The Truth Caricatures of Fake News
OK, you’re playing a two-person version of Pictionary with Tucker Carlson and you’re winning. He draws three semicircles, an elongated sideways “O” and a few dots. He refuses to draw further. He points, giggles and grimaces until it’s clear he’s drawn a frog disemboweling a cat with a whip. You draw a perfect human face and he guesses, “rapist?” “child molester?” “puppy killer?” — everything but “person” which is all you wanted. You soon discover that any guess you make, as long as it’s macabre and twisted, is correct; but, nothing normal is recognizable by Carlson. Why is that; and, will it inform his next drawing?
The human brain is phenomenal. Driving a car, it resolves complex differential equations in order to estimate the approach speeds of multiple nearby vehicles. Choosing between refrigerators on a showroom floor, it takes all features into account, performing complex multivariate analysis in order to select the ideal option. For some situations, like driving, the results are returned immediately and instinctively by the instinctive mind. In choosing a refrigerator, the wise buyer will “sleep on it” so that the full analysis may complete, providing the morning revelation that the Bosch is the obvious choice: this discovery arises from the reflective mind. These are two distinct minds operating within the human brain; but, both have evolved to cooperate in promoting the survival of this unique species. With such an astounding cognitive device at our disposal, it must be very difficult to mislead a human.
Of course, my reader understands that, with the help of Donald Trump’s distracting antics, about a third of the humans in the U.S. have been misled for a handful of years. Why did these humans not gather the needed data reported by news media and submit that for detailed analysis by their reflective minds? Why were there not millions of “morning revelations” wherein the incoherence of certain data was defeated by the more consistent and reasonable data? How could these astounding brains have failed so many humans?
We will not answer those questions honestly with the word “laziness.” It isn’t that simple. Those who would mislead — via the innocent play of the magician or the comedian or the nefarious ploy of the grifter or the con artist — do so by fooling the brain into believing it has a solution and not a problem. There are many ways to do this including the technique of leveraging what the brain accepts as truth and attaching a false claim to it. “You are a beautiful woman and I want you in my film.” “You are a wizard with money so I know you will find this investment attractive.”
Alternatively, the brain may be fooled into believing it is in a crisis situation and that an immediate decision is required: “This sale is about to end!” “Only two super-ultra iPhones are left!” Also, the brain may be provided with a small amount of not entirely false information requiring the brain to fill in the missing pieces. Beginning with a few corrupted facts, the resulting structure will serve the intended error: “Republicans have always been the friend of the working man.” So liberals must not like the working man. The liberal Congress just helps the wealthy. Liberals help the wealthy and hurt me and I want to make them cry.
All of these misdirections count on one thing: the instinctive mind must believe it has the solution so that the reflective mind is never engaged. One of the most common techniques of the truly fake news media is to provide sparse data in the form of suggestive questions or false data that are later quietly retracted or fantastic opinions that are “just opinions.” In so doing InfoWars, TheBlaze and The Drudge Report paint a sparse sketch of the truth, encouraging instinctive human minds to build the final, twisted portrait.
The Process of Caricature
The caricature is an unusual form of art. It is very human. No other animal would understand it. A caricature is an artistic abbreviation. It takes the one or two most distinctive features of a person and exaggerates them in order to make an otherwise generic picture recognizable as the person being represented. Admittedly, the male robin redbreast will attack a tuft of orange feathers, believing that feature to be an entire male rival and a mother turkey will interpret a chirping fox pelt as a proper baby turkey; but, these are not so much caricatures as signals: primitive triggers driving primitive biological programs. Caricatures are signals of a sort, but they are more interesting because they are more subtle than a sound and more evocative than a visual cue. A caricature may be constructed from signals but it is a complex composite. It is a signal fit for a human.
As I discussed in The Dupes of Hazzard, the human mind, when presented with a sparse patchy collection of data, will fill in the missing bits based upon experience in order to provide a complete picture. The conceptions within the brain do not work well with incomplete pictures and so the brain, when provided with partial data, will naturally provide the missing pieces as best it can.
Meanwhile, when the human brain is presented with a complete picture (e.g., a human face) it doesn’t remember everything. Instead, the human brain, with its limited storage capacity, identifies key attributes of the complete picture and remembers the complete thing as a subset of those key features. So we remember things not as complete pictures but as a few identifying characteristics with the rest filled in as generic pieces.
The caricature is appealing to the human mind because it grasps and emulates the very method by which the human brain recalls facts.
The Power of Caricature
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes two basic components of human consciousness. What he calls system 1 is the instinctual component (referred to above as the instinctive mind). It reacts quickly using stereotypical stored knowledge and embedded processes in order to assure that the human flees from imminent danger or mates with the most appropriate partner or avoids eating dangerous plants. System 1 counts on sketchy readily-accessible stored data, some wired from birth (a duckling’s system 1 instantly recognizes the image of a hawk in the sky and responds appropriately) and very basic learned experience (Grampa Thompson repeating over and over that Planned Parenthood kills babies) in order to come to quick judgements intended to assure the preservation of that particular member of the species.
The other component, system 2, involves the complex interaction between the conscious mind and the unconscious neural network residing primarily in the highly-connected frontal cortex of the human brain. This is very like the reflective mind described above. System 1 presents the immediate first impression and makes the initial recommendation for action. In those humans who had good elementary school teachers or enlightened parents, system 1 simply introduces the problem. System 2 then steps in. It takes in the issue to be assessed and the system 1 instinctual recommendation. It then cogitates on the issue. It submits the large multivariate problem calmly to the frontal cortex, which is uniquely qualified to process the multivariate problem in its complex neural network and return a disciplined resolution.
Kahneman explains that this is standard procedure for the rational human being. Here, though, we must come to the necessary understanding that the vast majority of humans are not rational. Study after study suggests that fewer than thirty percent of humans are actually capable of engaging system 2. The rest take the first impression and react instinctively. These humans react as would incensed timber wolves: the environment triggers a response from system 1 and they react. In these people, the most basic brain functions of system 1 make most of the decisions and so we return to the caricature.
The caricature defines the initial impression of the primitive brain and an individual skilled in the production of a caricature may grasp that brain and manipulate it at will. The innocent street caricaturist has only benign designs on customers; but there are those who may use the caricature to corrupt.
Caricature as Concept
Concepts are big things. They encompass whole worlds of facts, theories and fantastic possibilities. To hold a concept in your brain is to construct a world. To maintain a world requires energy, lots of energy. People who routinely think through problems in a disciplined fashion have developed the muscles required to construct and maintain worlds. No one is born with those muscles: they must be developed through discipline and study.
While concepts are difficult, the brain craves them. Humans crave the beauty of the concept. Whether muscular or not, brains want some sort of consistent world. That concept may be the world of Trump won the election and I must return the U.S. to its rightful master. It could be the world of libtards extract baby’s faces and wear them as masks of demonic rejuvenation. It could be the world of communists have invaded the country and have converted the nation to a Scandiwegian orgy of free love and free money. If the world is simple enough, the primitive brain will fill in the missing pieces and enjoy the satisfaction of a decrepit yet internally consistent world. Such a concept may be satisfying to the impoverished mind and may be constructed from a well-devised caricature.
This is why Fox News and OAN present the news as fragmentary signals rather than as a narrative explanation of current events. Signals trigger the primitive brain and signals are the lingua franca of the fake news system. These signals are composed of the most sensational attributes of the factual news pieced together in order to construct a caricature of the real news that an inexperienced mind may take up and mold into a sad simulacrum of a concept — a corrupt simulation of the world. Signals like cancel culture and socialism and stolen election have no actual meaning but they evoke a reaction from the instinctive system 1 of each follower, a reaction that leads to an all-consuming anger which drives whining, resentment and the occasional outright rebellion.
Fraud through Implication
By constructing a caricature of the real world and presenting it to desperate, needy people, these operators perpetrate a fraud through implication. They build a resentful world — a concept amenable to a yearning soul. They exaggerate only the select dark alleys and threatening glares of that world. They construct a caricature from the actual world; but, the attributes they exaggerate are just the ones that stimulate the desired instinctive reaction. It is the food, mate or rival for the timber wolf. It is merely a signal to raise the appropriate hormones; but, it isn’t just a howl or a grunt, it is a signal fit for a human brain. It is a carefully constructed signal defining a complex thing based upon select exaggerated features. It is a caricature.
Using caricatures, the fake news presents the complex and truly important problems of the real world as a handful of simple, evocative images. The purpose is to keep the audience angry and their blame squarely directed. Knowing whom to blame, Tucker Carlson’s audience may be left to stew. They now know that they cannot solve this vague problem because it is the work of those others. In the next program the host may identify a different caricature and a different blameworthy party. As long as the sparse cartoon is recognizable in terms of familiar things, it may define a problem and the inaccessible solution and the ill-defined others by whom the problem has been crafted. Nothing may be done. The audience is paralyzed. All problems are someone else’s responsibility and so the citizenry may simply stew, leaving their masters to reap the profits of the real world.
Is this true? Can we understand the fraud of fake news in terms of the caricature? If so, does this provide critical thinkers with a mechanism for recapturing the scattered victims of the Republican machine? Can rational people take on the task of drawing simplified images of reality, but with emphasis on its truly important features? Could such images trigger a system 1 response that is appropriate to the actual world as opposed to the Republican cartoon dystopia?
I am hopeful that if this is not true, it may at least point in a useful direction. Human minds are being misled and wrongfully exploited. If such minds are only open to exploitation, then good people must learn to exploit. There must be a benign way to open these minds to what is true. To fill these vessels with a real world with real problems and real solutions; and to turn these animal instincts to the confident human labor of community and progress.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen, a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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