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David O. Mckay Lectures

"iTruth": Techno-reality in a Digital World


I’d like to start with a family story.  My father was a child of the depression.  Our family wasn’t well to do but they did have a home that my grandfather had built and a car.  In the early 1930’s each Sunday afternoon it was my Grandfather’s habit to take his family of four out for a drive.  Grandpa and Grammy Burroughs, my father, and my uncle Jack would typically drive from their home in town out towards a large regional park, not far but through a relatively untraveled country area.  In the day, meat was hard to come by, always purchased at a butcher shop and wrapped in distinctive white butcher paper.  One Sunday, on the way back from the park, the family reached a crossroad with a four way stop just at the time another car pulled up going the opposite direction.  As my father told the story, in the center of the cross-road there was a parcel wrapped in butcher paper that appeared to be a side of bacon—a valuable prize in those depression times.  My Grandfather and the other driver stopped at the same time and seemed to see the bacon simultaneously.  They both jumped out of their cars and ran for the bacon.  My grandfather was faster.  He reached the parcel in the center of the crossroad before the other driver only to find that someone had counterfeited the bacon by wrapping a piece of wood up in butcher paper.  Worse, in his haste to get out of his car he caught his belt loop on the door and ripped his pants.  My grandfather was fooled by a replica and the story is told in the family as a caution against impulsive behavior.  But my father always told me that from the car the parcel really did look like bacon and that he and my uncle were cheering in anticipation of a fine dinner. 

We live in a world of replicas—much more so now than in the 1930’s.  Indeed we are much more likely to interact with replicas than with originals.  Modern life is to some degree characterized by the technological advances that have led to replication.  We listen to CD’s and digital representations of music and the spoken word instead of being tied to original in-person performances.   We make digital representations of words and images with scanners and software and print these on a host of different printers.  I visit with my grandson in Japan using Skype and wish I could reach through the monitor and grab onto his digital image.  Indeed, we spend much of our days interacting with replicas using a variety of media:  books, prints, photographs, video, recordings of various types, television, computer screens, and the tiny screens of cell phones and their technological descendents.  Even further, we live in a postmodern world where we are increasingly free of the constraints of time and place.  Easy but exact replication gives us remarkable access to at least part of the past.  The morning I prepared these remarks I viewed a video of President Hinkley giving a talk he presented in General Conference on April 2, 2006.  While I can listen to Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech, technology does not reach back to Abraham Lincoln giving the “Gettysburg Address.” Nonetheless, the replicas of the past are so massive that no person could interact with even a part of what is available.  The National Archives now has a You-Tube channel that grows weekly.  And the creation of replicas has exploded.  YouTube now serves two billion views per day (1) with about 35 hours of new video material being uploaded each minute ( 2).

A replica that is somewhat different from those I’ve been considering is an account of a past event that we identify as “News.”  Many authors have written about the construction of news and the ways that “News” with a capital “N” is discriminated from other writing and performing.  News is the communication of selected information or current events that is then presented by print, broadcast, Internet, or word of mouth to a third party or mass audience.  So….Information or events, …presented via some channel, …to an audience.  In this definition “information or events” are critical.  “News” purports to be a faithful representation of this information or these events. 
Now consider this situation:  my cousin sends me a link to a news article.  I read it, it’s interesting, it seems like “News,” but the article seems a bit far-fetched. How can I be sure that the news report I read is a faithful representation of reality?  How good is the replica of information or events that I’m considering.  This is a problem of accuracy.  An accurate representation matches reality precisely.  In the most straight-forward case, we are able to match the news account with some original source.  If representation and the original match each other, then the replica is accurate.  So for example, it is rather easy to ascertain that the news story about a congressional vote that I read about in the New York Times portrays the actual vote with accuracy.  I need only look up the Congressional Record web site and match the story to the vote.  I should point out that the Congressional Record is in itself a replica of the original behavior—I didn’t actually go to Washington DC and witness the vote—but it is an officially sanctioned replica and so carries authority.  Some stories are more difficult to validate.  So for example, despite entire departments devoted to fact checking, and highly experienced editors, the New York Times has printed stories that are false and misleading.

Consider the case of Jayson Blair, a reporter for the New York Times for approximately 4 years from 1999 through 2003.  During this time he worked on major national stories including the Virginia Sniper Case and home front stories from the Iraq war.  In retrospect it is clear that Blair manufactured sources, falsely attributed facts to interview subjects he never met, regularly claimed to be reporting from locations he never visited, and plagiarized sections of stories from other reporters.  These stories were printed in prominent locations in the paper, a number on the front page.  Why was Blair successful in fraudulent reporting for so long?  The Time’s investigation showed that in many cases editors and administrative assistants simply were not conscientious in their work.  In other cases Blair claimed he was being informed by anonymous sources so that the accuracy of these representations was more difficult to verify.  But I think a major contributor to Blair’s ability to deceive were the expectations we hold regarding communications we identify as news.  When we are presented with a news story we expect to be told the truth.  Such expectations are powerful.  They constitute a model in our heads that colors ways in which we process social information presented to us. 

Let me give a simple example of how such a model works.  You may have seen this on the internet as it was a viral hit several years ago, but let’s take a minute and do the demonstration.  This selective attention task requires sustained attention and concentration.  In the video you will see 3 people wearing white shirts passing a basketball to each other, and 3 people wearing black shirts passing a different ball to each other. Your task is to count the total number of times the people wearing white shirts pass the ball.  Do not count passes by the players in black. 

How many passes?  There are 17.  But did you see the gorilla?  Let me show you the video again.  Watch for the gorilla if you missed it.

When individuals know nothing about the demonstration beyond it being a “selective attention test” about ½ of viewers miss the gorilla.  It’s called inattentional blindness and it happens because we allocate our attention to another task—counting the passes of the players wearing white.  Our attentional focus is so intense, that there is little “left over” for other tasks. That’s one reason the demonstration works.   Being asked to count the number of basketball passes also activates a model on our heads of basketball—one that is confirmed in the initial seconds of the video.  When the gorilla appears in the video after 10 seconds of passing, for those who have never seen or heard of the video before, it’s a totally unexpected event.  Our model in the head for basketball or “selective attention tasks” doesn’t include gorillas.  The effect is so powerful that even though the gorilla remains in the video for a full 10 additional seconds—almost half of the 22 second passing sequence—many do not see it.  Our visual processes often operate in what is termed a “top-down” manner, we have a model in our heads of what we expect to see and then we act to confirm that model.  When there is no initial model of the gorilla, we may miss what is right in front of us. 

I think the New York Times editors missed Jayson Blair’s fabrications for a similar reason.  They had no expectation that Blair would act in ways that were so blatantly fraudulent and as a result they missed even fairly obvious deceptions.  Expectations like these have a long history in linguistics.  They were first specified by Paul Grice, a linguistic philosopher, in 1975.  Grice wrote about 4 expectations that he called maxims.

Briefly, the four maxims are the expectations of quality (communicate what is true), quantity (communicate an appropriate amount and density of information for a given situation), relevance (communicate only information that is relevant to the topic at hand), and manner (communicate clearly and appropriately).  So, if I am telling a friend about watching the movie   True Grit, the quality maxim creates an expectation in my friend that what I will say is how I really feel—that I am speaking the truth.  In addition, the quantity maxim leads my friend to expect that I will say only a limited amount about the movie and not go on and on, while the relevance maxim leads him or her to expect that I will basically stay on topic and speak about the True Grit without excessively wandering over to The Green Hornet or The Social Network.  Finally the manner maxim leads my friend to expect that I will say all of this in some reasonable manner, in reasonable grammar, without shouting, or lapsing into a different language.

Generally individuals receive communications with the expectation that a communicator is going to fulfill the maxims.  I would like to look at the role such expectations played in a case study that unfolded in the latter half of 2008.  During that time, a hoax was perpetrated on the public and the media that involved a soccer player named Masal Bugduv, a sixteen-year-old Moldovan star.  The hoax was successful to the point that the Times of London ranked Bugduv as number 30 among “Footballs Top 50 Rising Stars” in an end-of-the-year feature in their sports section and reported that he would likely be signed by the Arsenal football club in the British Premier League.  The only difficulty was that Bugduv was not a real person but rather totally a product of a hoaxer’s imagination and the public response to Bugduv.  How did this happen?  With a bit of help from his creator, Bugduv climbed the feeding chain of European football media by going from an insertion in a Wikipedia page, to comments in forums, to the subject of forum posts, to blog posts, and then—after making the leap to more mainstream media—to a football magazine and finally to his position on the Times Top 50 list.  Let me tell you how the hoax unfolded. 

On July 19, 2008 a line was added to the Wikipedia entry for the Moldovan National football team1.  The line simply said:   
The great hope of Moldovan football is the teenage sensation Masal Bugduv who has been watched by a host of top clubs around Europe.  At just 16 years of age, he has already been named in the country’s provisional squad for the forthcoming World Cup campaign. (Moldovan National Football Team, 2008) 

Two days later, a short posting on the BBC football discussion boards introduced Bugduv to the British football world.  Several comments on the posting expressed excitement but most were skeptical, asking for sources.  The hoaxer responded: “Mates of mine saw him playing in some game against Armenia while on hols (sic) in the Baltics in May.  Say he has brilliant shot and shimmie and were shocked that he’s only 16. Set up a goal.  Built a bit like Rooney but not as pug ugly.”   Throughout the hoax, the hoaxer’s ear for football talk made for convincing communications. 

Several days later the hoaxer posted another message about Bugduv on a discussion board that yielded comments ranging from “There is no such player as Masal Bugduv” to discussions of his possible contributions.  Following a pattern adhered to throughout the hoax; the hoaxer did not respond to these comments but simply continued to post positive messages about Bugduv.    

The Bugduv hoax began during what is called the summer transfer window for football—it’s a three-month window of time for player trades where there is always wild speculation about possible transfers and signings in the British football press.   There is so much activity that teams typically ignore what is written and don’t bother to confirm or deny rumors.  The hoaxer took advantage of this time to write a series of rather fantastic newspaper stories that he posted throughout the summer.  He claimed the stories were originally published in a Moldovan newspaper and had been picked up by the Associated Press.   In these stories Bugduv was presented as a possible new young international player. . The narrative focused on work permit problems Bugduv was having as a rationale for him not being signed in a timely way.

On September 4, 2008 the hoax received its first real confirmation.  The well known soccer website previewed a world cup qualifier game between Latvia and Moldova and cited Bugduv and the attention he was attracting.  The hoaxer began to include direct quotations in his pseudo Associated Press stories.  For example, Bugduv was quoted as saying that he would “rip the soul of the Luxembourg team.”

Somewhat later a coach in the Premire League was quoted in an exchange with the press as saying: “Where are you going to find a striker?  Who is going to sell them? That is all I do all day.  You can find someone from Moldova or wherever—but I’m not taking chances.”  Bugduv took exception to this statement and was quoted in another post as defending Moldovan football in general and his skills in particular.  Notice that we now have a Premier League Coach attacking a fictional player and the fictional player is responding to the insult.

Then the hoax paid off significantly.  Bugduv was mentioned in the respected soccer magazine When Saturday Comes  and then, on Jan 12, 2009 the London Times listed Bugduv as number 30 in a story about footballs top 50 rising stars.  With the attention that the London Times story generated, bloggers started looking at Bugduv with a more critical eye and he was soon exposed.  There was extensive coverage of the prominent media outlets that had been taken in with a good amount of satisfaction in the blogging community.

Throughout the six months of Bugdov’s “existence”, some questions about his reality were posed, but they were isolated and therefore largely ignored, leaving the hoaxer to post again, strengthening the deception.  As a result, the ideas put forward in the postings were allowed to remain alive within the blogging community. 

How did this happen?  Bugduv was a pure fabrication which took in most of the public at large, professionals in British football, and ultimately, seasoned sports journalists.  Of course we can accuse bloggers and reporters of just being lazy and not sufficiently checking their facts but I think the answer lies more fundamentally with our expectations.  Even though we live in a sophisticated, even cynical media environment, we believe in Grice’s quality maxim, we still expect to be told the truth.  The hoaxer violated the quality maxim at every turn.  The original Wikipedia entry introduced a totally fictional person.  The possibilities described in subsequent posts that Bugduv would join a number of English football teams were equally fictional.  The initial narrative then detailed his subsequent work permit problems.  All these issues were likewise fabrications but fabrications that were reasonably difficult to discredit.  
Although the hoaxer of course ignored the quality maxim—this was a hoax—he or she was precise in conforming to the expectations generated by the maxims of quantity, relevance, and manner.  The success of the Bugduv hoax largely turned on the hoaxer’s ability to marshal journalistic authority, chiefly by mimicking traditional journalistic forms.  The hoaxer presented the postings as news stories from the Associated Press.  Stories were also the “correct” length and the amount of detail present was carefully regulated—they reflected what would be found in a typical AP story. 

For example, when Bugduv told the press that his father always dreamed of him playing for a Premier team, these particulars gave readers confidence that the account they were reading was accurate. 

An additional reason why the Bugduv hoax was so convincing was the hoaxer’s mastery of a sports writing format.  Such writing is very consistent with Grice’s relevance and manner maxims; labeling the stories as Associated Press stories invoked a series of expectations of writing style that were largely met and uncritically accepted.  Accepting the stories meant accepting Bugduv.  The sham stories used phrasing and vocabulary that were highly familiar to soccer fans.  Consider as an example the sentence:

Trailing 2-1 with just 10 minutes left, Moldova seem set to lose until Bugduv lost his marker on the left wing, shimmied inside two defenders and fired in a shot that could only be parried by Armenian keeper Racif into the path of onrushing Igor Bugaev who equalized
Football-specific vocabulary presented in the story such as marker, wing, shimmy, and equalized provides a certain sound that increases plausibility.

Finally, the hoaxer’s feat is especially impressive given that the postings were anonymous. Of course it was necessary to give up the use of a name and any association with a news organization.  Rather than relying on associations with established news institutions, the hoaxer used the participatory journalism of web based media and social networking.  In the sports blog environment, audience members commonly present statistics, comment on and contextualize player performances, and share their knowledge of teams and players doings beyond the field of play.   It was this environment that made Bugduv possible—the co-creation of content between blog authors and audience gave Bugduv his hearing.  The hoaxer was really good at this; sounding the right notes—at times allowing Bugduv to assert himself and at other times remaining silent.   The deception was possible because of the hoaxer’s rhetoric—a journalistic voice that confirmed expectations generated by Grice’s maxims.

To what degree are Grice’s maxims, created 35 years ago, serviceable in today’s digital environment?  Grice originally developed his maxims to describe expectations associated with face-to-face communication.  As we move from face-to-face conversation to mediated communications, it’s logical to assume that the expectations generated by the maxims will to some degree lose their “fit” with the new cultural and logistical communication environments of the web.  Interactions in the blogosphere are decontextualized relative to face-to-face interaction and also relative to traditional journalistic processes of reporting news.  With this decontextualization have come changes in our expectations of all web based communications, including blogs.  Since the web has put the ability to self-publish in the hands of every person, gatekeepers who have traditionally monitored quality, quantity, relevance, and manner are gone and communication has become unbound.  We can each think of individuals who routinely violate Grice’s maxims in their web-based communications.   But, despite a general loosening of constraints in the expectations associated with the maxims, the Bugduv case suggests that the expectations that follow from the traditional maxims still have power and influence.  It was by conforming to many of the expectations associated with news production that the hoaxer ultimately was successful.  That said, although the hoaxer relied on the forms of traditional media to generate credibility, ultimately the tools of the anonymous internet, specifically embodied in blogs, were what made the Bugduv hoax possible.

Let’s go back to my Grandfather and the bacon.  You’ll remember that he tore his pants chasing after a block of wood.  But the block of wood was dressed up to look like a side of bacon.  He relied on external form—remember the distinctive butcher paper—that created an expectation that a tasty, free dinner was waiting in the center of the crossroad.  His expectations got the best of his judgment.  I fear that our expectations are similarly influenced in a world that has become a churning caldron of digitally presented truth claims. We expect that truth will be told when it is packaged in particular ways but we often unwrap wood when we’re seeking bacon.  In my grandfather’s day, news outlets were scrupulous to separate opinion from fact.  That comfortable distinction is a quaint reminder of bygone days as we recognize that every news report has some spin attached to it and that in many cases the spin is more substantive than any underlying reality.  My prediction is that this pattern will continue.  I’m reminded of the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite regarding the slippery nature of riches.  Of course he was prophesying the destruction of the Nephite nation but his words resonate in our own time.  “O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them Helaman 13:36).  itruth, defined as truth verses error in our digital world—is certainly slippery, requiring our best and most honest efforts to detect. 

So where does all this leave us?  Has the detection of truth in our digital environment — itruth, become so slippery that we should abandon the news?  Has the process of reporting the news become so intertwined with the interests of reporters and the organizations they work for that itruth in a digital environment is unrealistically difficult to recognize?  I’d like to argue that despite the obvious difficulties in detecting itruth.  In terms of my Grandfather’s story, it’s still useful and possible to discern bacon from chunks of wood and to hopefully do it without figuratively tearing our pants and losing our dinner.   We would all do well to evaluate the degree to which we trust the information we encounter.  As we have seen, this is especially true in a digital environment where interactions are decontexualized and the authority of sources is unclear.   

So how are we to discern truth from error?  An answer lies with our expectations.  By and large expectations serve us.  They are a way to generalize from one situation to another.  They aid us in our decision making and lighten our cognitive load.  But they have a dark side as well.  The same process that lightens our cognitive load tends to constrain our thinking and limit our perceptual possibilities.  Remember the gorilla that many of you missed.  In order to sort itruth from error we must defeat what I call the tyranny of expectations.  Why tyranny? Suppose we read a report on a web site.   We take the report and evaluate the source.  We certainly trust certain web sites more than others.  But those expectations may make us vulnerable.  The more deeply held our expectations, the more likely they are to color our perceptions of what we think is true.  In turn, as we become comfortable with the truth of a particular report, our expectations of trust in its source are strengthened.  Over time, as the cycle is repeated we may develop such strong expectations regarding a particular source that our ability to discern error may be compromised.  The tyranny of expectations is that they exercise significant influence almost without our realization.  We defeat the tyranny of expectations when we lay aside our preconceptions and engage in critical evaluation.  It seems to me that the process I’m proposing has at least two characteristics: effort and honesty.  It takes effort to view arguments or reports on their own merits and not immediately absorb them into our existing ideology or reject them without serious consideration.  This takes effort so that when we’re tired or upset about other things or simply feeling lazy we’re especially vulnerable to our expectations. Critical evaluation further requires the honesty to lay aside rationalizations and preconceptions in order to recognize truth and reject error wherever we find it rather than simply being comfortable with our familiar media patterns

Ultimately the detection of itruth requires a state of the heart, an openness that will free us from the restrictions of our own making.   Words, and the way that we say them, write them, and read them, matter.  Words matter, not only for clarity of expression or clarity of understanding but because using them are actions that have great power.  When Enoch was called by the Lord as a prophet for his times he felt inadequate for the job. In Moses chapter 6 the scripture reads:
And when Enoch had heard these words, he bowed himself to the earth, before the Lord, and spake before the Lord, saying: Why is it that I have found favor in thy sight, and am but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant?

The Lord assured Enoch that he would support him as he fulfilled the commandment to prophecy saying “Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance” 
“And so great was the faith of Enoch, that he led the people of God, … and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him. … 

Language—your language—has extraordinary power and words do matter.  Don’t let conspiring men in these slippery times rob you of your right to the truth, the endowment of power to which you are entitled though reading, hearing, and speaking words.  Our challenge is to exert the effort to produce the critical evaluation necessary to both receive and produce words that are true, words that are powerful, words that are sufficiently refined so that through words, we can do the work of the Lord.  Thank you.

1 ^ Chapman, Glenn. "YouTube serving up two billion videos daily". AFP. Retrieved December 21, 2010.
2 ^ "35 hours of video a minute uploaded to YouTube". AFP. Retrieved Dec 21, 2010.