainbows consist of just various shades of the color green"?).

This effect is probably magnified by the fact that most people don't actually read the articles. They'll just read the headline. And furthermore they probably didn't read that headline isolated from any context. More likely, they encountered that headline in the context of "look at this brazenly lying article!"

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I don't entirely trust google (or other search engines) not to insert their own biases. Certainly they routinely fail to show me relevant articles that exist, but the obvious explanation is that they are giving me the lowest common denominator answer - whatever a semi-literate unilingual American would care about.

I also absolutely fail to trust newspapers to preserve the original version of their articles online, rather than revising them; I see this all the time, as new information is revealed. Sometimes the interesting (to me) material disappears in this process; sometimes OTOH the article replaces stock photos with pictures of the actual event reported. (i.e. accuracy and detail may go up or down.)

Your methods would not detect systematic biases against retaining and/or reporting the least honest articles, if any exist. I have no reason to believe that they do exist, but a better research method would collect articles as they are published, and run one's own indexing system over the resulting collection.

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The kernel of the "problem" is what do we mean by "the media" and what do we mean by "lying".

Alex Jones lost the defamation claims. "Defamation" has a particular legal meaning which one might equate with "lying" depending on what the definition of "lying" is.

Calling Jones part of "the media", to me, is like TV/entertainment wrestling a sport.

I'd suggest Umberto Eco's essay "the force of falsity" which can be found in his collection called "Serendipities", could be useful backdrop for discussing the relationship between "the media" and "mendacity".

PS are grocery store tabloids part of "the media" and does that change how Scott thinks about his assertion?

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5: White lines around black elements on the page is how sharpening works. It is often done when scanning.

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>You will always need to make judgment calls about which sources’ true facts are important vs. irrelevant, which sources’ studies are valid versus flawed, and which sources’ points that you don’t have good responses to are too annoying or conspiratorial to take seriously anyway.

That last category is doing __a lot__ of heavy lifting, both here and in the original Lies, Damned Lies, And The Media Which Does Not Make Them. I think there's some real inferential difference between "strictly technically did not claim an untrue thing" (which you've admirably demonstrated to my satisfaction and mirth, truth sure is stranger than fiction often) and "disregard the conclusion anyway, because Obvious Sanity Check". Remember when you wrote Heuristics That Almost Always Work? All of these have been *very popular* conspiracy theories/false conclusions endorsed by [vocal thousands...silent millions]. The fact that a good chunk of otherwise-mostly-sane-people can fall into these same gears-level malfunctions again and again...does not inspire much confidence in my own Sanity Check Rock! I'm reminded of the studies showing that education and intelligence seem to correlate *positively* with propensity-to-believe-conspiracies-or-other-false-beliefs. You do gesture at this a bit with the reference to old Motivated Reasoning post, but I think it really underlies a lot more than merits a mere throwaway. Combine that with a slippery top-level word like "lie" meaning different things to different people, and...well, of course confusion will abound.

(Which relatedly makes it interesting that none of the examples here are left-coded conspiracies/false beliefs. Selection bias?)

Finally, will echo that the #2 defense is really weak. My Sanity Check Rock says that "misheard a poll question in ways significantly outside close-phenome range" is itself pretty dubious. You've amended it to include a more-plausible defense, which I appreciate, but that really ought to have been the more intuitive solution first. We already know that the "with covid/by covid" distinction is challenging for many to parse; applying this in the opposite direction to vaccine adverse events seems eminently reasonable. (And this probably explains a lot of Long Covid stuff too.) I.e. it's a baserate error...bad things ever happen, sometimes they coincidentally occur near the event of a vaccination, and this is a totally true non-lying pattern in the data. It's the extrapolating from there that tends to get people in epistemic trouble.

Addendum to finally: less combative title would earn you some Charity Points. The actual body of the post is significantly less hostile, and you do the typical thing at the end of trying to make an olive-branchy conclusion of Everyone Is Right After All, Just In Unexpected Ways. One thing the news really does do is pair misleading clickbaity headlines with articles that sometimes literally say the exact opposite. I think this particular fallability is definitely easier for you to excise than, say, the NYT.

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Is there a point at which chains of deliberate misrepresentation become indistinguishable from outright fabrication? Like say there's a shady pollster that uses poor methods to obtain data and throws out results that don't fit their desired narrative. Then there's a shady conspiracy rag that cherry picks from these polls to establish the most extreme/clickbaity version of that narrative, trying it all together with lots of logical fallacies. Then some talking head reads that rag and decides to summarize it in an unscrupulous and reductionist manner on their news program. At the end of that chain you have a claim that is completely divorced from reality. Does it effectively matter that the lie has a paper trail? It's almost like a game of telephone where everyone deliberately shifts synonyms in and out until the result shares literally nothing in common with the original phrase.

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Somewhere i heard about a survey in Poland asking the question, "have you during the last year been decapitated" and 4% said yes

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

Without a doubt, the MSM does often propagate blatant falsehoods on the subject of intelligence research and the behavioral sciences. For example, the media will often characterize factual info on IQ as "pseudoscience" or as "debunked" when in fact the data is commonly accepted knowledge among experts. Not sure how much of this misinformation is due to ignorant blank slatism or deliberate mendacity though.

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I'm collecting examples from other people, will post ones that seem like real counterexamples as I get them. Here's one from recently: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/jsByfxvNA4x23stLY/a-letter-to-the-bulletin-of-atomic-scientists

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I used to have very low priors against conspiracy theories and so was willing to hear out the arguments at length and go back and forth for many weeks and months on a single theory. I would say my conspiracy theory expertise is in creationism and government conspiracies, especially ones involving either Catholicism or Judaism. And I'm okay on one's involving fluoridation, chemtrails, and GMOs etc.

One of my housemates was a senior when I was a freshman in college gave me the Adobe illustrator birth certificate shtick, and we went through it together. We downloaded the birth certificate, uploaded it to Adobe illustrator, and saw the weird things.

Then I went back to my day job where I was learning Adobe Illustrator. This is maybe 2 weeks later. And what do I find but that when I do this with any PDF, Illustrator renders it in the same janky way? Conspiracy dissolved.

I grew up surrounded by people who believed conspiracy theories, although none of those people were my parents. And I have to say that the fact that so few people know other people who believe conspiracy theories kind of bothers me. It's like their epistemic immune system has never really been at risk of infection. If your mind hasn't been very sick at least sometimes, how can you be sure you've developed decent priors this time?

Of course, this just all goes back to the dark matter beliefs of people in our outgroup. And the eternal question of where do good priors come from? How do some people's beliefs get so messed up?

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Maybe the technical point about lying is correct but it fails to address the broader problem of misinformation. This has been critical in the context if the pandemic. Proving that the toxic misinformation was not actual lying will not lower the deaths it was reposible for or protect us from the same or worse in rhe future. Censorship may be bad but unfortunately at times it is the least worst option......and really do you think the merchants of misinformation are actually worth defending on the basis of the technical definition of lying?

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I saw an interesting example of a media source lying earlier this year, albeit not (I think) intentionally.

First, the background. In the Budapest Memorandum, in 1994, the US, UK and Russia all agreed they would not invade Ukraine. They didn't commit to defend it if it were attacked: they just each promised that they, themselves, would not do so. Then, in 2020, Russia broke this agreement by invading Ukraine.

In the following months many, many media sources mentioned that the US and UK had made "security guarantees" to Ukraine. This is technically true, in that the US and UK had guaranteed that Ukraine was secure against any threat from them, but (I think) deliberately misleading, because it could also be taken to mean that they had guaranteed Ukraine's security from *other* threats, and were now required to join its war against Russia. The phrase "security guarantees" in media articles was used in such a manner that the true meaning wasn't clear, and the latter (false) interpretation was at least left possible, if not implied to be correct. Unsurprisingly, some people believed this to be the case: I saw video of one (non-journalist?) person heckling the UK PM, invoking this misinterpretation to claim that he was obliged to enter the war on the Ukrainian side.

Journalists are, of course, only human, and a large fraction of media output consists of rewrites and reinterpretations of articles from other journalists, simply because that's easier than looking up facts directly. And this, I think, led to the one case I saw of a media source stating flatly that the misinterpretation of the Budapest Memorandum, above, was correct. (I'm sorry for not having the original link to hand; downweight the reliability of this story appropriately.) The journalist had probably read a range of articles, had been fooled exactly the way the general public were being fooled, hadn't taken the time to look up the original text of the Memorandum, and presented this falsehood as fact. After all, the media wouldn't actually *lie* to them, right?

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Does Bayern have a well-known illuminati? That would explain why there's that big golden triangle with an eye on St. Josef's Church. (it's baroque, in case you're wondering about timeframe)

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>Censorship proponents imagine a world where “good sources” are doing something fundamentally different from “bad sources”; the good sources are going out in the world and reporting true facts, the bad sources are just making things up.

Well, no, not exactly. Censorship proponents imagine a world in which some people come to Approved Conclusions, and other people come to Unapproved Conclusions, and want to propagate the former and ban the latter. "Truth" doesn't enter into it, except that for them, "Approved Conclusions" and "Truth" are synonymous.

They're not interested in genuine truth. They just want narratives they consider dangerous, regardless of some hypothetical objective truth value, to be disallowed.

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If we are going to try to address this shouldn't we start with acknowledged falsehoods rather than running through anecdotes? Public newspapers offer retractions (on page 74, in small print) is there not some organization that tracks these so we can start with a baseline of how often a newspaper is forced to admit that they printed an outright untrue statement?

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Your followup article highlights that your original article was addressing the wrong question. As shown by so many of your examples above, there is always *someone* saying just about *anything* it's imaginable to say. So anyone who wants to lie without lying simply needs to find some X saying the lay and report "X says....". The problem is not the generation of misinformation but the *sourcing* of it.

I think the right way to assess news sources' reliability is to ask "how often do they report someone saying something false *without indicating that it is false*". I think you would find that our "quality" news sites do this far less than the conspiracy sites, and fox news is somewhere in the middle.

Actually there are two related question: how often do they fail to correct something false because *they* are misinformed (incompetent) and how often do they fail to correct something false when they actually know better (malicious). Distinguishing requires knowledge of the reporters' inner state, so is difficult.

You may argue that news should never publish statements they know to be false, but sometimes those statements are highly newsworthy---for example, the reporting on recent anti-semitic remarks by Ye and others would be much weaker if it couldn't say what those remarks are.

Note that this broader definition of "lying by quotation" is still much narrower than the approach on which you focus, of misleading with correct but incomplete information. Our traditional news sources do engage in that behavior, but it's a different problem than straight out lying (by quoting).

I do research on misinformation, and I believe the problem of sourcing requires far more attention. We should be working towards an ecosystem where every statement is attributed to an entity, and also where entities can indicate their agreement and disagreement with others' statements, all in a machine readable fashion, so that we can begin to build tools that can automate the process of a user asking "does anyone I trust assert, directly or through a chain of trust, that this statement is accurate?"

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

This seems like a post on "conflict theory" versus "error theory." Without getting into the minutia of what constitutes a lie, a belief, or other epistemological concerns, it seems like the most important measure of these models is "Which one makes better predictions?"

That is, is "These media actors systematically reports information in predictable ways to advance an agenda," lead to a better model than, "These media actors are relaying information to the best of their ability to construct an accurate model of the world, but through a biased lens from misaligned priors, cognitive dissonance, and other conceptual errors."

It seems like the former model will be vastly better in virtually any possible comparable arena.

I'm largely in favor of the same extensive liberal attitudes Scott is defending here, but I would consider, "We can't tell if people are ideologically biased or if they're intentionally disingenuous," to be a particularly weak point.

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I think the false Rolling Stone story a decade ago about the frat gang rape counts as the media explicitly lying, particularly as Rolling Stone is historically known for good fact checking (It is a plot point in the movie Almost Famous), however I think that counts as a "very rare" case and that Scott's claim is correct.

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This just seems like different definitions of lying.

Lying by omission is still lying.

If I go to a Dr because I think I have bladder cancer and am informed that I do not have bladder cancer but the Dr neglects to mention my lung cancer, that's a lie! This is how the media lies. And it does so in every industry (MMA, games, politics) and in almost every story.

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If you repeat a lie someone else said as a quote, are you lying? No, but only in the most "technically correct" sense. "Technically correct" is supposed to be the best kind of correct, but maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe "contextually correct" should be the best kind of correct and we should call instances like this lying-by-proxy.

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There's no denying that the media lies by omission and aligns the facts in misleading ways in order to construct narratives that are ultimately untrue.

So since this entire argument relies on the narrow distinction between "lying" and merely being "dishonest", a more succinct title would have been: The Media Rarely Strays From the Facts

But that headline isn't controversial and wouldn't drive nearly as much engagement now would it? 😏

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The most straightforward counterexample I can think of is the NBC manipulation of the George Zimmerman 911 call.

For example this:

"The 9-1-1 operator then asked: "OK, and this guy, is he black, white or Hispanic?", and Zimmerman answered, "He looks black."

was changed to: ""This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black."

In another segment they combined completely separate parts of the call to create an audio clip that presents him as saying ""This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something.

He's got his hand in his waistband, and he's a black male."

There was other bits of reporting from the major networks that appear to be closer to fraud than selective amplification or choosing what not to report. Enough so that in Twitter threads asking people how they got "red-pilled" person after person refers to the media response to the incident.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

Scott, I don't think what you're saying about the InfoWars example makes sense. Specifically (https://archives.infowars.com/new-obama-birth-certificate-is-a-forgery/). You say they are not directly lying because they are basing their statement - that the birth certificate is a hoax - on true, yet in truth irrelevant, observations.

My question is, what would directly lying even look like here, if this isn't it? The lie is in the headline - "New Obama Birth Certificate is a Forgery" - and the fact that the supporting 'evidence' has some basis in what one can observe looking at the image seems obvious, because if they said something like "it's a fake because of the bright red space alien in the margins" no one would believe them because no such alien exists.

If they weren't directly lying, they might have made the headline "New Obama Birth Certificate Shows Possible Signs of Being Fake" or something like that.

Another nit. "However, when the government released PDF is taken into the image editing program Adobe Illustrator, we discover a number of separate elements that reveal the document is not a single scan on paper..." This is effectively a lie. They may have been mistaken - misled by Illustrator guessing layers, thinking it was authoritative - but the fact that they have avoided issuing any correction at this point suggests to me that they are not merely telling misleading truths and making mistakes.

Some media - the NYT - may mislead far more often than it lies. But InfoWars? This seems to me to be what lying looks like.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

I agree with you that the media has a tendency to present facts that it wants to highlight and direct our focus on, but rarely does it present falsehoods in a clinical sense. But there is more to it. It is able to get quotes from authority figures that align with the way it wants us to think about the story. When it gets quotes from John Brennan and others that the Hunter Biden laptop is a Russian intelligence operation, it is encouraging us to place our trust in that authority figure. How about the media doing it's own digging and finding out? Getting a quote is easy, quick and gives the journalist a cover. Some honest journalist at a lowly rated website or a local paper may end up doing the digging, but he or she doesn't have the reach. The editors at mainstream papers should insist on their own journalists doing the digging instead of lazily getting quotes from authority figures opining freely.

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I think that this illustrates that the original question is much less clear cut and admits different interpretations that I would assume.

Consider an article that basically says "Because the sky is blue, we know that the sun is green." Does it lie? I would intuitively say yes, and yet I'd expect you to possibly say no based on examples in this article, because it provides correct facts and incorrect inferences from them. If there's a line of how ludicrous an inference has to be to be considered a lie, then that line is very much in the eye of the beholder, so will be _very_ thick.

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I think what a lot of the bad "misinformation" behavior feels like is what has been described as "writing the conclusion first" sort of approach. I don't think it makes sense to imagine that Infowars has the same kind of epistemological commitments that you do. It is just much more parsimonious to believe the site has an intentional stance of misinforming.

This is certainly a matter of degree and one doesn't have to look hard to find NYT content with a quite similar intentional stance. So it isn't like divvying the world up into sinners (believe the opposite of what they say) and saints (believe) is a winning strategy.

My view is that the best thing is for outlets/sites/people to be quite opinionated but to explain those priors and updates honestly. This feels also like it ought to be easy but of course turns out to be hard.

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Philosophical question: in real life, have almost *all* “lies” throughout history been technically true statements that merely omitted some crucial context? If so, then should we use the word “lie” only for technically false statements, or for that broader thing? And whichever choice you make: which word should we use for the other thing?

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Scott I just wanted to post that I agree with your definition of "lying" for the exact reasoning you describe. If you have a wishy washy definition of lying it lets people Russel conjugate with it. Sticking with a rigid definition, even one that might not cover everything you'd like it to, is the right call here.

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I can't speak for tony but this post rebuts something epistemically very different to what I'd be saying with his words.

When "the media" lies it isn't a shorthand for John A Journalist, human liar. (If that person were lying, it would be their lie, not "the media") An institution lies in a way that every human person involved is more or less telling the truth. Then you wake up in the morning and read the wrong news.

So when you look into 10 cases and say "actually in every case Jane B. Journalist was honestly bamboozled, instead of lying." It's a little like saying "actually in every case the tsunamis were caused by a tidal wave, instead of climate change." Or "actually in every case the applicants were denied due to criminal convictions, instead of racism." What you have discovered with the tidal wave is the end of a long mechanism through which climate change could operate. And so when you turn up the 10 bamboozlings you uncover a way that an institution could lie.

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The more interesting question is why you choose to use your space and time for this or that topic. And then compare your motivation to the actual, real-world impact of each post.

Why are you so determined that your readers know precisely how you feel about "trying to reason under uncertainty," while you remain intentionally disinterested in the overall impact of the piece, which is to minimize focus on malicious intent (on pedantic grounds), and to promote both-sides-ism? Why take up so much bandwidth for such small, misleading points? At best, it's suited to happy hour at a bar, where listeners could heartily agree that the Times and InfoWar exist on the same planet (which was your cutesy provocation here). It's Fox News' bread and butter: spending all their finite airtime on provocative perspectives based on magnifying small stances (like immigration or wokeness) beyond all reasonable recognition. As we all know by now, it's a good profit model in 2022 America, but that alone doesn't make it useful.

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To paraphrase Heinlein in Logic of Empire (and abut Hanlon elsewhere): They have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.

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You don't think headlines count? "FBI SAYS NO ONE KILLED AT SANDY HOOK" is an outright, complete lie. Even _if_ the main text then perhaps attempts to quote sources.

I know we're being trained by the media to assume that every headline everywhere is complete nonsense that we should ignore, but that doesn't really change anything.

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I haven't read all the comments, but I assume we're just debating whether willingly reporting obvious lies from others is the same as lying.

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Brilliant post. This bell needs to be rung with the biggest hammer and from the highest hill before it’s too late.

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I think many of the outright lies don't show up in news sources, they show up in facebook memes that start off on a page called "Patriot news" or something like that.

(I'm using a right wing Facebook page as an example here, since that's what I'm more familiar with, but I'm pretty sure this also applies to some non-journalist left wing twitter accounts, with a slightly different pattern.)

The meme says something like "WHY are we locking down the country and DESTROYING the ECONOMY for a virus that is LESS DEADLY than the FLU? LIKE and SHARE if you AGREE!"

Then it gets shared within an echo chamber of people who already believe that particular lie, and then people outside the echo chamber see it and are horrified at it.

Probably many of these posts are produced by people without better things to do, but some of them I believe are likely generated by bots. There's just too many of them, and some of the more formulaic ones make no sense, like the ones that have a picture of a nativity scene and the text "Facebook BANNED somebody for posting this. Are you BRAVE enough to LIKE and SHARE?"

In the past few years, Facebook puts a little "Fact-Checked: False" notification on top of or under some of the blatantly false posts. Which is

A) Could be considered censorship of a certain kind, which is bad on principle

B) More likely to make the people already sharing that post to dig their heels in and double down on the idea shared in the post.

C) now the people who posted it feel like they are being persecuted.

Great, exactly what the national discourse needed!

I've also heard family members who regularly share political memes tell me they've actually received short bans from facebook.

Sometimes, a post like "Donald Trump is Superman!" will get the little "fact-checked" badge on it, along with a little blurb that says "Donald Trump is not superman, according to experts" or something. Facebook seems to regularly fact-check things that are obviously right-wing political jokes, and not meant to be taken seriously. The most egregious example was when facebook put a link to vaccine information on a Babylon bee article called "Playgrounds these days are too safe" because the article happened to mention vaccines in passing. The fictional author of the satire piece complained that everybody is too scared to step outside their door without three vaccines, whereas back in HIS day playgrounds were coated in broken glass. Slightly critical of vaccine obsession? Yeah. Spreading misinformation? Not at all.

I think that the fact-checking that has been happening on Facebook, and possibly other social media sites, is actually making things worse by making people lose all trust in Facebook and the sources from which items are fact-checked. Who is going to believe the CDC if their logo appears as part of a fact-check below a babylon bee post?

The approach to "fake news" taken by social media sites and others who wish for fact checking or censorship is entirely counterproductive, in my opinion. I think if there's a bunch of lies going around, the problem is more fundamental than just righting some wrongs on facebook.

I am really curious about how conversations that take place on social media are different than the conversations that happen in-person. Usually, when I have an in-person conversation with somebody that I also follow on Facebook, they seem a lot more reasonable than the do online, although a few people I have talked to end up using meme-like talking points.

I realize at this point that this comment has strayed a little from the topic of the post, but I think it's related regarding arguments for censorship that really aren't solid.

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One distinction that's *really, really* important to make here is between article content and headlines. Yes, news articles themselves very rarely give outright lies. But headlines are a different story. For instance, the Obama birth certificate article you mentioned doesn't directly lie, but the headline "NEW OBAMA BIRTH CERTIFICATE IS A FORGERY" is an outright lie! Perhaps a lie motivated by honest skepticism, but nonetheless a lie. This applies to other media outlets like the NYT and Fox, not just infowars of course. There is strong incentive for headlines to optimize for clicks, and most people only read headlines, and never the main body of a given article (you can see this happen all the time on Twitter), so lies often spread in this way, even if the text of the articles are properly nuanced.

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I think the reaction to your articles is probably going to depend in part on whether people find the distinction useful. I personally do - I think it's good to know that I can read most articles and assume that it's telling me some true things, that I just need to watch out how it's worded and think seriously about what it's omitting. If I use "lying" to mean "is misleading by stretching the presented facts in particular way" *and* "is actually making up facts", and the concept actually merges in my head, then I would have to stop reading articles and couldn't use them as a source of any sort of information.

I'm reasonably sure the people who call both things "lying" are, however, still making that distinction in their head, they just don't find it useful to split out the word itself, because it *also* has the use that it can be used to warn someone away from a source, or condemn someone for bad journalism. One can certainly just say "bad journalism" (or "misleading") for it, but it doesn't pack quite the same punch, and I understand, to some degree, why people would want a word that hits harder for something that can indeed be deeply manipulative.

On net, it's probably valuable to warn more people about how misleading journalism often is. If they don't already know it, using the word "lying" is probably going to be more accessible to convey the magnitude of the problem. (On the flip side, you might make people outright paranoid and they might start to worry about the amount of actual baseline fabrications. My gut feelings says that's probably worse than getting someone to be well-calibrated about their media scepticism, mostly for reasons of social cohesion (if you think people are intentionally lying to your face on a regular basis, I'm reasonably sure it'll make you cynical), but I could be wrong about that.)

Anyway, to reiterate, I find the distinction between "being misleading" and "lying" useful in my model of the world. So thanks for sticking with the narrative!

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"However, when the government released PDF is taken into the image editing program Adobe Illustrator, we discover a number of separate elements that reveal the document is not a single scan on paper, as one might surmise."

This sentence is incorrect; those separate elements do not reveal the document to not be a single scan on paper.

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Thank you for writing this. I had previously thought that InfoWars & co did intentionally write unambiguous fiction, rather than publishing true things leading readers to incorrect conclusions. The distinction is important.

(Admittedly, this post did raise my estimation of the likelihood that some popular conspiracy theories are true, much like "The Control Group is Out of Control" made me less sure that pseudoscience was all false, and "The Cowpox of Doubt" made me less sure about fringe positions in general. I'd be interested in a general analysis of "how sure should we really be that the crazies are wrong?" and also "why is it so common for random false things to have convincing collections of evidence for them just lying around for anyone to gather and spread?", but I realize this may be a very broad topic.)

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I'm finding the conversation here and in the subreddit quite frustrating. However, it might be that Scott worded his article badly enough to generate this amount of disagreement or it might be that I am wrong in my interpretation of the articles.

Here is what I take from the two articles:

1. Censorship is extremely hard because separating those who intend to deceive from those who simply err is difficult to do in a rigorous way (i.e. rigorous as opposed to using "judgment calls")

2. This is because, counter-factually, censorship would be easy if bad actors in the media (a) plainly reported miss-truths. But they almost never do this. They instead (b) report true facts, selectively, and then draw inferences from those facts.

People responded with lots of examples of what they took to be (a) and this second post was Scott demonstrating that they were in fact examples of (b) all along (allowing for a few true examples of a)

How can we separate examples of (b) into the set of those intending to deceive and those who err. One way is to some how find out whether they they didn't really believe their stated inferences when they printed them. This seems very hard and I guess what long complicated liable cases look like?

We may discover communications that show the reporters in question selectively hid information in order to argue for a predetermined inference. However, this is also difficult as there then needs to be some standard of due diligence. That is, at what point is it considered misconduct to not seek or report the counter evidence? In fact we have already run into problems with this by tilting entirely the other way and having climate change deniers or homeopaths sit next to actual scientists in order to show "balance" which creates the perception of controversy or scientific disagreement when there is none.

So it seems to me the point of the article is well made. In summary, media censorship is hard because "lies", defined in a way that would make censorship work, would fail to capture all the things that in an ideal world we would wish to it to capture. Alternatively, we lack the means to censor "lies" when it is defined more broadly (and more comfortably) as the intention to deceive.

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I'm finding the conversation here and in the subreddit quite frustrating. However, it might be that Scott worded his article badly enough to generate this amount of disagreement or it might be that I am wrong in my interpretation of the articles.

Here is what I take from the two articles:

1. Censorship is extremely hard because separating those who intend to deceive from those who simply err is difficult to do in a rigorous way (i.e. rigorous as opposed to using "judgment calls")

2. This is because, counter-factually, censorship would be easy if bad actors in the media (a) plainly reported miss-truths. But they almost never do this. They instead (b) report true facts, selectively, and then draw inferences from those facts.

People responded with lots of examples of what they took to be (a) and this second post was Scott demonstrating that they were in fact examples of (b) all along (allowing for a few true examples of a)

How can we separate examples of (b) into the set of those intending to deceive and those who err. One way is to somehow find out whether they they didn't really believe their stated inferences when they printed them. This seems very hard and I guess what long complicated liable cases look like?

Another is discovering communications that show the reporters in question selectively hid information in order to argue for a predetermined inference. This is also problematic as there then needs to be some standard of due diligence. That is, at what point is it considered misconduct to not seek or report the counter evidence? In fact we have already run into problems with this by tilting entirely the other way and having climate change deniers or homeopaths sit next to actual scientists in order to show "balance" which creates the perception of controversy or scientific disagreement when there is none.

So it seems to me the point of the article is well made. In summary, media censorship is hard because "lies" defined in a way that would make censorship work, would fail to capture all the things that in an ideal world we would wish to it to capture. Alternatively, we lack the means to censor "lies" when it is defined more broadly (and more comfortably) as the intention to deceive.

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Not that I'm the first person to notice this, but when a newspaper has a strong ideological slant, they'll tend to take a nuanced, carefully researched article, and give it a title like "The Left Is LYING About X" or "Proof That Republicans Are WRONG About Y". They'll also often lie by omission or suggest something untrue through implication or innuendo.

So, yes, I agree that it's very hard to catch the media in an outright lie, and it's probably impossible to effectively regulate misinformation without throwing out the first amendment, and quite possibly ending up censoring perfectly true information the government doesn't like. I considered all this obvious but maybe that was overly optimistic of me.

I guess where I disagree is that there seems to be a false dichotomy here between "the media is literally telling lies" and "the media is just trying to reason under uncertainty." If someone deliberately tries to deceive me, I'm comfortable declaring them Evil and/or Dumb, even if no individual sentence can quite be technically considered a lie.

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Do people even make concert claims at all when talking sophist-icated?

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You started with "2020 stolen election".

Trump was the one that lead the stolen election claims, not the media. And Trump definitely told some outright lies about it. I documented a few of them, at the time:


Trump tweeted things like, "In Detroit, there are FAR MORE VOTES THAN PEOPLE. Nothing can be done to cure that giant scam. I win Michigan!"

(None of that was true)

Or: "The Great State of Michigan, with votes being far greater than the number of people who voted, cannot certify the election. The Democrats cheated big time, and got caught. A Republican WIN!"

(Also, not true)

Or: "In certain swing states, there were more votes than people who voted, and in big numbers. Does that not really matter? Stopping Poll Watchers, voting for unsuspecting people, fake ballots and so much more. Such egregious conduct. We will win!"

(Not true in any state)

There were a lot of other less obvious lies. Trump said that dead people voted. He pointed to vote dumps as big cities reported. He claimed that Dominion is running the election. None of that really held up if you looked into it, but it's not quite as easy to demonstrate that the claims were false.

I don't have a record of everything Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell said at press conferences. I would imagine you can find blatant lies in that, especially since they walked it all back in court because they didn't want to lie under oath. And then there was some kind of show hearing in Pennsylvania where people weren't under oath and made up whatever claims they wanted.

So, none of that is "the media lying", it's just Trump and his lawyers lying. Then the media repeated some parts of it and most conservatives jumped on board in believing the election was rigged in some more or less subtle way.

I'm not sure if there's archived video to search, but I would imagine I could also find outright lies about the election on Newsmax or OANN. I recall they brought Ron Watkins (the guy who is most likely Q) on as some kind of analyst talking about Dominion machines. I would guess that segment was less than truthful.

You're trying to argue that everyone just operates on confirmation bias and no one is "DUMB AND EVIL".

In Trump's case, it's easy to see that he is either EVIL, for blatantly lying about vote counts, or DUMB, for not knowing that he's lying about these.

And you can tell it's a pattern, because he said the same things when Ted Cruz beat him in Iowa.

I think there's a way in which rationalists act like useful idiots, when it comes to these things. Like, after Trump started calling the election fraudulent, we all just started crunching numbers to try to prove it one way or another.

But his game is just to frame what's being talked about. He wants to yell "STOLEN ELECTION!" enough times that dumb people believe that it was stolen. Working through the numbers and litigating the facts just shows that it's being discussed. People too dumb to follow the arguments just see that it's a valid question whether the election was stolen or not.

The same is probably true of your second claim about vaccine deaths. Debunking most anti-vax arguments is easy. But if you get enough people debating vaccine safety, a lot of people just notice that everyone's talking about vaccine safety, and therefore many people think vaccine safety is highly questionable.

The individual claims about vaccines range everywhere from outright fabrications, to intentional misinterpretation of data, to actual safety concerns. Every anti-vaxxer has a different strategy, many of the ones with largest audiences toe the line of allowed speech by finding suspicious but real datapoints or by "just asking questions" without explicitly stating things. Steve Kirsch is most definitely a bad faith actor, not someone who accidentally misinterpreted one poll about vaccine deaths.

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It's useful to ask what an information source sees its job as being. One job might be to inform me--to give me an accurate picture of the world. Another might be to give me enough background and context to put together my own accurate picture of the world, or to at least notice the shaky bits of their picture of the world. Another goal might be to entertain me. Another might be to flatter my prejudices. Another might be to convince me to do what they think I should do (vote the right way, get vaccinated, etc.). Another might be to show themselves to be on the right side of some set of issues to other people who are important to them.

I care a lot about the first two jobs, some about the third (more entertaining is better than less entertaining, all else equal) and consider the rest of those jobs as negatives--I'd rather have a news source that spends zero effort flattering my prejudices, convincing me to act as they think best, or signaling their position on the right side of history.

I am especially not interested in news sources that feel obliged to omit relevant information because it might have bad social effects--say, being unwilling to speak ill of Ukraine now that they're fighting a way against Russia.

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You write:

“I don’t worry about these questions too much *because I’m not a conspiracy theorist*. It seems much more likely that the FBI does its crime reports in a weird way, or that there’s some good explanation for the lack of trauma helicopters, than that the government faked an entire school shooting for some bizarre reason.

But this is a judgment call on my part (an obviously correct judgment call, but a judgment call nevertheless). *A crazy person* could see those same facts and decide it was more likely that the government faked a school shooting than that there would be a real school shooting that no trauma helicopters came to. I don’t know why they would think that, but empirically sometimes they do.“

Asserting that you made the judgment calls you did because you were neither 1) “a conspiracy theorist” nor 2) a “crazy person”.

How would we know either is true? How many conspiracy theorists think of themselves as “conspiracy theorists”? How many crazy people self identify as “crazy people”?

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I agree that the media tends to reports facts selectively and out of context rather than outright fabricating stuff. However, I don’t see a big difference between the two. One can take almost any sufficiently complicated story and report/interpret truthfully but selectively and out of context to get the message one wishes to get. I don’t think that the additional constraint “doesn’t make stuff up” would add much in terms of influencing readers in one direction or another.

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Interestingly enough, nobody mentioned the whole campaign of presenting Trump as "Russian asset" and treating every little detail in his behavior as a proof of that. Which, unlike Infowars, earned a special prosecutor and significantly influenced US politics.

My favorite in all that was a spectacular Alfabank story, where some "security researchers", some of them the same one tasked with security Trump's communications, worked with opposing campaign to concoct a narrative that Trump is secretly communicating with Russians, did use Trump's communication logs for it (which are supposed to be private but as far as I know no consequences for that egregious breach of professional ethics and privacy to anyone) and those logs showed some marketing spam from Trump org's domain going, among myriad other places, to some Alfabank-related servers (where it almost certainly was buried by spam filters, but maybe some annoyed Alfabank IT person actually read it before). Out of these, the conspiracy story was blown up and I still encountered references to it as a true story as late as end of 2021. Were any of the press outlets pushing this "lying" about the facts? They certainly published many false statements, but they could be likely attributed to opinions or quoting people that lied to them, or something like that. So, no lies here.

Or take the Biden laptop story. FBI knew it's genuine - they had it in their hands. When the New York Post story broke out, the press outlets that didn't treat it with deadly silence wrote that 9000 "intelligence sources" told them it bears "classic marks of Russian disinformation". Were they lying? Probably not - we now know that FBI/CIA/OGA/whatever other TLA led a campaign of "warning people against Russian disinformation" which strongly hinted and this particular story. But they didn't even name it directly! And certainly poor journalists couldn't know it's true when Other Government Agency tells them it's "classical marks"! And that maybe isn't a lie too - the story could be true but "look" like it's false, and if you say "it looks like it's false" while knowing it's true but not mentioning it - are you lying?

So (almost) nobody lied, and yet the truth was successfully hidden and the lie was successfully propagated. Funny how it works.

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I think I figured out my confusion. Scott says, “although the media is often deceptive and misleading, it very rarely makes up facts. Instead, it focuses on the (true) facts it wants you to think about, and ignores other true facts that contradict them or add context”. In doing so, he distinguishes between intentionally false facts and misleading articles containing true facts.

However, drawing on what others have said, there are more possibilities than these, and I found it helpful to think in terms of the following categories:

1. Knowingly false statements, i.e. lies. Scott is correct in my view to restrict the concept of the ‘lie’ to this category, and this accords with its traditional meaning. As a general point, it is often very difficult for a well-informed recipient to be sure that such a statement is a lie, because the recipient does not have direct access to the thoughts and beliefs of the speaker. An in-depth investigation into the speaker and their circumstances may be needed to decide that they were lying, e.g. a fraud investigation and trial.

2. Unintentional false statements, based on presented true evidence. Giving Infowars some benefit of the doubt, this seems to be what a lot of the articles cited by Scott amount to. The articles themselves contain a number of false statements (e.g. that Obama’s birth certificate is fake), as well as many true statements as ‘evidence’ (about white lines on a PDF etc), and it is plausible that the false statements are based on genuinely believed, if fanciful, inferences from the evidence. The blameworthiness of a statement in this category should depend partly on how negligent or reckless the person making it was.

3. Unintentional false statements, without presenting evidence. This is what you get if you state your false belief without presenting the evidence that led you to it, for reasons of space or otherwise. My impression is that this is the nature of a lot of what the mainstream media referred to as Trump’s ‘lies’. Trump would boldly state something false about immigration or election results in a speech or tweet; if he believed it (which I suspect he usually did) he wasn’t really lying.

4. Articles comprising entirely true statements that, due to selection and omission, together give a misleading impression. This is distinguished from the previous categories because it doesn’t involve saying anything that is explicitly false, e.g. an article that just presenting various statements along the lines of ‘Dr Expert says that Obama’s birth certificate looks suspicious’ or ‘Obama’s birth certificate shows up funny in Adobe Illustrator’ as opposed to headlining an article with a false statement that ‘Obama’s birth certificate is fake’. This is what we mean when we say that an article is misleading, even if it doesn’t contain any actual false statements.

I believe that Scott is correct that lies (category 1) are very rare in the media – both mainstream and Infowars-level ‘alternative’. 2 is more common, but moreso for something like Infowars than mainstream media. My impression is that 4 is common in mainstream media, and my initial feeling was that this might sometimes be worse than 2. Whereas the author of 2 is simply mistaken, 4 seems to imply that the author knows there is a false statement that they can’t make, and is scrupulously avoiding it, but still wants to lead the reader into believing a falsehood anyway.

I need to think more about how all this maps on to the concept of ‘misinformation’ or what it is feasible or desirable to ‘censor’.

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What's funny is the Weekly World News - the supermarket tabloid with headlines declaring Bigfoot had been found, and married to a local man's sister!; JFK was still alive, etc. - would pass muster under this analysis.

They always had sources report stories to them. Those sources were just batshit crazy. Their strategy was simply not to question them skeptically to poke holes in their story as an ordinary reporter/person would, but to encourage them - "Wow, really, a wedding; what was Bigfoot wearing?"

I don't mean to entirely dismiss the distinction you make. But in insisting that not a single story - not even one of the most egregious stories by the most irresponsible, disreputable, of barely-extant publications - is a lie, I think you try to prove too much.

In doing so, you retreat so far that you defend only a weak and emasculated position, not any of the broader or more meaningful points implicated by your piece.

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Do you disagree with the Texas Court of Appeals in its decision denying Alex Jones’s Motion to Dismiss?

“The April 22 broadcast contained direct false assertions of facts implying that the parents colluded in what Appellants cast as a hoax relating to the murder of their son, as well as a whirlwind of other statements that, according to Jones, ‘all tie[] together’ and relate to the shooting at Sandy Hook.”


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I would like to suggest that, in contemporary American English, "X Important Person On Our Team Says Y" means "Y Is Definitely True", the only difference being that the former includes a ceremonial formula that indicates the class and role of the institution. The "citing sources" formula is widely understood to mean, along with much other context, that the institution performing it has selected the most important facts for inclusion in the article, that they do meaningfully contribute to the article's conclusion and that the conclusion is therefore trustworthy.

That's all context that comes along with something being a news article. Nobody gets to write news articles apart from it. Most people understand the Fox article to be a truth claim about the election, not a truth claim about what specific thing Ron Paul did or didn't say. So that's what it means, and it is, in fact, a lie.

Correctly performing the ceremony of finding a source to say the lie they want to tell and citing it in official journalist language does give them official immunity from having lied. The official and the ceremonial are closely linked. But it doesn't give them any moral or reputational immunity.

Scott and the commenters agree about the moral and reputational cost these dishonest institutions should bear; it's really a disagreement about the semantics of the word "to lie".

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Thanks for responding publicly.

I still think you are missing many examples.

For the lying about the election:




I can find many more.

You are moving the goalposts in the comments, because now you are saying that making a factually false assertion doesn't count as lying being you might honestly believe it. But then what does count as lying? Any lie can simply be rebuffed by saying that the person telling honestly believed it. Even when the person themselves admits that they didn't believe it's, you say it's still possible that they weren't being honest when they admitted that they were intentionally lying.

Moreover, yes I agree the media frequently avoids "lying" by simply quoting someone else who is lying. I don't see why choosing to quote someone who you know is lying without saying that they are lying doesn't count as lying. You are conveying to people an assertion that is not true. That seems indistinguishable from lying.

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Some years ago I went to an actual conspiracy theory *convention*, in the Bay Area, and it’s interesting to think about how the cases were presented, unfiltered by external media, in the light of what Scott says.

The theories did mainly rely on making very unlikely inferences from misleadingly-contextualised true facts, rather than just inventing the evidence itself (at least, as far as I could tell).

There was obviously a whole bunch of completely made-up stuff, such as Barack Obama literally being Tutankhamen… but it was on the level of overarching narrative. They presented seemingly factual evidence - such as Obama appearing in the same photograph as a pyramid-shaped thing - and then extrapolated from them to insinuate or sometimes baldly claim fantastical happenings.

At one one point there was a photo of people in Dallas (supposedly) on the morning of the JFK assassination, and the speaker pointed to a blurry man who didn’t look particularly like George W Bush, and said “Here you can see the 17-year-old George W Bush”, who he then accused of murdering JFK for some complicated reason.

The extremely unpleasant Sandy Hook conspiracy woman put up photos of the kids killed at the school alongside photos of some child actors from 1980s (or maybe 90s) adverts who looked pretty different to me, and then just stated that they were the same children.

Where there might have been a lot of false evidence was in the 9/11 lecture and the “Israelis control the weather and use this power primarily to cause storms in the Caribbean for some reason” lecture, because those lectures absolutely avalanched us with often very technical data, which I had no way of assessing and couldn’t concentrate on anyway because it was so tedious. But my guess is that they were probably also not straightforwardly false.

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I wish you had at least commented on "Trump was scheming with the Russians in the 2016 election" hoax.

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Dec 30, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

I'm surprised there has been so much push back on this idea Scott, and the fact that it is non-trivial to find example of outright fabrication goes to show just how much fabrication is not the main problem. It also I think points to the fact that it is tempting to demonize the 'opposition' as evil, whereas the reality is far scarier; what you believe vs disbelieve is more predicated on you upbringing and social context than any kernel or morality or intellect.

I am fairly sure that had I been adopted by Trump-voting-antivax-NRA-members parents I would hold very different views and believe very different narratives.

What's even more interesting is that it is not that falsehood is just pushed one layer down. The sources media uses to push a narrative that suits them, are also, more often than not, themselves built upon mostly-true stuff.

It is mostly true (turtles) all the away down.

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I've been thinking this for years, and for this reason one of my defences against falling to misinformation is to read what the text literally says, and no more. To me, as a reader, the distinction between "claim X" and "person Y makes claim X" is significant, but I've always felt in a stark minority. Of course I would much prefer it if media (and others) didn't blindly regurgitate when "person Y makes claim X", but at least when it happens, I can avoid the trap of just reading "claim X". Thanks for writing this up.

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A neat explanation of why older people are less likely to changr their minds and why conspiracy theories are nigh impossible to convince: Bayesian reasoning is basically blockchain with how it's used in practice.

Start with a wrong prior, and if you update enough with the wrong kind of information, you'll start believing your chain of reasoning is longer and more established, and reject any information that doesn't build on top of your chain.

Providing an alternative explanation one link in the chain isn't enough because it doesn't invalidate all the other reasoning that has been built on top of it. You'd need a correct chain of reasoning as long as their entire incorrect chain of reasoning to be convincing enough.

That doesn't mean that conspiracy theoriests will add outright false evidence or incorrect reasoning to their chain, it still has to make sense, they just honestly don't believe in alternative interpretations because to them, their interpretation has already been justified a hundred times over.

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>(if a statistics expert wants to write a really comprehensive analysis of their results, I would be interested and maybe willing to publish it)

I was thinking of taking you up on this, but the appendix for reproducing their results is missing. (https://gofile.io/d/mHC6JX) Unfortunately, I can't find a mirror of this appendix. Does anyone have a copy? The SHA256 hash is fc1d9e17fc831e288609099e290f4d0152918f6365e7a602f7bd37dbe5347546.

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Two things on info wars

1. The main things Alex Jones was accused about in court were things he said on his show not articles on the website. He says more inflammatory and directly false things in the show. I think this is a general pattern, where people are less likely to directly lie in print because it's easier to get caught, and penalties are potentially higher (because it requires prenedirarion and you can't argue that you misspoke or were misunderstood).

2. On the article you give as an example, aren't they directly lying when they say he's a "school safety expert"? That's not a statement about what he calls himself, but a fact claim. Even though there's no official definition of the term the way there would be for say doctor that's still a deliberate lie.

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As i said in the previous post most propaganda is not telling you something, not investigating something, or not allowing discussion about something. How many Americans know the war in Yemen?

Even if US papers are telling the truth, they are certainly not telling the whole truth.

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Dec 30, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

I think the author of this article is operating under a fundamentally different definition of "lying" than I am, and perhaps an entirely different meaning of what language is.

Lying is making statements with the intention to deceive. It does not matter to me that the statements are "technically true" under some particular framing of the facts. The purpose of language is to communicate beliefs from one person to another.

Consider 3 parties: Alex, Bridget and Chad. Alex publishes a series of statements on mass media intended for Chad. Alex knows and intends that this message will convince Chad that Sandy Hook was a hoax. Bridget is a "fact checker" who independently observes the communications between Alex and Chad, and is able to squint and say, well, under certain assumptions and terminology, evaluating the list of statements individually Alex is technically not stating any incorrect facts. That is entirely besides the point!

Alex made statements with the intention to deceive, and KNEW that Chad would be deceived. Chad likewise received these statements and now believes that Sandy Hook is a hoax, as was intended!

This is lying. It doesn't matter if the lying is indirect, through misinterpreting statistics, or poorly worded questions on surveys. It is lying, and could potentially even be fraud, if innocent bystanders were harmed by the lie.

And in the Sandy Hook, Alex Jones case, the law agrees with my definition. Despite all of Alex Jones' prevarication on the stand, a court found Alex Jones and Infowars liable for his deceptions:

In August, a jury awarded Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages against Jones for spreading a conspiracy theory that the shooting was a hoax.

Lying is about intention, not about whether sentences parse to true under some particular framing. Making statements with the intention to deceive, which successfully deceives it's target audience is lying, regardless if some sort of semantic dissection of those statements can't find lies in the sub components if they are chopped up into sufficiently small sub statements.

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After reading a bunch of comments I am compelled to recommend this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the definition of lying: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/

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How does this NY Times article rank on the scale of intentional omissions to outright lying?

"Three officers pin Mr. Floyd facedown


Mr. Floyd began saying repeatedly that he could not breathe. "


Floyd said that he couldn't breathe earlier.

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I agree with the basic point that there is no clear cut line between media articles reporting what they perceive to be technically true and intentionally lying. Separating the wheat from the chaff is generally a difficult task (unless your truth is really boring). While I do subscribe to the belief in an objective reality, there is a big difference between capital-T Truth contained in math and nature (which can never be completely known to humans) and any common sense / consensus reality interpretation of neural signals received by some brain.

Suppose that you instead set out to prove that determining the perpetrators of homicides is in fact a hard task, and you start by claiming that people almost never murder other people.

Parts of the readership will probably start naming alleged murderers. Of course, for exactly none of them the claim "X is a murderer/murderess" will be a Truth, because no such claim about reality can ever be recognized as a Truth.

Mens rea (or intend) is impossible to Prove: one can never know precisely what goes on in another persons mind.

The physical act of killing is also impossible to Prove: strictly speaking, there is no pure causal relationship between a bullet leaving a gun barrel and entering a victims brain. After all, the bullet interacts with air molecules on its path in a way not precisely determined by the shooter and there is always some probability that the bullet will tunnel through the skull without interacting with the brain at all.

The unlawfulness of a killing is also impossible to Prove: even if we assume that the law is whatever the courts say it is, they may uphold different opinions at different times and a Truth can hardly be time-dependent.

Anything which was determined in any court proceedings can be quickly dismissed by pointing out that the prosecutor never Proved to your satisfaction that the court proceeding with all its findings and participants was not a figment of imagination of someone.

In the real world where courts determine lowercase-t truth, and claiming that you are innocent of murder because

a) you believed arsenic would not have adverse health effects

b) you did not tell your victim that the tea was fit for human consumption

c) you believed that the victim was immune due to them being a lizardperson

d) you believed you were assisting the victim's suicide

e) you had no reason to believe that an unknown substance in an unlabeled vial might be harmful

will not help very much (unless substantiated by some evidence pointing to another suspect).

Likewise, while nobody can Disprove the claim that Alex Jones is our fellow searcher for the Truth stumbling through the epistemic darkness of human existence, my common sense says that the court which ruled against him with regard to Sandy Hook might have been on the right track.

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I'm glad Scott is continuing to beat this drum. This article, along with the previous one, feel like the kind of classic 2014-era Scott articles that ought to be a genuine mindset-shift for a lot of people. The media really doesn't lie, at least when "lie" has the simple and plain definition of "something that isn't true". If you get into the murkier stuff like "lie of omission" or "lie of misrepresentation", then maybe, but those aren't really lies in the traditional sense; they're deceptions aimed at taking advantage of common human logical failures. Using innuendo and "expert opinion" (i.e. outsourcing lies to others) to paint a skewed version of reality is something that's omnipresent in the media. And this isn't even getting into the meta level stuff like abusing the availability heuristic every time the media reports on a mass shooting or a terrorist attack to paint them as far larger issues than they actually are.

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I think your articles are doing a good job in documenting how people actually do give a misleading impression using selectively chosen facts. Thanks for this!

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As a dedicated conspiracy aficionado, I've written quite a lot about this topic. (Links below)



In this case, I think it's most likely caused by confirmation bias. Journalism is not a neutral profession like it used to be: everybody has a partisan bias nowadays. This incentivizes them to view their own sides behavior very charitably while giving the least amount of charity to their opponents actions. So they THINK they're reporting the news in a fair and even-handed way but actually they are projecting their own interpretation and viewpoint onto the events.

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Scott, I remember an excellent old post from you on LessWrong where you dug into Cheerios' claim that

eating their cereal would lower cholesterol, and you called it "false and misleading advertising" and summarized the FDA's position as "Don't lie about cholesterol on your cereal box, please." It seems to me that, by the standards of this post, General Mills wasn't lying, they were just reporting what an extremely misleading study said, in a yet more misleading way. Fair?


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Thank you for putting so much work into this, Scott

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Top post of 2022. Just under the wire too!

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I agree. Basically, why lie when you can report a factoid. The problem is not outright fabrication, it's a failure to sanity check and/or contextualise. Readers, especially naïve readers, expect media "authorities" to be taking a neutral POV and to not be running an agenda. This is the system failure.

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Sailer has said for a long time that NYT doesn't outright lie, they just amplify the messages they want amplified.

How many true facts happen each day? Journalists decide each day which one to right about. I think a lot of it is decided by what fits the recent narrative.

Black on white murder? Derbyshire talks about it. White on Black? NYT's front page jam. Black on black... not a lot of attention. Too common to even make the news.

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This must have been a lot of research ... thanks for this interesting take.

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I agreed with the thrust of your original piece but I feel this response seriously undercuts it.

You've basically retreated to saying: the media doesn't say false things because they correctly cite other people who do say the false thing.

Ok, that is technically true but it also then kinda misses the whole point. Of COURSE the media doesn't claim (in it's factual reporting rather than editorials) to have first hand knowledge of most claims so they cite someone else.

Even when the first ammendment applies we don't accept that as a valid defense (on its own) to an accusation of defamation. So even in probably the most speech protective legal regime in the world we think it's possible to sufficiently distinguish good faith reporting of the news from negligent or purposeful spreading of false claims.

And that argument proves too much. I mean, it would suggest that merely putting "X says" in front of something makes it impossible to determine whether the author is implicitly endorsing what X says as credible or undermining them and that's clearly false.


I still fundamentally agree with the thrust of your original post which I took to be that it's a lot more complicated to distinguish misinformation from valid reporting than one might think. However, I don't think that just because someone doesn't say something in their own voice is a good argument for that claim.

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Let me lay out what I took the structure of your initial argument to be and thus why I don't see this as a compelling response.

Claim being argued against: There isn't any problem with social media companies banning misinformation because it's false information with no redeeming value and no useful information/args will be affected.


1) The media rarely engages in outright lying.

2) Therefore, any attempt to ban disinformation is going to have trouble banning only the false information.

Now that argument is relatively persuasive if one understand "outright lying" to mean publishing stories which can be clearly and easily seen to support a false claim.

However, you are now interpreting 1 to mean: doesn't make any cfalse claims directly in their own voice and only accurately quotes those who do.

But then 2 no longer follows. Yes, it's true that Infowars might always quote some 'expert' (often someone they have a disturbingly close relationship with) and cite them as the source but no one (not critics or supporters) doubts that they are putting forward that individual as credible.

I ultimately agree that the problem of distinguishing misinformation is real but the problem isn't that once the claim is made in someone else's voice it's impossible to tell whether the author is merely observing that someone said that or quoting it for the truth of what is being said.

The hard part is distinguishing degrees of belief. Ok, maybe I know an article means to question the certainty that COVID vaccines are safe and effective but how do you draw a line that allows claims saying that more rigorous safety testing was appropriate and those who imply that the vaccine is more likely to make you sick than better? Especially given the way partisanship influences how we read things.

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Agreed and endorsed.

Beyond the application to fighting misinformation, I think it's actually quite good news to confirm that media wrongdoing is almost always about wrong analysis and context around the raw facts, rather than the raw facts themselves being made up. It means we as readers have a fighting chance, by thinking hard about the raw facts themselves and by seeking more context and more analysis.

If the raw facts themselves really were routinely false, *then* we'd be in much deeper trouble!

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Man there's a lot of heat in these comments. Just chiming in to say that I really liked and enjoyed these two essays and they expanded my worldview

On an unrelated note: that Bohemian Grove photo looks uncannily like the settings for Season 2 Episode 1 of *Inside Job*, a humourous animated show with the premise "what if all conspiracy theories were true" by the creator of *Gravity Falls*. Alex Hirsch really knows his conspiracy theories. Great show, highly recommended

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Scott, I suspect you would have gotten less pushback if your post was titled

" The Media Frequently Misleads and Deceives, But Very Rarely Lies Outright"

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Scott, I've been thinking about this in the context of "what form of censorship could protect the truth, given that most lies are done by boosting true facts". And I had an idea!

Headline censorship. No, wait, hear me out. It's an obvious truth that few people have it in them to read the full article and instead what we have is a bunch of deceptive headlines floating around backed by technically true articles. So focus on the part of the iceberg that's sticking out of the water, because that's the part that hits ships. Put heavy censorship on headlines and article titles and first few sentence quotes. Get very strict with that shit and force them to be ambiguous. No "Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction" headline, only "Here is information relating to potential weapons of mass destruction in Iraq". Headlines are what are shared on social media, so crack down on those.

This is the censorship regime that will do something useful for the cause of truth. Work to defang headlines and maybe "first few sentence previews" and force people to actually read an article to know the lies it is telling. I really do think that could help.

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I believed you the first time around, even without checking your sources.

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I propose an alternate hypothesis for why people claimed these news stories contained direct lies: Brains performing involuntary error correction.

When an input approximately matches an expected pattern, human brains "correct" it to exactly match that pattern (as described in e.g. Surfing Uncertainty).

Across many arguments about board game rules, I've encountered a lot of people who seem either unwilling or unable to understand the "rules as written" (RAW). They will continue to insist that their preferred reading of the rules is NOT a guess at the intent, NOT a house rule to improve the game, but literally and precisely what the rules actually say. Even after I've diagrammed a syntax tree for the sentence to show that the grammar is unambiguous and can't be read that way.

I don't think the hypothesis of "they desperately want to believe there's a bright line between the good guys and the dumb/evil guys" really works for explaining the board game arguments. So my hypothesis is that their brain is "helpfully" "correcting" the "erroneous" input before it reaches the level of conscious awareness.

(This could probably be overcome if they actually paid attention to the fricking syntax tree, but many people seem to trust their gut impression over any formal analysis.)

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It's kind of mind-blowing that you need to explain this to soi-disant rationalists. Mathew 7:5 comes to mind.

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Was already sold on the first post, but I do think that at some point you have to draw a line between "honest misinterpretation" and "deliberately interpreting in the worst possible way".

A lot of the media on both sides frequently do the latter. It may not technically be a lie, but it is extremely dishonest.

It's like saying "My IQ is 140" based on some stupid online test you took, despite having taken actual IQ tests since then and getting a much lower. Or saying "my penis is 11 inches" because you manoeveured the ruler in some insane way to make it look that way.

In both cases you are purposefully misinterpretating or ignoring information to favour your desired narrative. That may not technically be lying, but it should be viewed on the same footing!

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>In order to find people who were saying this when it wasn’t true, I restricted my Google search to articles from before June 1 2020.

>These articles were written before COVID had spread very far in the United States, and were right that it had (thus far) killed far fewer people than the flu that year.

This seems like a restriction you created yourself. Why would you cut off July through December, after COVID got rolling and before the vaccines came out?

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People saying true facts in out-of-context misleading ways seems like an attempt to deceive.

From Oxford:




(of a person) cause (someone) to believe something that is not true, typically in order to gain some personal advantage.

"I didn't intend to deceive people into thinking it was French champagne"









take in






lead on













rip off




pull a fast one on

pull someone's leg

take for a ride

throw dust in someone's eyes

put one over on

take to the cleaners



sell a pup to







pull a swifty o

be disloyal to

be untrue to

be inconstant to

cheat on



break one's promise to

play someone false


let down

I didn't see lie.

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Dec 30, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

Regarding what I understand as your main point, the practical aspect of "censorship": you seem to be taking as grunted that only blunt and easily falsifiable factual claims can be used to objectively distinguish "real news" and "fake news", and all other kind of deceiving stand on equal footing in the sense that their identification requires personal judgment calls.

I strongly disagree.

For example, in many cases (probably most), it's not too difficult to objectively decide whether a news-item: (A) promotes a certain claim (either directly or by-proxy, either implicitly or explicitly), (B) omits or strongly downplay some well-known trustworthy facts that change the entire story (either deliberately or by negligence, doesn't matter).

Such a news item can be comfortably labeled as "fake news". Is this a watertight scheme? Of course not, especially not when evaluated per-item. But we don't have to censor individual news-items. Instead, we may identify sources with high-rate of "fake-news" according to criteria of this sort, and silence them. This could be quite robust.

While such a system will still allow deceiving and misleading (obviously), it can be argued (and I think it's true) that it will significantly tone down the amount of harmful and overt bullshit tainting the public discourse.

Anyway, my point is not to suggest some kind of a specific mechanism to fight fake-news, but to point out that you in-fact made no effort to show that such a mechanism is impossible, just straight-out jumped to this conclusion (which I believe to be wrong).

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I just want to point out that the nitpicks point you’re making doesn’t actually matter for the argument you’re having with most censors and media critics. I don’t think their definition of a “lie” is the same as yours. So when you point out that they can’t just censor “lies” (as you’ve defined them), they can respond “but that’s not the kind of lie I had in mind - I meant the kind of misinformation that requires only the most obvious, commonsense context sensitivity to label as a falsehood.”

The real argument is over how often there is such a thing as “obvious, commonsense context sensitivity” that we can trust censors to police on our behalf. It’s not easy to decide. You ban trolls here fairly often, even though their infractions are often just using words in ways that seem offputting. But you trust yourself enough to distinguish between subtleties of tone and decide who’s arguing in bad faith.

It’s fine to make the nitpicks point you’ve made, and I agree it’s true. I just think it’s mostly irrelevant to your argument about censorship at best, or a weakman/strawman at worst.

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I think infowars makes a clearly false claim here " Moreover, the document contains text, numbers, and lines with suspicious white borders indicating these items were pasted from the original scan and dropped over a background image of green paper." If they claimed "The document contains text, numbers, and lines with white borders" then that would be a fact. But the claim is that *these white borders are (a) suspicious and (b) indicate that these items were pasted from the original scan and dropped over a background image of green paper.* This is false. They are not making a claim about a fact, and then saying that they are interpreting it in some way. They are making a claim that their interpretation is correct, and that is also a factual statement. It can be falsified by scanning a document on a similar machine and looking at the results: if they appear even fr a document you know is real then their claim is false.

Int he same way this statement is false "However, when the government released PDF is taken into the image editing program Adobe Illustrator, we discover a number of separate elements that reveal the document is not a single scan on paper, as one might surmise. " The claim is that *a number of separate elements reveal the document is not a single scan on paper*. But the separate elements are a result of, as you say Adobe grouping elements together. So they made Infowars is making a verifiable, factual claim, that is incorrect. I don't see any difference in status between the two claims *we discover a number of separate elements* which you are calling a fact and *this reveals that the document is not a single scan on paper* which you appear to be saying is not a fact. Both are falsifiable claims about the world.

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FWIW, I like and agree with both articles. For the simple reason than outright easily checkable lies are less effective at misleading people than shading or misrepresenting (partial) truths.

One thing I would push back on is that the media doesn't know what it is doing. "They're honestly just failing at reasoning". For the most part, I suspect the answer is "not really". Fox knows it's misrepresenting facts and, furthermore, that doing so will generate the lie in its viewers' minds without them having to completely spell it out and actually lie.

I'm still not entirely sure as to why they are doing it. Is Murdoch a true believer? Certainly, he found it profitable to exploit older people's fears and sell ads about gold coins and adult diapers. Certainly, he's a conservatively-minded person. But I kinda be surprised if he really believed the election was stolen, the vaccine was more dangerous than COVID etc etc.

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All Things Re-Considered by Peter Boghossian does a lot to refute your premise. I cannot think of any topic more than Climate Change that has been completely lied about more where political science has replaced actual science. As a 30 year Washington Post and NY Times reader, I have a hard time reading these publications now. Granted, what is not reported versus what is reported is large problem but there is an overall loss of trust in the media and claiming the media is not lying is simply BS.

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Depressingly, a lot of people seem to interpret articles as one-dimensional expressions of positive or negative valence, rather than reading the claims they're actually making. So they interpreted your article as "Media good!" (even though you made a point of clarifying that wasn't what you meant) and felt obliged to reply "No, media bad!"

(I think the same happened with your "still crying wolf" article about Trump: people misread it as "Trump good!", so every time Trump did anything bad, they contacted you saying "No, see, you're wrong: Trump bad!")

Of course, it's no coincidence that the people who misread your article as saying "Media good!" interpret media articles in a similarly one-dimensional way, so will give them as examples of the media lying even when they're not.

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The basic take-away on both your original claim and the pushback you received is, once again, that nobody actually reads the article but only headline or - more likely - headline "vibes".

On Iraq in particular, I recommend Robert Jervis "Why Intelligence Fails" - a summary of the post-mortem he conducted for the CIA after the Iraq debacle. He concludes, quite sensibly, that the intelligence community was actually not wrong to arrive at its conclusions based on the data available (indeed the conclusions were shared by most foreign intelligence agencies) but that it failed to adequately question the likely explanations for its conclusions and then appropriately convey the level of uncertainty (which was high) to policy makers.

Understanding the world is harder than most angry folks on the internet think.

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This was a thoughtful and interesting article, full of uncomfortable facts. So of course it's getting ratio'd. For what it's worth, I have done some research like this in the past, and just like you, I kept finding sources and data that seemed incredibly unlikely to be true, but which I could not in good faith absolutely classify as a lie.

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In the age of AI generated content, anyone who has access to the resources could produced enough generated information to make a false narrative appear true. Especially, when that content comes from an authority figure, who produces data the average person can't verify themselves. Then you have an army of deceived people doing the rest of the work for the propagandist.

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It's is useful to draw attention to the use of factual information to lead people to false conclusions. This is the heart of disinformation, which need not itself be false to spread falsehoods. This is a major limitation of "fact checking".

Nevertheless, I do think that we're playing a bit of a semantic game. The concept of lying absolutely covers lies of omission, where you say something that is entirely true but omits a key fact. That still counts as lying if you do it in order to deceive, which is why in court you swear to tell not just the truth but the WHOLE truth.

The key for perjury, though, is intent, and so when we say "Alex Jones is lying" or "the New York Times is lying", we're making a claim about their INTENTIONS when they omit important information in their strictly factual reporting. Maybe that's unfair but when a particular person or sourc exhibits a pattern of behavior, it's both fairly reasonable and totally inevitable.

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This all seems right. It is one of the reasons I've stopped paying attention to the news. As with many things it looks to me like the feedback loop is acting on the wrong variable. News is now about entertainment and getting you to come back for more. We are not consumers of news now, but the thing that is sold to advertisers. Eyeballs and clicks. I think substack may be one way to make this better. We need to pay for our news and then we can ask the news service to do it 'right'. I will observe that Elon opened the twitter files to two people on substack. Maybe that is a better future for the news?

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I think judging Infowars by its text articles alone is a misstep. Articles are long, take time to write, and pass through editors, so it's no surprise that they're dutiful in hedging their sentences and bucking responsibility to patsy secondary sources. But catch Alex live on air and within ten minutes you'll hear him say he personally witnessed Joe Biden eating a baby or something.

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Given your top examples of reporting what Rand Paul says and an obviously unreliable poll I think you're setting the bar extremely high for what constitutes lying. Remember the gag in Futurama about technically correct being the best form of correct, well the joke is that it's not best. Selecting what is published and how are as important as simple textual analysis in assessing the media. You are absolutely right that media rarely says things outright false but is that an important thing to be right about?

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Has somebody who actually understands this stuff gone on a deep-dive into what we know about Russian missile stocks and usage rates?

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I think that if the conclusion (the censorship/misinformation problem) was at the top, and people read the original argument with that framing in mind, then there may not have been so much debate over the definition of “lying” used here.

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My favorite example is NPR's rebunking of the Steele Dossier, particualrly the Prague Meeting.

The claim was that Trump Guy met Russian Guy in Prague.

It turned out that:

Trump Guy did NOT meet Russian Guy in Prague.

Trump Guy did NOT meet Russian Guy in any other place at any other time ever.

Trump Guy had never been to Prague.

NPR went on to say the the Prague story was "generally true." You see, other Trump-associated people HAVE met with other Russians, and some of those meetings have taken place in other European cities! So the story is generally true, just in error in some particular details.

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One lens is that bias is a spectrum, rather than a binary (lying vs. not lying). All reporters are human, so all reporters have bias. Totally agreed that most of the bias comes from selective coverage (picking what to cover and what to highlight), and this bias is often unintentional. Things are further down on the bias spectrum when someone is setting aside journalistic standards to find facts that support a narrative.

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Just seems like repeatedly misleading over and over is lying.

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You are correct about this. You were before and you still are now.

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I want to add my voice in support of Scott. I didn't answer to the first post, because his conclusion was obvious. At first, I was also confused why Scott would make that technical point. Only at the end of the article I understood that he was talking about censorship. I was almost appalled about how many people did not share or understood Scott's point - again, I believe it's about censorship.

What I would like to add to the mix is Solzhenitsyn's Commencement Address to Harvard University "A WORLD SPLIT APART" from 1978: https://www.solzhenitsyncenter.org/a-world-split-apart

Even back then he argued that the West was devolving into a purely legalistic system, including the media. He argues for moral responsibility and obligations that go beyond rights.

I think it is a very good point and the same as Scott's: The media are not legally lying, but we (should) expect more than that.

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I think the reason there is controversy here is that some people think you are trying to tell people how to decide whether to believe the message of an article, when you are really trying to tell people how to design a censoring procedure.

You have defined lying as “making false statements”, which is reasonable, but others have defined lying as “making statements with intent to deceive”, which is also reasonable. The distinction is not really relevant if you are reading an article and trying to decide whether or not to believe it’s message, but it’s very important if you are trying to design a censoring procedure. By your definition, you can’t censor anything because the articles don’t meet the definition of lying, and by the other definition, you can’t censor anything because the procedure for determining if it’s lies is too onerous, since you can’t determine is solely from the text of the article, nor even from omniscient knowledge about everything outside of the author’s mind.

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Dec 30, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

You checked on Republican misinformation. You should also check Democrat misinformation. See if you can find a media outlet claiming that the Earth is doomed if we do nothing about climate change before 2100, or that sea level rise could flood our coastal cities by 2100, or that American police officers are more likely to shoot a black suspect than a white suspect, or that Republicans are more racist than Democrats, or that--wait, here's one: "Trump said Mexicans are rapists".

The "Trump said Mexicans are rapists" lie is, I think, a clear case where reporting can be both literally true and a lie. Trump said, of illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border, "They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He literally said "They're rapists", but it's obvious that his intent was to say that /some/ illegal immigrants are rapists.

If you quoted Trump directly: 'Trump said, of illegal immigrants from Mexico, "They're rapists" ', you could at least claim to be technically telling the truth. But if you write "Trump said Mexicans are rapists", that is a lie, because by writing a summary rather than a quote, you're claiming that Trump said something equivalent to what /you/ would mean by the statement "Mexicans are rapists," rather than equivalent to what someone would mean who, like Trump, can only hold so many words in his head before he must blurt them out, relying on his listeners to supply the necessary contextual details.

A more-marginal case was in the recent Johnny Depp trial, which Depp won largely on the basis of audio recordings he'd made of his fights with Amber Heard. One exchange went something like this:

Heard: "So you say that you, a man, were abused by me, a woman?"

Depp: "Yes."

Heard: "Who do you think's going to believe you?"

Conservative media reported the entire exchange. Radical media outlets omitted the last line, changing the story from "Heard tells Depp nobody will believe his claims because he's male" to "This stupid privileged male Depp claims he was abused by a woman."

This is technically a case of "not lying, but omitting"; but it's like quoting someone who said "I am not a Marxist" as having said "I am... a Marxist". It's like quoting a comedian's joke but leaving out the punchline to make him look like an idiot. It's an omission which deliberately changes the meaning of the entire content. This isn't misleading by omission, which I think characterizes Scott's examples in the post; but deception by omission. There's no sharp boundary between the two, but there's rarely a sharp boundary between any two similar categories. I think we must still attempt to make the distinction, for as long as we're limited to unquantified human language.

TL;DR: Whether or not a statement is a lie depends not only on the syntax and semantics of a statement, but also on its pragmatics. Pragmatics IS PART OF LANGUAGE. It's lying to make a claim whose literal semantic interpretation is correct, but whose culture-specific pragmatic interpretation is false.

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When someone says "because of the white lines around the print, this birth certificate is fake" they aren't only making a claim about the lines being there, but also about this fact affecting the probability of the birth certificate being fake. They are making a claim about P(A|B) being high(er), with A = "birth certificate is fake" and B = "white lines on a scan of the birth certificate".

By the subtitle of your blog, they claim that [P(A)*P(B|A)]/P(B) is high. If we slightly change it to P(A) * [P(B|A/P(B)], we have two parts: the prior P(A) and the evidence P(B|A)/P(B). If your P(A) is already very high, you can have A and B to be completely uncorrelated (i.e. evidence close to 1) and your original claim is true. However, this would be the classical Motte and Bailey: the implication is clearly that the evidence makes the term true, not the prior belief, otherwise why bring up the evidence at all?

So the claim has to be that P(B|A)/P(B) is high. This is an empirical claim, though obviously not as easily testable as a simple "true/false". Still, "most fake birth certificate have white lines around print" is an empty claim, not supported by anything in the article, neither is it clear how common are the white lines in general. You might not define it as a lie, but it isn't truth either.

This all is the basic Bayesian approach which you wield very effectively in so many other articles. I'm not sure why you fail to do that here.

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I worked as a print journalist for 10 years, at the Boston Globe and Seattle Times. My late wife also was a print journalist, and worked for the NY Times for a few years. Mainstream orgs like the Times and Globe work very hard to expose the truth, that is their stock in trade, and without that they are nothing. Journalists as group are extremely focused on telling truth to power, and exposing corruption and systems in our culture that are broken.

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Very rivetting and thought-provoking piece, well done! I'm sure it will cause quite the debate..

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The evidence of the media of the mainstream, in any form, being a place of real journalism, is very misleading....VERY....The amount of BS and hype over the vax and PLAN-Demic alone when compared to the MASSIVE numbers of dead and injured from the SAFE inoculations (that destroy people's immune system) is DEAD CLEAR evidence that the mainstream media outlets are nothing but mouth pieces for the global elite that own them....The amount of good science now available, not to mention expert testimonials of scores of the best doctors and scientists in the world that goes completely counter-current to what the media has been blabbing all along is MASSIVE.

To believe that mainstream media in any form is authentic journalism suggests the Per Aeternus archetype strongly at play in my opinion.... For those not familiar with the Per Aeternus archetype, it is probably a very good time to watch this video while thinking about what is going on in the world right now! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9A7GTGSfrIU

Much chi,

Paul Chek

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The problem with labeling half-truths as "conspiracy theories" is that often the purveyors are trying to present the information legacy media has been left out of a story because it doesn't match the reporter's (or their editor's) politics. I used to be a reporter at the local level. Loved the job, didn't make a lot of money. I quit when we got a new editor who heavily edited several of my articles because I included the opinions (possibly facts) of local residents who challenged the official account of some news items. He said they were wrong and I should stop reporting in a balanced fashion (not his words, but the intent of his words was clear). Being a small town, there was no competition and being pre-internet, I had no way of setting up an alternate source, so I found another job, not in the media field. We still get unbalanced news, but at least I'm not a part of it.

So, you're right. Media doesn't outright lie, but they leave out or emphasize only the parts they agree with, which amounts to their consumers being ignorant of the full facts, which is more or less the state we find ourselves in after we've been lied to.

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I generally agree with your thesis here. I did want to present a possible counterexample that came to mind for me when reflecting on the ACX survey, though.

The way I remember it, sometime back in the before-times, then-President Trump made some statement about how NASA moon missions were only a part of a broader strategy to get to Mars. The entire media went nuts with excitement, seemingly certain that Trump had actually made the ridiculous claim that the Moon and Mars were physically connected or something, and went to great lengths to "debunk" that claim.

First relevant example from Google: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/07/trump-moon-is-part-of-mars-tweet-nasa

In that particular example, the author is indeed mostly reporting from a real Tweet that the real @realDonaldTrump really made in reality. But their lede doesn't quote it accurately, incorrectly summarizing it as "Trump announced that the moon is a part of Mars" without much context or summarization, but you could charitably call that a misunderstanding on the part of the author. Similarly, the headline ("...claims the moon is 'a part' of Mars") is awfully inaccurate, but maaaaybe a legitimate misunderstanding in the author's mind?

But the fact that the subheadline (correctly) explains that Trump said NASA should focus on the Moon as opposed to Mars, and a later paragraph near the end of the article does eventually speculate that "[t]there is a possibility ​Trump’s tweet was a comment on Nasa’s [sic] broader plan to eventually travel to Mars from the moon," which sure suggests to me that the author understood perfectly well what Trump was actually saying, and deliberately chose to misrepresent it in order to make Trump look extra dumb. (And what's the point of that, really? Does Donald Trump really need any help in looking dumb??)

I suppose you could defend it as being an obvious joke directed at readers who also understand perfectly well what Trump was actually saying instead of literal reporting, but I don't now. It sure looks like awfully un-truthy reporting to me, and in a way that goes a bit beyond selectively reporting true facts.

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I notice you have cherry-picked examples to support a one-sided argument; I no longer have any faith in you to be fair and non-partisan. I mean never mind about claims about the 2020 U.S. presidential election being stolen, what about claims that the 2016 U.S. presidential election being stolen? Shouldn't you discuss both claims equally?

Additionally; I myself have been, over the past few decades in my own country, been present at political speeches and rallies in my own country and observed most of the news media provide nothing but lies instead any actual news reporting. That's why when a conservative politician, or any off-narrative politician, makes a speech in recent years; there usually no transcript provided in newspapers and the broadcast media will usually show 15 seconds of the speech and 15 minutes of analysis by "experts". That's assuming that such a speech is mentioned at all!

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Dec 30, 2022·edited Dec 30, 2022

This is a lovely realtime example of misinformation contagion in journalism, which may itself contain misinfo since I haven't verified it: https://www.calmdownben.com/p/romanian-cops-did-not-find-andrew

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One of the best aspects of this blog is that it almost always manages to be specific and precise without being pedantic, but unfortunately this line of reasoning is incredibly pedantic. And I'm confused why you're expending so much effort dying on this silly hill?

Yes, we get that it's technically not a "lie" if an article correctly reports that someone else has said some obviously wrong thing. But that's like saying that Madoff is technically not a thief because ponzis are schemes/frauds which is different than outright thievery. This narrows the definition of "lying" to such specific criteria that almost any entity could get away with "not lying" if they were just careful enough to attribute the assertions to someone else.

If Trump repeating "some people are saying [thing he obviously totally made up, but someone in the world has probably said at some point]" unequivocally fails your test for lying, then your criteria for lying kind of blows.


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Scott's standard of "lie" here appears to mean "a person such as Scott can quickly figure out *that anyone else can figure out* the report was made up out of thin air".

I think two understated sources of controversy are:

-The standard meaning of "lie" does not require easy falsifiability.

-If content is falsifiable via the common sense of someone that's 98th percentile in gullibility and political bias, that content is unlikely to spread in the first place. Content moderation debates generally refer to content that gets engagement, requiring that at least some of the population is unable or unwilling to notice errors.

If the assertion is that no media org- even InfoWars- frequently makes lies that require digging or mind-reading to disprove, I think Scott has failed to prove this.

If the assertion is that no media org- even InfoWars- frequently makes lies that nobody could believe, then this is a much narrower claim and the title of the essays are misleading.

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