The Problem of Verification

Jalena Lecic, whose photos were stolen and posted on the 'Gay Girl In Damascus' site
Jalena Lecic, whos photos were stolen and posted on the ‘Gay Girl In Damascus’ site

Angela Philips of Goldsmiths College, at last Friday’s POLIS conference:

A Major skill for journalists is to learn how to authenticate sources

Or, words to that effect! I made the note on twitter and therefore may have paraphrased. To fully authenticate the quote readers will have to watch the video of the session when it becomes available.

This quote stuck out, because twice in two weeks, I’ve been quick to share information online which has then been questioned and discredited.

The first was the damning testimony of an “executive of Sony Music UK” who described how Simon Cowell grooms and sexualises young performers, in his quest to find a British Justin Beiber.

Ronan was privately auditioned by SYCO scouts on two more occasions and, as is usual practice on BGT, he was “invited”  to audition for the show as a “preferred” contestant.  At the same time, Ronan and his parents were “required” to enter into a contract with SYCO.  Like all SYCO contracts, it is heavily  weighted in favour of the label and are notoriously bad, even in the cut-throat world of the music industry.  Simon effectively signed Ronan for life and he’s got little or no chance of ever  getting out of it…unless Simon decides to terminate.

Now the improbable perfection of little Ronan Parke has always made me feel uneasy, so I was quick to share the story on my Facebook page.  However, the original post quickly disappeared from the website where it was posted and Simon Cowell issued such a strong denial over matters of fact that I felt it rendered the accusatory, anonymous post unreliable.  The following day, James Ward posted an excellent analysis of how the attack was propagated by a twitter account @ukLegion, which has also now disappeared from Twitter.  I shared James’ link on Facebook too.


#include damage.h

An industry insider at #BGT spills his guts on how this year has been totally stiched up for Ronan Parke to win http://justpaste.it/c8g

Earlier this week, reports emerged of the abduction of a Syrian blogger in Damascus.  I duly tweeted out the links on the @englishpen feed, because that is precisely the sort of information we are supposed to share.  However, by Thursday it emerged that no-one can be found who has actually physically met the blogger, Amina Abdallah Arraf.  It appears the photos posted on her site are fake, but it is not clear whether the entire thing is an elaborate hoax, or whether she has cleverly covered her tracks by ensuring that if no-one has met her, no-one can unwittingly betray her.  I was reminded of the Ali Abduleman disappearance in Bahrain in March – I am still not clear whether he was abducted by security personnel, or has simply gone into hiding.

I have several things to say about this.  The first is that linking to hoax information is clearly embarrassing, no two ways about it.  Here’s my worst example, although to be fair it was reminiscent of a real story.  As the Literally Unbelievable blog shows with its comments on The Onion articles, other people are much more gullible than I.

The second thing is to say that, nevertheless, the internet can work as a sort of fact-check engine.  The act of sharing a link does not and should not imply complete endorsement.  In the case of the SyCo smear I, at least, was quick to share the original article and the rebuttals.  In this example, one could say that the act of posting/sharing is also an act of verification.  When you publicise some text, does it stand up to scrutiny?  If not, you have learned a fact about the world, which you also publish.  This method is something that bloggers understand innately.  However, in formal journalistic and legal circles such a practice would still be lumped in with ‘publish and be damned’ as irresponsible journalism.  But it is more akin to open-source fact-checking.

I will also say that internet publishing has the huge advantage over print in that it allows corrections to the original article.  In the case of Amina Abdallah Arraf, the three highly reputable news organisations I linked to (Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post) were all able to correct the original article.  This, I think, lessens the possibility of misinformation spreading.

Finally, this issue puts me in the mind of Ste Curran’s Monica, a play about a fantastic and witty online friend who turns out not to be real.

Back-up Your Brain

(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)

Would I restore my mind from back-up?

I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel.  It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished.  Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need.  Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland.  Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.

The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ability to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories.  Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa.  Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now).  Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction:  Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.

For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false.  In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it.  As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die!  When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades.  When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).

Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk.  I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.

One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige.  Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation).  Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world.  In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place.    This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.

However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy.  This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist.  I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren.  I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person.  A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire.  Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.

'The Same River Twice, part V' by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.
‘The Same River Twice, part V’ by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.