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How can we fight back against fake news and post-truth politics?

Five ways in which you can fight the rise of media bullshit. 

From writing a book on "post-truth politics", I know that bullshit is effective, the internet is a great breeding ground for it, how it taps into modern politics, and why there’s a big business model behind it. But how can it be tackled? Here are some things you and I can do for ourselves

Burst your bubble: If most of us exist in online filter bubbles, and those filter bubbles can shift our views away from the political mainstream, making an effort to break out of our own bubble can only be helpful. This needn’t be too drastic: following a handful of thoughtful people – not the people shouting most loudly – from the other side of an issue you care about on Facebook or Twitter is a good start. Trying to watch programmes or read articles from outlets on the other side of your own politics helps too. Knowing what people we disagree with actually say and think – rather than the straw men and caricatures we create in our heads – helps us bridge gaps, and makes it harder to demonise people whose politics are different from our own.

Engage System Two: System One is our instinc­tive reaction to a situation or new information, while System Two is our considered response. System One is effortless, and often quite satisfying to leave in the driving seat. When we’re browsing in this mode, it’s really easy just to click and share anything outrageous or heart-warming which reaffirms our worldview. That’s why this sort of material – which is often bullshit – performs so well on the internet. If we want to stop ourselves sharing this kind of material, just making ourselves stop and think, even for five or ten seconds – in other words, engaging System Two – makes us much less likely to share nonsense. Even just a few seconds’ thought lets us make several quick assessments. What’s the source of the information – is it from a major news outlet? A named politician? An anonymous account? Can we verify the claim that’s made? If we’re about to share a screenshot, does it seem credible – would the person concerned really say that? If we have doubts, we can easily and quickly Google for facts and find out what’s happening. Slowing down for even just a few sec­onds makes us much less likely to share bullshit.

Learn some stats: This one does not sound much fun, I’ll admit. But even a very basic grasp of statistics makes you much harder to fool. It’s not so much about memorising dozens of figures about the economy, but rather about being able to build up a series of mental shortcuts about whether or not numbers are plausible, or big. If we hear that the cost of benefit fraud is £1.3 billion a year,7 this number on its own doesn’t tell us much – it’s quite a lot of money, and more than any of us can really visual­ise. If we happen to know the rough amount the government spends on working-age benefits, or even just the total amount of government spending (around £780 billion), we can put the figure in context. Knowing the basics of how averages work, how percentages work and how to put figures in context gives us a lot of power to independently assess what we read – and doesn’t even require us to do too much maths. Tthe 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff is a great (and accessible) place to start.

Treat narratives you believe as sceptically as ones you don’t: By instinct, we tend to look for fact-checks and sceptical takes on narratives that conflict with our existing politics: if we’re lib­eral, we’re unlikely to have thought Hillary Clinton’s email scandal was a big deal, and would likely be sceptical of the Benghazi probes from Congress. If we’re a Donald Trump supporter, we’re not all that likely to think the allegations around Trump’s ties to Russia are particularly credible. We need to try to jump back from this and look for sceptical takes on the attack lines we believe – and also try to give credence to attack lines on causes and candidates we like. It may even help to try to mentally swap in a different politi­cian or cause when reading a story and see if it would change our view. This is a big ask: it’s really tough to try to leave our politics behind when looking into a scandal, but if we can manage it, it’s great for our ability to actually assess facts and evidence – and to see why people we disagree with might be fired up by a scandal we’ve dismissed, and vice versa.

Try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking: In the run-up to the Brexit vote, Leave supporters online urged one another to use pens in the voting booth, lest the authorities rub out their vote and change it to keep the UK in the EU. Left-wingers share stories of Theresa May directing contracts towards G4S because her husband owns shares in it (he doesn’t). Before the US elec­tion, Trump supporters warned of efforts to rig the vote, wheth­er with millions of fake votes, with outright fraud or by denying Trump supporters their votes. After the election, elaborate and detailed (but evidence-free) anti-Trump theories – ‘time for some game theory’ – went viral time and again. Conspiracy theories are the enemy of reality-based coverage. These theories take isolated facts and use conjecture to join the dots, building elaborate narratives showing up their targets as malign and dan­gerous. Almost no real political scandal could ever live up to the imaginary ones conspiratorial thinking creates. The results are all damaging: they normalise bad behaviour – real malpractice is rarely as exciting as imagined scandal – while diminishing trust in political institutions and driving those who believe them to the political fringes. The post-truth era is accompanied by a rise in conspiratorial thinking on all sides. The more we can resist it, the better for all of us: we should fight to hold our politicians and our media accountable, but this should be based on hard evidence and thorough investigation. This might be less exciting than the conspiratorial version of history, but it’s surely more productive.

There will be no single solution to the rise of bullshit, and different players in the information ecosystem will all have to respond in different ways. We cannot build a solution which relies on good faith of everyone involved: we need to start from the politics and the media that we have, so proposals that rely on asking media outlets to reinvent their business model, or require millions of people who don’t pay for news to spontaneously start, are doomed. But we have to tackle it: a shared sense of reality, a counter to conspiracies, and some basic consensus are vital to a healthy democracy. A truly post-truth world is in none of our interests.

James Ball is Buzzfeed's special correspondent, and the author of Post Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World (out now). This is an edited extract.

James Ball is special correspondent at Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching LabourDemocracy.net, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a Change.org petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.