Thursday 12 May 2016

Sex Trials; Chemtrails; Facebook News Curation: Truth in the Information Age

A friend hands me an article downloaded from who-knows-what site. Global Research is the publisher. I've never heard of it before in spite of the ambitious name. The author is Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri. Never heard of her, either, though after I google I find out, first, she is dead, and second, she is well known to some as an environmental author, though her doctorate is of unknown origin according to others, and there's a youtube video of a lecture she gave  that you can watch. When she was still in this world, she wanted us to understand that we are being poisoned daily by our intake of certain pharmaceuticals which soothe us into accepting lies and deception from the US Department of Defense and the Department of Energy about the metal poisons, pathogens, weaponized viruses, etc., in the chem-trails sprayed in our skies by the US air force, and even commercial pilots.

What do you think of this, my friend wants to know?

I read it, slowly, slowly, checking each assertion against what at first appear to be end-notes citing sources because good sources are what one expects of anyone making such alarming assertions. But the end-notes don`t actually name sources that support the claims. They are extensions of the claims made in the main body of the article, which, apparently was published in 2010, yet here we all are, still. However, it nevertheless sets my nerves to jitterbugging: just enough of what she presents coincides with what I know from other reading. It makes me wonder. What about those chem-trails? But how can I prove or disprove claims from un-sourced assertions?

I tell my friend what's wrong with the article, why it may contain information but still have only a glancing relationship with truth, and why it would never make it into the standard press, which of course the author claims is due to the major media's cover-up of the conspiracy to poison us all.

This brings me to the current Facebook broohahah. We all know that Facebook is a huge money-making machine, its fortune derived from selling information about us and our interests to others as we share on its site. I am not a Facebook fan, though I have a page. I use it to tell anyone who might be interested that I have just posted something new here on this blog. Sometimes people contact me through Facebook, sometimes I find people that way, and for any reporter, that is very useful. But in general, I care so little about Facebook that though there has been a Facebook version of the news for some time, I never noticed it until Gizmodo raised a fuss loud enough to make my local paper. Gizmodo is owned by Gawker which is mainly in the recycled gossip business. Gizmodo has made a claim, via an unnamed source who once worked for Facebook, that Facebook's trending news section is a huffpuffery of left wing bias and censorship.

Okay, that's interesting I thought. Who knew Facebook (owned by a billionaire) has left wing bias? So I went to my Facebook page to look at the news section.

Huh, there it was on the right hand side, a changing list of story titles and links that are trending on Facebook in descending order of interest.  Apparently, Facebook is trying to compete with Twitter, though why that would be, when Facebook has a billion users and earns a lot more money, is unclear. Apparently, Facebook's algorithms pick their way through our pages to discern the stories we share and count them up to see what's on top of our minds. Gizmodo would have you believe that the top stories listed on my Facebook site constitute many people's main source of news, so, messing with the list is messing with news about the news. Gizmodo alleges that Facebook's list is no neutral product of a neutral chain of commands. Facebook employs human curators, smart people fresh out of Ivy League schools, to doctor its trending list, taking out stories that originated (aggregated is the better word) on right wing sites like Breitbart or Fox, while injecting stories from the left side of the American political opinion spectrum that might not be trending at all. Such manipulation of the information about what interests us, in Gizmodo's view, turns a lie into a truth.

However, picking through the Gizmodo story left me in a queasy state. Is there truth in it or just truthiness? First, it's clear from the Gizmodo story that the unnamed source has no recent knowledge of Facebook's practices, never mind its political agenda. As well, the story makes it seem as if there is something wrong on its face with Facebook employing smart curators. Yet any publisher, and Facebook is a publisher, has a duty to be as sure as it can be that the stories it republishes on my page and your page are neither defamatory, nor pornographic, nor incendiary bombs meant to drive us into the streets with pitchforks. This is what real news organizations hire editors to do. Editors sort the drivel and error-ridden chaff from information that is as trustworthy as wheat germ, and they try hard to publish only the latter, not the former.

So: is taking stories off the trending column and putting other stories on it a new form of  propaganda, or is it responsible behavior? Facebook denies that it does anything evil, Gizmodo asserts it does. What's the truth?

And last, but not least, there is the matter of the Jian Ghomeshi debacle, another instance of the problem of finding truth in this information soaked era.

Ghomeshi was a radio broadcaster, the star of a pretentious pop culture show called Q carried on the Canadian broadcasting system. The CBC is Canada's government-owned network with a legislated mandate to inform, entertain, and keep the country together. Ghomeshi was what passes for a radio celebrity. He went to a lot of entertainment industry parties where his picture was taken, his face often appearing on social media or in the papers because he is pretty, though his audience was only a few hundred thousand listeners a week. Just before he was accused in public of assaulting some women he'd dated, he published his own version of events on Facebook, claiming he liked rough sex and so did the women he went out with and that any charges that were about to be leveled at him were spurious and motivated by jealousy. The CBC fired him after reviewing a video he showed them in which a woman displayed serious bruising courtesy of Ghomeshi. The Toronto Star published some of the allegations, and eventually, the CBC's investigative show the Fifth Estate carried a feature on him and his behavior. These, and the Toronto police chief's pleas for any victims to come forward elicited several other women to come forward with allegations about unwanted experiences with Ghomeshi. The police charged him with sex crimes and two trials were set down.

The first trial involved the claims of three women alleging violent sexual behavior that they had not consented to. The trial became a huge spectacle in which Ghomeshi said nothing at all except not guilty and his lawyer, the brilliant and well prepared Marie Henein, proceeded to exhume all the strange emails sent to Ghomeshi by these complainants, emails written after the alleged events took place. Some of these emails suggested these victims were still interested in pursuing relationships with Ghomeshi. They also wrote emails to each other and some of their testimony under oath was inconsistent with, or contradicted, statements previously given. All this led the judge to rule that, while he was not saying the events didn't happen, their testimony was so tainted that he could not make a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard in a criminal trial. Ghomeshi was acquitted. Most women who read about the trial were furious. Why had three women telling similar stories not been sufficient to send Ghomeshi to the slammer? How could women ever press sexual assault charges successfully if emails and behavior after the fact could rewrite the actual events complained of?

Ghomeshi was supposed to face a second trial in June. His accuser in that trial had worked with Ghomeshi on his show for three years. She had moved to LA long before the other charges became public. In 2014 she wrote about what she endured at Ghomeshi's hands in the Guardian newspaper: she wrote about daily harassment and an actual assault while on the job and that when she complained to her managers, she was told that it was her job to take it. She also explained that her union abandoned her. Unlike the first trial, the Crown had a witness to one alleged act of sexual assault and there was another, but more useful, email trail. Still, after losing the first case, the Crown struck a deal with the defense to withdraw the charges if Ghomeshi apologized for his wrongdoing and signed a peace bond.

And so he did. Sort of. He never described the acts he was apologizing for. So where was the truth in that? Was he or wasn't he guilty of sexual assault?

Kathryn Borel, the complainant, was not satisfied with this vagueness. So she did something very unusual and very courageous in a city boasting many libel lawyers ready to prosecute a civil action. After the case was withdrawn, she stood on the steps of the courthouse in front of an assemblage of cameras and microphones and described what Ghomeshi was apologizing for in the most graphic terms. Her speech was recorded and can be found here. It is also carried in full on the front page of the Toronto Star, the newspaper that investigated and first published the allegations against Ghomeshi.

It is startling to read, painful to hear, shocking, yet refreshing. While court processes are supposed to present the truth, the fact is that this kind of statement is rarely heard in a trial.  A lawyer's prime duty is to the client: lawyers only ask the questions they already know the answers to, which is why relevant facts may never find their way to a courtroom floor and irrelevant facts can become central. What with cross examinations that pick through interesting minutiae one question at time, victims almost never get a chance to say in their own words, uninterrupted, exactly what happened.

In this age in which we are constantly bathed in information that often has no value, when one hears truth spoken, there is no queasiness, there are no cavils as set out above.

Physicists and mathematicians like to say that a theory must be true if it's beautiful. Put another way, unlike information, truth is like art: you'll know it when you hear it.

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