Friday, 23 June 2017

On truth and lies. And how to show a troll the difference

Appalled by fake news and half-truths online? In despair at the latest lie on your neighbour’s Facebook page? Fear not. You can fight back. Let’s go trollhunting

There are plenty of lies flying around nowadays, online and in the media. The 2016 Brexit referendum and American election were distorted by fake news and half-truths. The Internet has arrived in politics in a big way and it ain’t pretty.  It shouldn’t be a surprise. The late Günter Grass foresaw its use by the alt-right back in 2004, in his last novel, Crabwalk.  Now the web is heaving with stories from dodgy websites, propagated by social media and reinforced by half-truths from the nastier newspapers. And let’s be clear – while the worst abuses come from the right, the left has had a hand in this as well.

Mill: "the collision of adverse opinions" (Hulton Archive)
This is dangerous. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty (1859), the lifeblood of democracy is the information we need with which to make decisions. Since “the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth,” he wrote, “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” We don’t know what Mill would make of Facebook, but I suspect he would tell us that this was the new marketplace in which ideas must compete, and that we needed to be out there. But sometimes we feel defenceless. We read something in the Mail or the Express or on someone's Facebook post and we suspect at once that it is either not true or not the whole truth, but we don't know for certain and can't prove it, so we shrug our shoulders and let it go unchallenged.

But we do have the weapons for trollhunting, and sometimes they're much easier to use than you might suppose. First, to track your troll, you need to recognize their droppings, and the exact species from which they came. So here’s a taxonomy of online bollocks.

What’s your source? 
If you're not sure whether the source site quoted is credible or not, Wikipedia will often tell you who funds it. The other day I had an argument about renewables with someone online and he threw figures at me that he said were from the US Gov't's Energy Information Administration (EIA). But they weren't on the EIA site and it turned out he'd got them from something called the Institute of Energy Research. It took me two minutes to find out it was funded by the Koch Brothers. (And they had quoted the figures without giving a proper source; they claimed they were from the EIA, but I could not find the figures on the EIA’s own site, and the data I did find there pointed in another direction.)

Relevant and meaningful? 
With a bit of effort, you can sometimes you can detect b.s. very quickly. It may be that all you need to do with a post or a news story is check its source. If it's Breitbart or similar, it's partisan. That does not of course mean that it is automatically lying. But it is unlikely to be the whole truth, so you'll probably find their original story was not properly referenced and can't be confirmed.

Besides checking the source, sometimes you can check whether a figure or fact being stressed is in fact meaningful. Thus the Daily Express ran a news article a few weeks ago drooling at the prospect of £2bn-a-year trade with India when Britain was free to trade with them after Brexit. What they didn't say was that Britain’s trade with the EU is currently worth more like £240bn. That's a fact easily found from government or international sources. Again, your first port of call can be Wikipedia - you might not want to just quote from them as they are sometimes wrong, but they almost always give an original source that you can check. (In fact Wikipedia at its best is superb.) 

The Express story also omitted to mention that we may not get a trade deal with India.

Image abuse 
Images used online will often turn out to be mislabelled or irrelevant. The left does this as well as the right. Last year lots of people shared a meme showing huge crowds of people attempting to board a ship. “These aren’t Syrians,” said the angry caption. “They’re Europeans trying to get to North Africa during World War II. So next time you think of closing the borders you might want to check with your grandparents.”

The Vlora arrives at Bari from Durres, 1991
The meme had been spread very widely (by my friends among others), but something was not right. First, the images were in colour. The Second World War was photographed in colour, but not much, and mainly only by the German and US press corps. It seemed unlikely either would have shot this. Also, merchant ships in the 1940s had a more angular structure.

When you smell a rat like this, the first step is to do a reverse image search and see if you can come up with the pic in its original context. (Google gives handy instructions on how to do that here.) This often works straightaway, but in this case the pics had been so widely shared that most results just showed the meme. What did work, was to search instead for the name of one of its ships and its port of registry, both of which were clearly visible on its stern. This turned up the pics in their real context and where they had really been taken; they were Albanians at the Italian port of Bari in 1991. This made sense, as the ship’s port of registry was Durres. It should be said that this set of images was misrepresented by the right as well as the left.

Lies, damn lies and... 
...Statistics. We are not all adept at reading these.  I found this out with a vengeance when I first tried to crunch the numbers I brought back from my PhD fieldwork. I struggled through with “how-to” books (the current choice includes Statistics without Tears, Statistics Done Wrong, Statistics for Dummies and, interestingly, How to Lie with Statistics – I must get that). The upside is that whoever throws a bunch of numbers at you may not know what they’re talking about either. The first step, if the story, post or comment quotes a source, is to check it. It may turn out to be completely specious. If you cannot find it, you can simply say so. If you can find a reliable figure that contradicts it, so much the better (more below on where to find such numbers).

 What if the other side can supply a source? The answer then is to go to that source, and see whether the numbers actually mean what you’ve been told they do. In the argument about renewables quoted above, my interlocutor was quoting the scale of subsidies to solar per kilowatt hour. As stated, I couldn’t find his figures. But what I did find was that figures for power supplied by renewables should carry a big health warning. Are you talking about generation capacity; about actual power generation; or about the output supplied to the grid? In the latter case, are you looking at the amount received by the grid or the distributed power from renewables? (Solar and wind produces surplus power that can’t be used sometimes, so these won’t be the same figure.

That’s a subtle example. The misuse of figures can be a lot more crass than that – as when, before the referendum, we heard “scare stories” about the number of refugees coming into the EU; these never mentioned that Britain wasn’t accepting more than a tiny fraction. Sometimes a number quoted is simply not relevant; again, before Brexit, the figure of 77m Turkish immigrants was used to scare people. They were not told that Turkish accession to the EU is a long way away and that in any case, Turkey has much closer links with Germany than it does with Britain.

You may also find that the number is quoted without comparators, so that you can’t see if it’s meaningful – as in the Daily Express “Indian trade deal” example above.

Refuted already? 
It sounds obvious, but perhaps someone has already called out the author of a fake news item. In the case of the Albanian ship example, they hadn’t (they have since). But it’s easy to check. Extract a few well-chosen key words from the article and search online. Take one of the more outrageous statements, copy-and-paste it into the “exact word or phrase” box in Google Advanced Search, and see if someone has already quoted that statement – and then taken it apart. 

If it’s been widely circulated, someone will already have checked it. A classic case was a picture sent to me after I made a vaguely pro-Corbyn tweet; it showed him at an IRA funeral. It did look like Corbyn but I suspected it wasn’t.  Fortunately someone else actually knew. The picture had been taken at Bobby Sands’s funeral in 1981 and the individual was apparently Sands’s agent, Owen Carron, who succeeded him as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

It wasn't Jezza, actually
There are also websites that have been set up to fact-check stories that are whizzing around social media. The granddaddy of them all is, debunking urban legends since 1995. On the day I dropped by while writing this piece, the stories covered included a claim that former Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders had blown $172,000 in campaign donations on an Audi R8 supercar. (Snopes found no evidence of this.) Snopes appears to be genuinely independent and funded from advertising revenue. A site with a similar mission, albeit very different in style, is Hoax Slayer (, based in Queensland. This has also been around for a while. It devotes much energy to email scams, but also has a fake-news section that touches on the political now and then. The day I called by, it had zeroed in on a story that Monica Lewinsky’s son David had been found dead in Central Park. (It pointed out that Lewinsky did not have a son called David.)

For British readers, however, the go-to is probably Full Fact ( This is a heavyweight; it has the cachet of actually being a registered charity, a status that the Charity Commission was initially reluctant to grant it, and which it can remove if the site becomes too political. The trustees of Full Fact include members of the great and the good such as prominent LibDem peer Lord Sharkey and crossbencher Baroness Neuberger DBE, and funding comes from such impeccably liberal sources as the Rowntree Foundation (though also from some businesses – but these are publicly declared, and accounted for only 8% of income in 2015). A measure of Full Fact’s topicality can be seen from the 2017 General Election. Many media sources ascribed the results to the youth vote, but Full Fact quickly posted an item pointing out that no-one could possibly know yet, as there were simply no figures.  Especially attractive is an item headed Election 2017: what the parties haven’t told voters, an object lesson in why everything should be taken with a skipload of salt.

But if no-one’s refuted it yet? How do I do so? 
Sites like Full Fact are great at dealing with memes and urban myths that have attracted widespread attention. But what about the man who lives two doors up and posted a reply on one of your Facebook threads saying that ten thousand refugees are settling in Tonbridge every day, or that Europe is totally dependent on Britain for supplies of bendy bananas? Where are you going for the real facts?

For Brits, the first place should probably the Office for National Statistics ( This has been around since 1996, but is descended from the Central Statistical Office, which had its origins in the second world war.  The ONS is independent of the political arm of government, and covers a wide range of subjects, including the economy and areas that are politically sensitive, such as migration (its latest Migration Statistics Quarterly Report was in May 2017 and is here, complete with a useful summary). Datasets are normally presented with definitions, including qualifications and exclusions. The ONS is a big haunted house, but if one searches for long enough, one can often find what one needs. Thus this afternoon a  conservative journalist tweeted that Britain’s population had risen by 5 million in 5 years and that this was a good reason for Brexit. It took me minutes to find out, on the ONS site, that the figure was untrue, and I tweeted back a link to the relevant page. The ONS site also has instructions on how to submit a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.

Not just for MPs
Should you need your information in a more digestible form, you can head for the House of Commons Library. This  has a mass of research and information put together over the years to help MPs, including an impressive list of research briefings on (for example) social care, poverty and pensions – all topical. Much of this information might also be available on the ONS site if you know where to look, but the HoC Library might be easier. The website also has an impressive subsite providing information on Brexit and its projected consequences; it can be found here. For economic and budgetary information, there’s also the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), intended as an independent watchdog on budgetary and economic matters. Its mandate is to provide facts, not to pass judgement on policy; it won’t tell you that a policy is a good or bad idea, but will outline the fiscal consequences.

Many countries have similar offices and the OBR helpfully provides links to them on its own page. In the US, if you’re a member of Congress you might well ask your party leadership to submit your request to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has lately been busy costing, among other things, the latest healthcare options as Republicans prepare to scrap Obamacare. The CBO is meant to be strictly nonpartisan. Specialist US government agencies also have information available on their websites (including the US Energy Information Administration, referred to earlier). Both these offices have a mass of information and data on their websites.

In the international arena, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and specialist UN and other transnational agencies all provide reservoirs of online information on matters such as poverty, access to education, health and more. To list them would take too much space, and in any case Wikipedia has a handy list of the UN bodies here. However, it is worth mentioning two that are worth visiting if you frequently argue with people over refugees or asylum seekers; these are the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Both have stats; UNHCR, in particular, has figures on the top refugee-hosting countries (hint: they’re not rich ones). It also points out that 55% of refugees are from three war-torn countries, casting doubt on the belief that most are economic migrants. 

Last but not least, Google is your friend. The advanced search facility allows you to specify accurate and specific search parameters. It can be set to return only recent results. It also permits a domain-specific search, so that if you want to find out when the OBR, say, or the BBC has referred to a particular topic, you can. This is sometimes much quicker and more accurate than using the search engines on the sites themselves, and presents the search results in a helpful hierarchy of relevance.

Learn your craft 
Many people’s online activism is devalued from the start because they don’t have any tradecraft. Some of us will never be very good with PCs, websites etc.; that’s just how it is, especially for older people like me. But often the tools are easier to master than they seem, and doing so can give you a huge advantage.

No, Bernie didn't buy an Audi R8 with campaign contributions
If you’re fighting battles on Facebook, and you want friends to help – informally, or as part of an activist group – learn how to help them help you. If you are dealing with a mendacious troll on the Facebook site of (say) a newspaper, you need to give people the exact link, not just say “please help me on the Express Facebook page”. If you do that they won’t find the post or thread, as newspaper sites can post tens of stories a day. It’s like calling in an airstrike without giving a map reference.

To get the exact link, go to the post or comment. Just under the posters name or comment is the time at which they posted it (“just now”, “1hr ago”, “20 June at 20.00”, etc. Right-click on that date/time and a drop-down menu will appear, including the option “copy link”. Click on that then paste the link on your timeline of in a group where you are seeking help.Always remember that it is useless posting something that only a few people can see; you need to give your post the right privacy settings. Be aware that if you change them on a post, the next post may default to the same setting so you will need to change it again. 

To comment on a story on a newspaper’s own site, you will need to be signed in. The site will almost always offer you the option to do so with social media, but you can also set up an account for that newspaper, or (with a lot of publications, including the Spectator) with a service provider called Disqus. These can be better options than your Facebook or Twitter account if you wish to use a screen handle rather than your own name.

If you are involved in an argument on Twitter and need to ask friends or a group for help, you can get a link to the string by going to the small downward-facing arrow at the left of a tweet or reply; clicking on that will give you the option of displaying a tweet-specific link that you can then copy. If you have multiple battles going on and want your friends to come over and lend a hand, tell them to go to your Twitter profile and to click on the tab “Tweets and replies”; otherwise they won’t see your conversations and arguments, only your original tweets. Learn also how to use hashtags – this is very important; Twitter provides instructions here. You can use them on Facebook too and there are instructions (rather sketchy) here.

Last but not least, one does not want to state the obvious but: Who are you talking to? If you want to argue on behalf of refugees, do it in the comments section of a paper where people are unconvinced. This could be the Express or Mail but could also be the New Statesman or Telegraph. It sounds basic, but you will not change minds by talking only to those who agree with you.

Don’t give up 
All this is important. We are at war. Back in 1977 Paul Johnson, Boris's uncle, published a book called Enemies of Society, in which he castigated all those who made meaningless or unverified statements. They would, he said, destroy the basic certainties societies need to function. The book was written from a right-wing perspective; Johnson was a polemicist. But he was not wrong about this. Hannah Arendt made a similar point, in a very different way, from farther left, in her essay On Lying in Politics.

Check everything. Question it all. The enemies of society have not won yet, but there is not much time. Lies are a luxury we can’t afford.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)


  1. Relevant! I wish fact-checking was taught in schools as it appears to be a skills everyone needs right now :/

    1. I wish people were taught this at school, yes. I wish too that they could be taught to realise the difference between a statement and an assertion, between opinion and knowledge.