How Do We Know What’s True? A major problem of our time

What brought this community together back in July of 2017 [under the name of What Now?] was our search for the truth about Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar and his organisation, Rigpa. So it seems fitting that my first post after a period of silence is on the topic of truth, albeit in a more general application. Anyone who uses the internet has likely been touched by the avalanche of misinformation, outright lies and conspiracy theories, so much of this post won’t be news to you, but I have included copious links to some excellent articles that are well worth a read if you want the full grubby picture.

You may have noticed that the manipulation of people through the distortion of truth that we’re seeing in the world, particularly in the USA, is eerily similar to how we were manipulated in our cults. Scary shit, indeed. I’d love to hear in the comments how you handle this pandemic of misinformation and any experiences you have to share on the topic.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Given the amount of misinformation around, how do we know what’s true?

The proliferation of misinformation and people’s willingness to believe outright lies and unfounded theories is a major problem of our time. People no longer know what’s true. They don’t know what or who to believe, and when voters don’t know what’s true and politicians are manipulating them to further their own agendas, our democracies are severely compromised. So how do we know what’s true?

Social media is the tool for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. Misinformation can be propagated in all innocence by ordinary people, less innocently by people with a personal agenda, knowingly by those seeking power and influence over others, and even by a new breed of PR and marketing firms ‘ready to deploy fake accounts, false narratives, and pseudo news websites for the right price’. The result is the widespread, targeted manipulation of public opinion.

That’s us. You and me. Do you want to be manipulated? Do you like being manipulated?

Just like you were in your Tibetan Buddhist cult.

‘If disinformation in 2016 was characterized by Macedonian spammers pushing pro-Trump fake news and Russian trolls running rampant on platforms, 2020 is shaping up to be the year communications pros for hire provide sophisticated online propaganda operations to anyone willing to pay. Around the globe, politicians, parties, governments, and other clients hire what is known in the industry as “black PR” firms to spread lies and manipulate online discourse.’

Craig Silverman, Buzzfeed, Disinformation For Hire: How A New Breed Of PR Firms Is Selling Lies Online

The Buzzfeed article quoted above is vital but scary reading, not only because of the software that aims to manipulate people, but also because of the complete lack of morals of the people who create, sell and run the programs.

Even if we’re not being outright lied to as blatantly as Trump does it, our politicians are all involved in marketing and hire PR firms to run their social media campaigns . And what are marketing campaigns if not a way to manipulate people’s emotions such that they buy something we want them to buy—or vote for someone we want them to vote for? All marketing is selective in what they show the viewer and in how they present it.

Just like Rigpa, NKT and Shambala. They presented us with only the side of their gurus that they wanted us to see. Sogyal never missed a photo opportunity with HH Dalia Lama to help give him legitimacy. Perception can be skewed without outright lies. It can be done merely by cutting what doesn’t fit the narrative. It all depends on how you edit that clip!

Are the lies that bad?

Yes, they are. Trump, for instance, is gaslighting on such a scale that whole sections of the population subscribe to an alternate view of reality, even to the extent that they lose touch with reality.

McKay Coppins, reporter for the Atlantic, shares his experience of being targeted by the Trump campaign in an article titled The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President

‘There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?

As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.’

Reality drifting out of reach is the result of gaslighting. And we, as ex-Rigpa cult members, have experienced gaslighting ourselves. We saw Rigpa’s guru abusing someone, then that person stood up before us and declared that it wasn’t abuse at all, but love. That was then reinforced by instructors and by the guru himself in subsequent teaching sessions. No, we were told, that wasn’t abuse, that was teaching through ‘crazy wisdom,’ an expression of great wisdom love. And we believed it. We trained ourselves to see it as love, not abuse, until such time as the full extent of the harm Sogyal was causing came crashing down on us and we woke up.

What will wake up those in Trump’s cult?

 Coppins continues: ‘What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.’

We saw this in Rigpa, too, in the way they communicated, stating the party line at every opportunity and in every email and video so that those who pointed out an alternative view of events were simply drowned out. How can those who only listen to Rigpa’s version of events know what is actually true?

Trump’s campaign manager used social media to sway the 2016 election in the USA, and he’ll do it again if people don’t wake up to how they’re being manipulated.  Facebook does not fact-check their adverts, and why would they bother when adverts containing lies are not prohibited on Facebook.

 “Obviously the formula that they used in 2016 is something they’re going to try to duplicate in 2020, which is really the tactic of using social media to try to distort the truth and mislead the American people and con themselves back into the White House. “That’s part of the reason why he [Brad Parscale] was made the campaign manager. It shows how much of a priority their misinformation digital strategy is to the re-election campaign.”

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman and senior adviser on the House of Representatives’ oversight committee quoted in Meet the Social Media Master who Could Win Trump a Second Term, David Smith, The Guardian US.

Making it worse is the double twist.

Donald Trump refers to the journalistic sources that I trust—ones that have long had integrity and a name for quality journalism and writing the truth—as spreaders of ‘fake news’. The New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Washington Post are his targets because they publish the truth, and the truth threatens Trumps lies – just as the truth about Sogyal threatens Rigpa’s angle on events.

Trumpism is a cult. His followers act like people in cults do. They believe whatever he says.

This double twist is like the bully at school declaring that his victim actually bullied him. ‘It wasn’t me, Miss,’ they used to tell me. Referring to the victim they’d say, ‘He bullied me.’ They tried to make me believe that they were the victim not the perpetrator. It’s the DARVO response: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. Trump declares that it’s not him that’s lying, but those who tell the truth.

No wonder people are confused.

Doctored images and the algorithms that spread them.

And you can’t even trust the images you see, not only in photographs but also in videos. You Tube is responsible for the spread of a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

‘Fabricated videos will create new and understandable suspicions about everything we watch. Politicians and publicists will exploit those doubts. When captured in a moment of wrongdoing, a culprit will simply declare the visual evidence a malicious concoction.’

Franklin Foer, The Era of Fake Video Begins, The Atlantic

Conspiracy theories

We are presently experiencing not only a pandemic of covid-19, but also a pandemic of conspiracy theories about it.

‘As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, conspiracy theories about the origins, threat and basic nature of the virus have become an increasingly visible and consequential element of the timeline. Conspiracy theories have tangible consequences for individuals and society, especially when they are sanctioned by trusted members of society, such as political, business and religious leaders. They can decrease people’s willingness to get vaccinated or comply with social distancing directives; they can also negatively impact people’s view of scientific findings and political out-groups. That means a pandemic is an especially dangerous time for conspiracy theories.’   

Adam M. Enders and Joseph E. Uscinski, Conspiracy theories run rampant when people feel helpless. Like now. Washington Post

When some of my Facebook friends started sharing conspiracy theories as if they were truth, I re-evaluated who I considered a friend and pruned by friend list accordingly. Like cult members, you can’t convince someone who subscribes to a conspiracy theory that your sources of ‘truth’ are the truth, as they don’t trust your sources and you don’t trust theirs.

I admire those who can patiently engage with those who have fallen prey to misinformation, gaslighting or brainwashing and gently try to direct them towards the truth. Truth as in what actually happened or is happening before one right now—when viewed without the overlay of beliefs. Despite the viewer of any phenomena playing a role in how something manifests, events still do either happen or not happen. Facts are either verified by qualified people or not. Repeating a lie enough times does not make it true.

We can dismiss conspiracy theorists, but when they grow in numbers until they are a sizable portion of the voting public, then we’re in trouble. And we’re in double trouble when those in power feed the tendency, as we’re seeing in the USA today.

Trump’s logic

Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post compiled a list of 5,000 false or misleading statements Donald Trump made during his first 600 days in office.

James P. Pfiffner (a university professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University) wrote a paper titled The Lies of Donald Trump: A Taxonomy published on SSRN (an online database of early scholarly research) concluded that Trump’s lies are ‘detrimental to the democratic process, and that his continued adherence to demonstrably false statements undermined enlightenment epistemology and corroded the premises of liberal democracy.’

Knowing what’s true isn’t only vital for our own mental health, it’s also vitally important for the health of our societies and our democracies. Trump’s [illogical] logic is one followed by those most vulnerable to believing lies, fake news and misinformation. According to James P. Pfiffner, it goes like this:

  • Trump makes a false statement.
  • His followers believe it, and others hear it from a source credible to them.
  • When asked how he could make a claim with no evidence, Trump says “a lot of people agree” or “many people are saying.”
  • Trump’s logic: He makes a false claim; people believe him; Trump concludes it is true.

Trump isn’t the only one who thinks like this.

What can we do? Media literacy – methods for uncovering the lies

So what do we do when almost everything we read online (particularly social media) could be misinformation? We have to become aware of how we’re being manipulated, find out the truth and champion it. Just what we did with our TB groups.

We have to uncover the lies and make sure we don’t spread them. And for that we need to become media literate.

A Google search for ‘How do we know what’s true on social media’ will bring up many excellent articles that give us the kind of media literacy we need in order to not fall prey to manipulation online. To protect individuals and society, media and information literacy needs to be taught in schools.

‘The process and ability to be able to evaluate and separate fake news from real news is a part of media literacy and, on a broader level, information literacy.’

Enoch Pratt Library article

The following guide to uncovering fake news and misinformation is from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. It’s from a pdf you can download and print and pin on the wall for you and your family to refer to.

  • CONSIDER THE SOURCE: Click away from the story to investigate the site, its mission and its contact info.
  • READ BEYOND: Headlines can be outrageous in an effort to get clicks. What’s the whole story?
  • CHECK THE AUTHOR: Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible? Are they real? Do they have an agenda?
  • SUPPORTING SOURCES? Click on those links. Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
  • CHECK THE DATE: Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.
  • IS IT A JOKE? If it is too outlandish, it might be satire. Research the site and author to be sure.
  • CHECK YOUR BIASES: Consider if your own beliefs could affect your judgement.
  • ASK THE EXPERTS: Consult a fact-checking site – and check the site is legit.

I also recommend reading this detailed article on how to fight lies, tricks and chaos online by Adi Robertson on The Verge. His initial warning is something to take particular note of: ‘If a story grabs your attention for any reason, slow down and look closer.’ The very things that make you want to respond in horror and share immediately are the posts of which you need to be most cautious. The warning signs according to Robertson are:

  • You have a strong emotional reaction
  • A story seems totally ridiculous — or perfectly confirms your beliefs
  • You’re going to spend money because of it
  • You immediately want to amplify the story

Social media algorithms for what a media platform presents to you are all based on engagement. The more engagement a post gets, the more it gets shared, not just by people, but by the media platform itself. Those suggested videos in You Tube are the ones that cause the most ruckus. They are the ones that get lots of comments, get viewed a lot and get shared a lot, but the algorithms in all social media platforms do not ascertain whether or not the engagement is positive or negative. A video with thousands of comments saying that the video has no basis in fact will still be favoured in an algorithm that pushes what gets the most engagement. So if you have a strong reaction to a post, likely many others have had as well, and you may be seeing it simply because it is controversial, not because it’s true.

An article in The Conversation on the role of social media algorithms in the spread of conspiracy theories concludes that ‘The theory that social media algorithms lure people into conspiracy theories is difficult to definitively prove,’ due to the role of human behaviour and personal choice, but social media algorithms do favour the controversial and sensational, so use your strong emotional reaction as a warning sign.

And don’t forget to check if what you’re reading on Facebook is a ‘sponsored post’. A sponsored post is an advert. It’s a legitimate business tool, but it can also be used by anyone seeking to manipulate you for their own agenda – be particularly wary of political advertising. Remember that they only show you what they want you to see.

When your mind reels from all the nonsense

When I used an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) article to back up something I said on Facebook, and a Facebook ‘friend’ told me that she didn’t see the ABC as a reputable news source, I was flabbergasted. What had she been reading? The ABC is the gold standard for news reporting in Australia. They don’t go in for sensationalism and they’re not privately owned nor under the control of the government. And their fact-checking service is excellent. I wondered who she’d list as a reputable source? Perhaps The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper? A paper known to have spread misinformation during the Australian Bushfires. (No, the majority of the fires were not started by arsonists!)

How can you know what’s true when the sources you use to tell you the truth are actually telling you lies? What if the one that you think is telling lies is actually telling the truth?  My head hurts just thinking about it.

At times like these, I look out the window, clear my mind of its conceptual and emotional filters and tune into reality as it actually is. Here. Now.

That little trick keeps me sane. It clears away the bullshit and grounds me in reality. [And I have to thank my many years of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice for that skill.]

How do you stay sane in a world of lies?

Stay safe, everyone.
Tahlia

6 Replies to “How Do We Know What’s True? A major problem of our time”

  1. I love the list above Tahlia (repeated below).
    This is how I try to stay sane! 😉
    It’s all a bit mad at the minute
    All the best
    Europa

    • CONSIDER THE SOURCE: Click away from the story to investigate the site, its mission and its contact info.
    • READ BEYOND: Headlines can be outrageous in an effort to get clicks. What’s the whole story?
    • CHECK THE AUTHOR: Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible? Are they real? Do they have an agenda?
    • SUPPORTING SOURCES? Click on those links. Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
    • CHECK THE DATE: Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.
    • IS IT A JOKE? If it is too outlandish, it might be satire. Research the site and author to be sure.
    • CHECK YOUR BIASES: Consider if your own beliefs could affect your judgement.
    • ASK THE EXPERTS: Consult a fact-checking site – and check the site is legit.

    1. Yeah, it’s a good list. I hope that this site stands up to that scrutiny. I do try to have everything supported with references where applicable.

  2. I think its well written … but you know I don’t like the blunt force attack on people with certain terms. So i’ve often tried to explain that I dig past dismissive “bypassing” terms that just disinfrancise people. On the other hand leaders and cults use “conspiracy theories” to further their agendas.
    In other situations conspiracy theories fill a void when “inconvenient evidence” shows up that is contrary to assumptions that “nothing exists to consider the contrary”. Such was the way we were treated by Rigpa – dismissing of us as conspiracy theorists who only made “unfounded allegations”. Yet there was a foundation of witness and later more damning forms of evidence that was quietly shared with lawyers. So either side can use such terminology if the evidence isn’t made to be the crucial element.
    How do people mitigate evidence – with theories that we are in a conspiracy to “bring down” cult leaders. So this term shows up against me and you.
    I’m not going to say you wrote anything badly but even in mainstream journalism its often explained that there is a lot of truth out there in “tin foil hat” land. Its just the interpretation of it – and that is what I would say you mean by the theory part.
    CHECKING BIAS – i’ve alway found you to be very reasonable and get past biases. I’m so glad you keep writing. I accused someone of bias during the debate over masks and that person changed stance given time. That was a relief – I always felt that it was a moment where the person may have felt insulted. I’m sorry that I can be so dismissive … sometimes its not just sources, authors its really about logical conclusions and investigative experience. To detect language used to reframe bad things into good by those who have a lot to lose if they get exposed.
    The powerful vs the weak does lead a lot of people to take misinformation far too seriously and I’ve also found that a lot of fact-checking sources appeared which I don’t think did the job at all.

    1. I’m well aware of how terms like ‘conspiracy theories’ can be used to silence opposition. It’s another of the double twists, like the fake news proponent calling the actual truth ‘fake news; the term can be used by those in power to discredit whistleblowers. But some theories – like that 5G spreads coronavirus – are really simply nonsense. Others may have some basis in truth, but the ‘truth’ has been distorted or misunderstood or mixed with other information to which it logically bears no relationship, or it’s really just a way to further someone’s anti-vax or anti-government or anti-something-else agenda. I find that it doesn’t take a great deal of following the list I posted to unravel what doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

      With Sogyal, I simply believed the party line and never investigated at all, until I was presented with 8 voices saying the same thing in a logical, non-emotional, non-sensational manner. Then I looked further and discovered plenty of evidence to back up those voices. And when I started talking to dozens of people who all said they’d experienced something similar, it became clear very quickly that I’d had the proverbial wool pulled over my eyes. This is why ascertaining the truth is so important to me. I never want to get caught in such a lie again.

      We probably can’t ever be totally sure about the truth of some things, but we can make an educated evaluation and say that on the balance of information something is likely true or not true.

    1. That’s a nihilistic view. Often thought by people to represent some kind of advanced spiritual awareness, but no, it’s a misinterpretation of the teachings on shunyata. Trees exist at the same time as they also are beyond existence and non-existence. Like two sides of a coin, existence and non-existence only exist in dependence on each other, so you saying that something does not exist is missing that vital aspect of the teachings, the aspect that makes sure students do not fall into nihilism. Truth is the same. Truth does exist. It’s what actually happens. What you want truth to be is your interpretation, filtered by your obscurations – emotional, conceptual, habitual, and karmic. But what you want truth to be, or what you perceive it to be does not make it true. Things either happen or they don’t. You can make something up – as Trump does – and you can believe that’s the truth, but that does not make it true. It makes you delusional.

      We have heard this sort of thing before from people who insist that Sogyal did not harm anyone or that the harm was only the truth for some, not any kind of actual truth. But bloody wounds, public humiliation/bullying (which I saw with my own eyes) and sexual abuse resulting in years of therapy were true. They happened. Sogyal did harm people in these ways and people believing that none of it happened, doesn’t change the fact that it did.

      Those who think 5G networks spread covid-19 believe that’s true, but that doesn’t make it actually true. Those who believe covid-19 is a hoax will still catch it if they don’t take precautions.

      So I disagree. Things happen or they don’t. That’s truth. And we can ascertain what’s true by using our critical thinking faculties to evaluate the evidence. Belief is not truth. Belief makes you think something is true. It makes you think that your truth is actual truth, but belief distorts truth it doesn’t create it.

      If you’re a dharma student, then I suggest you do some in depth study of the teachings on shunyata, in particular learn what dependent arising means, what nihilism is and why it’s an incorrect view. His holiness the Dalia Lama is good on dependent arising.

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