22/02/2017 11:52 GMT | Updated 23/02/2018 05:12 GMT

The Role Of Data In The Post-Truth Era

What does the word 'manipulation' mean to you? Perhaps your instant reaction is that 'manipulation' has negative connotations; i.e. something is being done to gain an outcome that is only in the interest of the person doing the manipulating. Is this fair? A quick online search yields this; 1) the action of manipulating something in a skilful manner or 2) the action of manipulating someone in a clever or unscrupulous way. The reason for me exploring the definition of the word 'manipulation' is that, in the last few weeks, I've actually seen both definitions of the word brought into sharp focus.

You may not have noticed that, sadly, Hans Rosling passed away very recently. As a self-confessed data freak, Hans was something of a hero to me. As his biog says, 'In Hans Rosling's hands, data sings.' If you haven't come across him before, then check out his first ever Ted talk back in 2006. It's an inspiring tour de force where data is used to help the audience understand the challenges facing the developing world.

A Professor of Health from Stockholm, Hans saw himself as an 'edutainer' with a mission to help people make better sense of their world through the presentation of data in thought provoking, interesting and compelling ways. Put simply, Hans Rosling manipulated data to help him tell a narrative. But he did so with one objective in mind; to help people understand that the human race was making good progress combatting many of the big, macro challenges that face us. His work was life affirming, inspirational and positive. And it was all driven by data.

Compare Hans' positive use of data with this big story about data manipulation or perhaps this one about how a small British firm used Facebook data to manipulate voters, or finally this story where a US Intelligence Chief confirms that Russia used fake news to manipulate the election. Sadly this kind of manipulation has played out across all forms of media, since before Donald Trump decided to run for office, but has become stunningly prevalent in recent months. The furore over 'Fake News' has built steadily and shows no sign of abating as various stakeholders in the debate see success in manipulating 'news' to drive individual political agendas.

Incredibly, the technology that lets us expose corrupt dictators and drive freedom initiatives, such as the Arab Spring uprisings, is also being used by oppressors for their own benefit. Those that been exposed are now becoming experts at using social media and fake news to push their corrupt agenda. This deluge of fake news is possible because the speed with which news is delivered and the quantity of news available today. Unfortunately, in an effort to be first with the story, the rigour of fact checking is, at best, not on the top of the writer's priority list and, at worst, wilfully ignored. Combine this with sources that have their own agendas (dare I say Fox News?) and news consumers who increasingly suffer from 15 second attention spans and we have a potent cocktail for allowing 'fake news' to thrive.

The consequence of fake news is that misinformation and propaganda can create entrenched opinions and attitudes that are both dangerous and wrong. In fact, this may be the worst problem. Many people form their opinions for legitimate reasons of personal experience, but most are formed by social pressure. Often the opinions are developed and become hardened based on little time spent considering multiple viewpoints and using logical reasoning to form an independent thought (who has the time? I need to update Instagram!) The result is that a large number of people are sadly uniformed on political, social and economic issues. They quickly form an opinion (or blindly adopt the opinion of their social group) and look for 'facts' to support their view. And who has the 'facts'? The news of course! With an opinion formed and backed up by a quick look at 'news' on the Internet, confirmation bias reigns. Studies have shown that it can be so strong even when presented with actual facts some people will not change their minds because it's so hard to overcome a deep and long-held, but falsely formed, belief. Given the polarizing nature our political discussions today, it's quite an effort to even get people to consider an opposing opinion and it's much harder after exposure to an onslaught of fake news that support their beliefs.

The whole situation with 'fake news' is intensely disappointing and worrying. When I think about the value that the explosion in data that the Internet has created brings to us, I don't think about Donald Trump using it to drive a divisive and negative narrative. I think of the opportunity to manipulate that data for good and in ways that can improve the human condition. I think of Hans Rosling. Let's hope in the future that more and more people take the route of manipulating data that Hans Rosling chose rather than the route which the new President seems to be taking. The world will undoubtedly be a better place if they do.