The Mint:         Good morning, Alice. And thank you very much for giving some of your time to talk to The Mint Magazine.

Alice:                Thank you for having me.

The Mint:         Well, I’m absolutely fascinated by the topic of your book, Authenticity. It’s particularly interesting because one of the main simplifying assumptions of economics is perfect information.

                        But of course, the reality, as your book reveals, is there’s so much that is uncertain that we don’t know whether to believe, that has opened a whole area, I think, that we need to explore.

                        So I wondered, one of the things you talk about in your book is fact-checking, which obviously has grown a lot recently with fake news and so on. And I want to know, does that work? How extensive is it? Is it practical?

Alice:                Well, I think my short answer would be fact-checking does work, but it’s difficult. And fact-checking also depends on what sort of thing you are fact-checking.

                        So if you are fact-checking the authenticity of a picture, then you’ll be doing something different from whether you are fact-checking the authenticity of a report from the war in Ukraine, or whether you are fact check checking the… What happens in academia quite a lot, the authenticity of your student’s exam papers.

The Mint:         Right. Yeah.

Alice:                Authenticity in the sense here, authorship. So it really depends on the particular case. But yes, fact-checking does work, even in the face of the tsunami of misinformation that we’re facing at the moment.

                        And quite possibly because of the tsunami of misinformation that we are facing at the moment, a huge number of fact-checking initiatives, fact-checking alliances, international groupings, community powered fact-checking…

                        Organisations like Bellingcat being one of the best known are springing up, actually. I’ve been watching the growth. So yes, but it’s not easy. How about that as an answer?

The Mint:         I don’t think I’ve ever been to a fact-checking website. Obviously, I read newspapers and get various information. How do I know whether it’s been fact checked or whether I should rely on that knowledge?

Alice:                Well, most of the mainstream papers now will subscribe to have fact-checking services or have their own in-house ones like the BBC’s Reality Check. A lot of them will use something like NewsGuard.

                        The Washington Post uses PolitiFact, the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, which ranks statements in its Truth-O-Metre from absolutely true, all the way through partially true, lie, and then the final one is pants on fire. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

The Mint:         Right.

Alice:                And you’ll find versions of that in every language across the world. And it’s almost the test of a reputable source. The other thing is, for instance, you might not know this.

                        But even within WhatsApp there is a number that you can message to ask whether something one of your friends has said, maybe about COVID, is true.

The Mint:         All right.

Alice:                And the benefit of that, obviously, is that WhatsApp will send you back a fact check after a while so that you don’t have to say to your friend, “Oh, you are a complete idiot. How can you believe that gargling with salt water is going to cure anything?” What you can say is, “I checked that with WhatsApp and funnily, it’s not true.”

The Mint:         Okay. So we don’t have to engage with the fact-checking to know it’s happening or we think it’s happening in the background. And those are the facts that we’re being told. I wonder about all the facts…

                        Imagine the whole world, with all the people in it, and everything that’s going on. Obviously, a load of that… Most of it, probably the huge percentage, a vast amount we never hear about or never know about.

                        So there are facts happening, if you like, or reality happening that never gets transmitted to us in any form. How do we rely on the fact that what we’re getting told is all that matters, if you like? And who determines what matters?

Alice:                Yeah. I think that is a very good question. I think the first part of the answer is we are all going to have to get a lot better at searching out the correct facts, the first half of your question.

                        So we’re all used to going on Google. Very few people know that there is another box that looks like Google, within Google, called Google Fact Check Explorer.

                        And it lists all the fact checks that it has ever correlated and brought together, and with their assigned truth to falsehood rating and who gave that rating.

                        So it’s actually all there on Google, people just need… Millions of people use it. Billions of people are using this, but most of us don’t know about it. We’re going to have to get better used to it.

                        The second question, I think your question is about who sets the agenda? And that’s a really, really interesting one, and probably takes you into whole discussions of the curve of polarisation.

                        And therefore, the collapse of trust in some of the mainstream media, particularly in America where trust in the media is deeply, deeply polarised. It’s not that good over here.

                        And who sets those agendas and how social media and what’s trending on Twitter, less so on Twitter now, is increasingly setting the agenda for those newspapers. So I think that’s very difficult. I think in a funny way, in many ways our world is closing in and we need more alternative views.

The Mint:         And presumably from areas that are less represented with fewer resources. I interviewed a Pakistani journalist a few months ago, and he said how difficult it was to escape from the news agenda as set in the Western world, if you like.

                        Even though he was trying to provide a broader view of what was happening in the world, it was just what was considered important was still being driven by Western media, and actually finding out about stuff that wasn’t featuring in Western media was incredibly difficult.

Alice:                Well, I suppose they’ve always done it. But people are beginning to turn more to stunts and humour and virality to get their point of view trending on whichever social media platform you might want it to, where it can then be discovered by the mainstream media.

                        And it was a tactic that was used in America at the very far right, but things would start in 4chan or 8chan and slowly make their way via Breitbart and things like that into the mainstream media, who commented on them.

                        And I think a similar but more beneficial process might be… For the person you were talking to in Pakistan, it’s very difficult to get an alternative view heard, unless something you do… Unless it’s appalling like the floods situation or if you do something, I suppose, almost situationist in character.

The Mint:         Situationist in character?

Alice:                Situational where you make a spectacle, or something humorous. I’ve just been in Paris, if you block the motorways and set fire to the rubbish which hasn’t been collected…

                        It’s what was happening in Paris yesterday. And they were blockading main roads but also setting fire to them, causing a lot of angst to parents whose children were doing the first day of their baccalaureate exam and trying to get into school.

The Mint:         And I suppose actually, if you’re on the wrong end of a flood in Pakistan, you’re not exactly going to have the resources or time, et cetera.

Alice:                But the alternative voices, which I’m presuming the person you talked to had probably been trying to get the issue of climate change and lack of preparation for it noticed for years.

The Mint:         Yes. And I suppose a lot of this obviously comes down to resources because if you’re one voice as opposed to someone hugely funded… Your Fox News or whatever with an enormous amount of money and effort and so forth. And I suppose we are never going to be able to really do anything about that huge differentiation of resources as a factor of inequality, I guess.

Alice:                Yes. We’re getting very much onto the issue of what I do write about actually in the book, which is the issue of attention. And the problem is that too much attention leads to…

                        Too much information leads to a scarcity of time and a scarcity of attention. So even if every single bit of information was factually correct, there would still be too much of it. You’d still have to do some kind of choosing.

The Mint:         So [inaudible 00:10:56]…

Alice:                The Mint, the problem is that you and I remember when there were free channels.

The Mint:         Yes.

Alice:                And everything was easier, and there were a just a few newspapers. And people see that as a golden age of media. I’m not sure it was, but we didn’t know…

The Mint:         What we didn’t know.

Alice:                We didn’t know what we didn’t know. And I was in Paris with my son, who’s 26, and he was just saying to me, with a really puzzled expression on his face. He said, “How did you know bus times without the internet?”

The Mint:         Blimey. So who can we trust? Because I suppose, we haven’t got time to research, to look into everything. So ultimately, we’ve got to choose some channels or choose ways of finding out stuff where we feel that the sources are reasonably trustworthy, don’t we?

                        So what do we look for? The great BBC is under question at the moment, in terms of how its reporting has been affected by various influences. Where are we left as the consumer of information?

Alice:                I think we’re actually left in a very good position because actually, just talking about the bus times, the extraordinary resource that is the internet…

                        And we should remember that when the internet started, we were hugely enthusiastic about it. Come on, it was the new digital Gutenberg. It was the library of Alexandria brought to your desk.

                        It was the whole of the world’s knowledge, and Google was going to translate all of the books and put them all online. So it starts off as the solution to everything.

                        And we must actually remember back to those days when Stewart Brand was going, “Information wants to be free.” Before we get totally gloomy about now…

                        Now we didn’t put any checks and balances early on to say, “Oh by the way, only people who are respectable and reliable and have really good fact-checking and authentication should put their stuff on the net.”

                        So we have definitely closed the door or failed. We are failing to close the door after the horse has bolted. So the internet became a problem, but in fact…

                        And again, I do write about this because I call them the armies of truth. The internet is part of the solution. You can really find the stuff you need to find, and you can select, and you can make choices. But we all need to learn how.

                        And I think two very good examples of places where they’ve had to learn how to distinguish misinformation from real information are two of the most threatened countries in the world, which are Finland and Taiwan.

                        Because you can imagine they’ve got a big, not entirely friendly neighbour looming over them who wants to basically rewrite their history and say, “Taiwan should be part of China.”

                        Finland was historically part of Russia, and they’re beaming in loads of misinformation. And the result is that those two countries have set up an educational system and a civic system to be two of the most misinformation resilient countries on earth.

                        They’ve done it at a country level. They are literally training kids with a teddy bear on television, how to spot, “Is this teddy bear saying the truth?” I don’t know Finnish, so I hope I translated this correctly.

                        “Is this teddy bear telling the truth? Or is this teddy bear misinforming?” All the way through school and civic society, learning to do exactly what you’re talking about.

The Mint:         And I suppose, interesting and frighteningly, you can see that’s the reason why the Russians have transported all those children to brainwash them, I suppose, which is the reverse which is terrifying.

Alice:                Absolutely terrifying, and a war crime.

The Mint:         And a war crime. I suppose interesting is there, you’ve got these two countries where there’s a deep need and a drive for truth. And sometimes, of course, people don’t want the truth. Do they? And I suppose you could say people choose a channel or choose information sometimes to hear what they want to hear [inaudible 00:15:28].

Alice:                I think that’s absolutely true. I think we have so many emotional biases that behavioural science has made the point that humans are not the rational economic beings that we were taught they were. But they have emotions and behavioural biases, and one of them or two of them are at least confirmation bias.

                        So you seek the channel. You have to be a pretty open-minded person to make a point of reading newspapers or watching television stations you don’t agree with.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Alice:                I don’t know if you do that at all. Every now and then, I try and buy something I know I won’t agree with.

The Mint:         Well, I get The Knowledge, which is a daily newsletter which features a range of articles from different sources. And sometimes you read them and think, “Bloody hell, why would they think that?”

Alice:                Well, that has to be good for you.

The Mint:         I’m sure it is. Well, just coming to, I think, a fascinating situation at the moment with Fox News and the court case around the vote counting software. And the fact that it’s coming out that they were selling the lie of the election fraud on the basis… Otherwise, they’d lose their viewers who wanted that story. Where do you think that’s going to go?

Alice:                Well, I think you’re right. That’s very interesting. And they’re being sued because the makers of the vote counting machines weren’t at all happy for being the scapegoat. And I think there’s another interesting case which I haven’t got my head round fully, which is the origin of COVID, a virus in humans.

                        And I completely bought the line, or it seemed completely scientific and rational me that it was a zoonotic disease because we’d seen other diseases that lept from animals to human beings.

                        And that it couldn’t have possibly been an escaper, a leaked virus from the Wuhan lab, which now more credible people are saying. But certainly, my instinct at the time was, “That can’t be true. We must stop the Americans blaming the Chinese.”

The Mint:         Yeah.

Alice:                So it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult. Will we ever know? I suppose, hypothetically, if a whistleblower comes out of a Wuhan lab and says, “Well, actually yes. It was a leak,” we would know.

                        But in the case of Fox News, allegedly… I’ve got to be very careful, allegedly they knew that they were… Is this right, that they knew that they were putting forward the line that their viewers wanted to hear?

The Mint:         Yeah. I think on purpose that they didn’t want to lose their market position because they knew people wanted something from Fox News. And if they started giving people things that they didn’t like, then they’d go elsewhere, which I suppose the ultimate market-driven news, you pay for whatever… You pay for the news you want, that suits you.

Alice:                Yeah. Yeah.

The Mint:         And makes you feel better about yourself, I suppose, in some way.

Alice:                So though I think one of the things that con artists know, not at all saying anybody in particular here is a con artist… But I’ve researched con artists because they’re psychologically very interesting, is that the artist is actually a very good version of the pure rational human being, because everything they do is calculated to bring them an advantage.

                        Their victims, their willing marks, as you call them, are constantly led astray by their own desires and behavioural biases and need for status or desire for money, quick, easy win, or any of the other emotions and desires that we’re all prey to.

                        So on one hand, you have a purely rational being. On the other hand, you have the victim who sways in the wind and is easily exploited because there are always things that we want.

                        We want more than we want to believe the truth. That sounds a very bleak analysis, actually having written a book about authenticity. But I thought one of the fascinating things was that however much we all talk about authenticity… And you have only to see there’s a wonderful thing called a Google Ngram. Do you know about that? I bet you do.

The Mint:         No, I don’t.

Alice:                Google Ngram, Google will simply tot up across the many centuries of its books it’s scanned, the number of times a particular word that you type in is used.

The Mint:         Oh, yes. Yeah.

Alice:                Now this isn’t the perfect research tool, it’s just one indication. You can read too much on it. But if you do do it for the word authenticity, in the late 20th century, early 21st, having had a pretty much straight line graph or slowly increasing, you get a huge spike because we are very, very interested in authenticity and the pursuit of it.

                        But for me, the very interesting thing, and it’s back to your point about are there things that we want more than the truth? Do we want to believe what we want to believe, more than we want to hear the facts, is there are many, many more things that are more important to us than authenticity.

The Mint:         Don’t we fundamentally want to believe that we’re a good person, in a way that we want to make sure…? Ultimately, we want our view of the world to hear with what we believe we’re doing for the good.

                        Actually, there’s an article in the forthcoming issue of the stories rich people tell themselves to make them feel better about the fact that they’ve got a huge carbon footprint, for instance, because a lot of them actually believe in the environment, et cetera, et cetera. So they have all sorts of ways of trying to tell the stories and believe that actually what they’re doing is okay.

Alice:                Yes. And I think this is the kind of thinking behind… Do you know the Effective Altruism movement?

The Mint:         Yes.

Alice:                Yeah. Where you’re saying, “Well, actually, not only am I rich and good. But the richer I get, the more good I can do.”

The Mint:         Yes. That’s a really neat get-out-of-jail card, isn’t it?

Alice:                Yeah.

The Mint:         Yes. It’s like being told, “Go and be a banker and make as much money as you possibly can, and then you can go and help others.” And it’s a very seductive line.

Alice:                Well, [inaudible 00:23:13] to rich people. Yes.

The Mint:         To rich people who’ve made it, I suppose. Or [inaudible 00:23:18]…

Alice:                It’s a terrific line. No, we can tell ourselves almost anything that touches us. Because part of the germ of the book I wrote was the imposter that I knew and how I didn’t spot any of his lies because they didn’t press my buttons.

                        They were just interesting. But if somebody tells me that they’re some aristocrat and if the right three people die, they’ll be Earl of Scarbrough I just go, “Well, that’s very nice,” because I don’t care about that. It didn’t have any effect on me. It had a great effect on some people.

                        But I also noticed, and furthermore there were other people who didn’t believe it at all because they felt they would’ve known him if he was going to be the Earl of Scarbrough or whatever. So you have the full range of lack of interest, total belief and interest, and total disbelief. Just on that one thing.

                        And what he was very good at doing, and what media channels and other people who want to market to you are very good at, is tuning into what it is that you desire most. Tuning into what you’re most likely to believe.

                        So for instance, my imposter told a lot of people’s stories about his very successful startups. He never told them to me because I used to work with him, and I would have seen through them.

The Mint:         Right.

Alice:                It’s a very careful balance when you’re trying to get people to believe things. You both have to tune into what they want to believe, and you have to be quite careful to avoid their areas of expertise.

The Mint:         Because then they’ll spot…

Alice:                They’ll spot you.

The Mint:         And so just to finish, if someone’s listening to this and wants to know what they can do to face up, to be more in the truth, to face up to reality, to not be taken in by bullshit, what would you advise? What should people do?

Alice:                Well, there’s tonnes of things you can do. But the first thing, I think, it might be useful to look inwards, which is if anything you read provokes strong emotion, a strong emotional reaction in you, then that’s a warning sign.

                        Because the moment you are reacting emotionally, it’s much, much harder to tell the truth, which is of course why unpleasant viral means spread because they either make you go, “Hurrah, this person is going to win,” or, “Boo. This set of people are not worthy.” So it’s the old emotivist issue.

                        So I think the first thing to do is look at whatever bit of information you’re considering and see whether it provokes an emotional reaction. And if it does, put a big question mark over it saying, “Why would a fact… Why should a fact promote this reaction in me?”

                        It doesn’t mean it’s not a fact, but it’s very likely to mean that it has been written to provoke an emotion that is stronger than your desire to discover the truth, I think would be my first one in your everyday life when you’re scrolling through Twitter or when you’re flicking through a newspaper. More broadly? Do you mean more broadly as well?

The Mint:         Yeah. To try and be in this world of all this information [inaudible 00:27:26] that’s telling you lots of different things, how can you find a way that’s more likely to lead to a more truthful understanding in some sense of the world?

Alice:                I think you have to be thoughtful and careful in your choice of media. I think you have to be careful not to feel you have to follow the news cycle, which is itself manufactured for interest. And it is manufactured to keep you reading the news.

The Mint:         Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a continuous soap to [inaudible 00:28:05]…

Alice:                It is a continuous soap. And we all know that you can have something terrible happen, like the earthquake in Turkey. And we heard about that for two weeks because it was dramatic, and now we’re not hearing about it.

                        But life is still going on there. So I think don’t feel you need to follow the news cycle. I’m assuming your listeners are the sorts of people who would on a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute basis, but probably turn to more thoughtful and expert analysis, I would say would be quite important.

The Mint:         Well, I think [inaudible 00:28:50] the moment. And I’m sure lots of people have views on how maybe they try and get as realistic a view of the world and see as wide a view as possible. So I’d be interested in any thoughts or comments on that. But thank you very much, Alice, for that.

Alice:                Thank you.

The Mint:         And it’s been a pleasure talking to you. And I’m sure this will be a topic which will run and run, won’t it?

Alice:                This topic will run and run, yes.

The Mint:         Brilliant. Thanks very much.

Alice:                Thanks very much for having me.


Alice Sherwood

Alice is the author of the award-winning Authenticity: Reclaiming Reality in a Counterfeit Culture (HarperCollins 2022), which argues that although our counterfeit culture is shaped by the most powerful forces of evolution, …

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