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The Search for Truth in the Age of Social Media

BU symposium today and tomorrow kicks off Mellon Sawyer Seminar

It’s what the chattering classes have been chattering about since election day—the wave of fake news that rolled through America’s political discourse in the 2016 presidential campaign via social media, swamping voters with false reports ranging from the pope endorsing Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton helping run a child sex ring at a Washington pizzeria. Professors, pollsters, pundits, and journalists have been debating the ways that fakery may have influenced the election, and what can be done about this new disturbing trend.

But how new is it? In his 1998 article “Struggle in Cyberspace: Act and Friction on the World Wide Web,” James E. Katz  foretold the avalanche of fake news. Katz, the Feld Professor of Emerging Media at the College of Communication, wrote in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: “Any kind of lie can be told, and, with the Web authoring tools so readily available, an undocumented lie can be made to look as real as the most carefully documented research finding.” Juliet Floyd, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of philosophy, says concerns over citizens’ ability to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of exaggeration, propaganda, and outright falsehoods dates back at least to Plato.

Now, Floyd, a philosopher and historian of logic, mathematics, and science, and Katz, director of COM’s Divison of Emerging Media and its Center for Mobile Communication Studies, are teaming up to present an international symposium, Journalism and the Search for Truth in an Age of Social Media, at BU today and tomorrow.

The symposium kicks off a year of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded Sawyer Seminars and workshops titled Philosophy of Emerging Computational Technologies: Humans, Values, and Society in Transition. The talks will bring together humanities scholars across a wide range of disciplines with social and natural scientists and experts in big data and computational analysis. Floyd and Katz, along with Russell Powell, a CAS assistant professor of philosophy, are the principal investigators on the $175,000 Mellon faculty development grant.

COM is cohosting the event as part of its Media Literacy Initiative, which is intended to help students, faculty, and others in the Boston area develop an informed sense of judgment about media credibility. Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of COM, notes that “as early as 1787 Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that the success of our democracy depends on the decisions made by an ‘informed citizenry.’ The challenge today is ensuring that the electorate is able to distinguish between quality information and misinformation, or as it’s framed lately, between real news and fake news.”

Other symposium sponsors are Andrew R. Lack (CFA’68), a BU trustee, the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and the Consulate General of France in Boston.

Established in 1994, Mellon’s Sawyer Seminars provide support for comparative research on historical and contemporary topics of major scholarly significance. Floyd, Katz, and Powell’s 2017–2018 Sawyer seminar will include a series of workshops and public events focused on ethical, social, legal, and epistemological issues arising out of emerging computational technologies. Scholars from the Boston area—among them up-and-coming faculty from MIT, Tufts University, and Northeastern University, as well as from other universities across the country and abroad—will visit BU to discuss philosophical, social, and ethical understandings of everyday life in an age of rapid technological transformation.

BU Today spoke with Katz and Floyd about the seminar and their hope of bringing together two sides—humanists on one side, computer scientists and big data people on the other—over the next year.

“I think we can conclude that there are things that are true and things that are false, and we can make a distinction in our daily lives between them, and in some cases these are trivial and unimportant, and at other times so important it is worth sacrificing one’s life for them.” —James E. Katz

BU Today: When did you start noticing fake news entering the current conversation?

Katz: A drumbeat of attention to fact checking grew during the election cycle, but it was only after the presidential election that fake news as a topic became so prominent. At that point, it took a great leap, because people were grasping for an explanation for what surprised so many experts and surveyors. How could this unexpected result have occurred? This became a partisan issue—with the Democrats using it against Donald Trump. And Trump, in his inimitable fashion, turned the charge around on his tormentors. And then it spread rapidly from there so it became a term of disparagement for any media outlet that you didn’t agree with. So you find President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela saying reports of abuse and shortages are fake news, Bashar al-Assad in Syria saying stories of mass hangings of thousands of people in his prisons are fake news, Vladimir Putin in Russia—all crying fake news about reporting.

Floyd: Now, to put in a word for philosophy, which is why the Mellon Foundation gave us this grant, I would like to say that truth is an evergreen for us, it’s the bread and butter, what every philosophy student has to study at some point.

Katz: I think we can conclude that there are things that are true and things that are false, and we can make a distinction in our daily lives between them, and in some cases these are trivial and unimportant, and at other times so important it is worth sacrificing one’s life for them.

Floyd: I agree. Fact and value are entangled in our everyday world. It’s what matters—to us, that is, for better or worse, that is always involved in our everyday drawing of distinctions between what is true and what is false. There are so many facts that we could talk about, discuss, defend, and care about and argue about. That’s where value comes in. If someone lies about their mother-in-law’s age, that’s a little different than lying or getting wrong intentionally some other important fact.

Katz: With the rise of the computer and mobile media and mobile devices and nudges and marketing campaigns and privacy invasions, there is a new challenge for the humanities to rise to understand and deal with these issues, at a time when, regrettably, students’ interest in the traditional humanities is receding. So, therefore, what we’re trying to do is engage two communities—humanities on one side, and on the other technology: mobiles, computing, networks, big data. Both sides have a lot to offer each other, but have been going their different ways.

“Fact and value are entangled in our everyday world. It’s what matters—to us, that is, for better or worse, that is always involved in our everyday drawing of distinctions between what is true and what is false.” —Juliet Floyd

Can you talk more about the two sides and how you hope to bring them together in conversation?

Floyd: The Mellon Foundation supported our initiative, I believe, because they wanted to help us give the humanities a voice in this rapidly evolving arena of computational technologies, and I think it’s of fundamental importance to the students whom we educate—because they are unlikely to enter professions where they will be doing the same things when they end their lives as when they began. They’re liable to be doing many things, changing very rapidly. I think one of the things about skepticism in a so-called post-truth era—when lives and fundamental features of lives are changing very rapidly—is that the voice of the humanities needs to be heard within this new context in which so many possibilities are becoming available to all of us. Many of the issues are very old and perennial, and all of us need to revisit them.

Katz: I would complement what Juliet’s saying, that it’s not only to encourage the computational leadership to be more familiar with the richness and the insights that the humanities have to offer, but also important to help a new generation of philosophers and humanists to have a better integration with the contemporary evolution of these computational technologies so that their own insights and research and the benefits that stem therefrom take that into account, and make it more useful.

Floyd: One of the themes we’ll discuss this year is the importance of so-called pure research in an age when engineering technologies and computational routines are necessary technologies, and engineering is entering the curriculum in a fundamental way.

Katz: Ethics are vital, especially when searching for truth. Our conference is assembling scholars who can analyze truth’s pursuit in journalism, ranging from getting facts straight to being aware of story context; even the way a phrase can frame interpretations of a story.

Floyd: It’s a get-together with a lot of time for discussion, brief papers. We’re not going to decide which news outlet we prefer—even though that might be very important—and we’re not going to measure this, but we’re going to put it into historical, philosophical, empirical context and discuss questions about how we might respond to this tremendous sense, which is worldwide, that we are in a post-truth era.

The symposium Journalism and the Search for Truth in an Age of Social Media: Implications of “Fake News” and Internet Trolling for Democracy, Politics and Citizen Inclusion is being held Monday, April 24, and Tuesday, April 25, at the Castle, 225 Bay State Rd. Find registration information for the free symposium here.

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Sara Rimer, Director, Research Communications at Boston University
Sara Rimer

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

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