Fake news will thrive as long as we are happy to see only what we want to see
By Kenan Malik*
If a gorilla walked right in front of your eyes, you wouldn’t miss it, would you? Actually, half the country probably would.
In a classic 1999 experiment, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons showed people a video of basketball players, some wearing white shirts, some wearing black, and asked them to count how many times the players in white passed the ball. Halfway through the film, a woman in a gorilla suit saunters into the scene, faces the audience, thumps her chest and walks away. Extraordinarily, more than half of Chabris’s and Simons’s subjects were so intent on watching the ball being thrown that they failed to see the gorilla.
The experiment poses important questions about the reliance of eyewitness accounts. It also has a bearing on the way we access information, including news. Two stories last week illustrate how we often see what we expect, or want, to see.
The first is the tragic story of Dutch teenager Noa Pothoven. Sexually assaulted and raped as a young girl, Pothoven’s pain led to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anorexia.
So consumed was she by her mental distress that in 2017 she contacted an ‘end of life’ clinic to request euthanasia. It refused, because of her age. For a time, she was in hospital so she could be fed intravenously, having become dangerously underweight. Earlier this year, however, she decided that she wanted no further treatment and refused all food and fluids. Her parents and doctors agreed not to force-feed her. Last Sunday, she died at home, aged 17.
It’s a heartbreaking and unsettling story. What it wasn’t was an account of a teenager being ‘legally euthanized’ by the state. But that was how much of the world’s press reported it. It became a shocking tale, not just of the tragedy of Pothoven’s life but also of the immorality of the state in helping a vulnerable teenager to end it. Only through the efforts of journalists such as Naomi O’Leary, correspondent with Politico Europe, who took the trouble of reading the original Dutch reports of the case, did the truth emerge.
The misreporting can be seen as another instance of ‘fake news’. Certainly, there was shoddy journalism in the failure to check sources or even to read the Dutch press.
But the wider context of the distortions is important, too. There is a fraught debate in many countries about euthanasia and assisted suicide. The tragedy of Pothoven’s life and death revealed, for many, the ugly reality of such policies.
“Euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all,” tweeted the pope on Wednesday. Many journalists and readers may have refrained from asking deeper questions about the initial
account because the misreporting allowed them to see what they wanted to see. Much of what we call fake news may be like this — the result not of a desire to lie, but to reduce complex problems to simple truths.
Pothoven’s case poses many questions about her suffering and treatment. It is untrue, as many claim, that she was not force-fed only because of Holland’s euthanasia laws. In many countries, including Britain, euthanasia is illegal, but doctors and the courts often accept that competent adults have “the right to choose whether to eat or not” even if “the refusal is tantamount to suicide”.
Nevertheless, while the ethical debates about euthanasia and force-feeding are distinct, both raise profound questions about the relationship between an individual’s autonomy and what society deems morally acceptable. This is especially so in Pothoven’s case, as she was a minor. And while her death was not a case of euthanasia, it is important to ask whether the legalization of euthanasia made it easier for a deeply pained individual to imagine death as a way out.
These are complicated issues to which there are no straightforward answers. The desire for simple moral truths, and to see only what we want to see, makes it more difficult to navigate our way through such challenging dilemmas.
“Seeing what you want to see” is also at the heart of the second story — that of the “Central Park Five”. The original story is 30 years old. It has returned to the news because of a new Netflix drama, When They See Us, broadcast last week.
On 19 April 1989, a 28-year-old white woman, Trisha Meili, was beaten and raped while jogging in New York’s Central Park. She was in a coma for 12 days and still has no recollection of the events.
That same night, five young men — four African-American and one Hispanic — were arrested and charged with rape, assault and attempted murder, as well robbery and riot. There was no forensic evidence — DNA, fingerprints, blood, or semen — linking any of the suspects to the crime. Under coercion, they confessed to being accomplices to the rape, confessions they later retracted. All were convicted and received sentences of between five to 15 years.
In 2002, murderer and rapist Matias Reyes confessed to raping Meili. DNA and other evidence confirmed his guilt. The Central Park Five, having spent up to 13 years behind bars, were cleared and their convictions vacated.
The original case generated a moral panic about black youth. The term ‘wilding’ entered the vocabulary, describing ‘packs of bloodthirsty teens’ that descend ‘downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance… to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape’. It was a racialized term — the mobs were black, ‘their enemies were white’.
Such reporting may have aided the conviction of the Central Park Five. It pushed many US states to introduce new laws that allowed children as young as 13 to be tried as adults and led to the mass incarceration of black youth.
When They See Us tells the story of powerless black and Hispanic families, trapped by a justice system that is corrupt, vengeful and racist. It shows fake news as the work not of cranks and trolls but of a justice system that sets out to demonize young black men and of a media willing to concoct the evidence.
The misreporting of Pothoven’s death and the manipulation of the stories about the Central Park Five are very different cases. Both, however, shed light on how mistruths become accepted and on the dangers of seeing what we want to see. Too often, we don’t see the gorilla in front of our eyes. And too often we insist on seeing a gorilla when none is there.
*Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist.
Germany’s plan to access citizens’ data sparks fears of sinister past
By Atika Shubert*
A hidden audio recorder built to fit inside a bedroom door. A tiny camera stashed in a garden birdhouse. Secret odor-samplers embedded into living rooms sofa to collect signature body scents, to be stored for future use so sniffer dogs can track surveillance targets.
These are just some of the ingenious devices used by the East German State Security Police — better known as the Stasi — between 1950 and 1990 to spy on private citizens, many of which are now on display at the Stasi Museum in Berlin.
Yet these devices pale in comparison to the smartphone in your pocket or the virtual assistant in your home that is collecting data on your daily habits.
Collecting data to fight crime?
Now, Germany’s national police — like many law enforcement services — want access, not only to phone data, but also information collected by digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo.
Germany is planning to discuss this issue in a meeting of interior ministers this week. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry broached the subject in a press conference.
“To fight crime effectively, it’s very important that federal and state authorities should have access to data collected by these devices.”
That set off alarm bells for those monitoring digital privacy rights.
“They are fully aware this is unconstitutional what they are planning to do. I expect data protection agencies will interfere,” said Jeanette Hofmann, Professor of Internet Politics at Freie University in Berlin and an expert member of the German Parliament’s inquiry into Internet and the Digital Society.
“The home is still considered a holy place as compared to what happens in public. The possibility that everything you do at home will be tracked and the data given to law enforcement, just because of court order, is pretty scary.”
Germany is certainly not the only country grappling with where to draw the line on digital privacy. But because of its history, Germany has been especially sensitive to privacy rights, installing some of the strongest privacy laws in the world.
Cybersecurity expert Sven Herpig said German policies have traditionally been supportive of encryption for this very reason.
“The policy that we’ve had for the past 20 year says ‘we don’t touch encryption, we don’t weaken it, we don’t build backdoors, law enforcement has to find another way to access data,’” he said.
“You have to look at the historical experience with surveillance from the Nazi regime and then by the (East German Communist secret police) Stasi ... we have a strong history of being against government surveillance.”
But in the case of digital assistants like Google Home or Amazon Echo, much of the data gathered is not held in Germany, but in outside countries, especially the United States. On Thursday, the European Commission Security Union met to evaluate
proposals that would allow for any member, including Germany, to access digital evidence gathered in another country.
“For far too long, criminals and terrorists have been abusing modern technology to commit their crimes,” Commissioner for the Security Union, Julian King, said in a statement.
“By setting international standards to obtain access to electronic evidence, we are taking yet another step to close the space in which they operate by ensuring law enforcement authorities can more effectively investigate and prosecute them, with full regard for fundamental rights.”
Digital evidence as criminal
According to the European Commission, digital evidence is needed in about 85 percent of criminal investigations and in two-thirds of these cases the evidence must be obtained from outside service providers, particularly in the US.
But digital rights groups in Germany have criticized the EU proposals, pointing out that Germany’s strict privacy laws can be subverted and arguing that current proposals don’t take into account whether a crime committed in one country is necessarily considered a crime in another.
“Such a regime would only make sense if there was consensus in the EU or internationally on what constitutes a crime and the same procedural safeguards apply,” explained Elisabeth Niekrenz of Digital Society, a digital rights watchdog.
“If abortion is a criminal offense in one state and not in another, then service providers in the latter should not be forced to give evidence of such events.”
Personal experiences of
Germans know from personal experience how mass surveillance can be abused. Today, a German citizen can look up their personal files in the Stasi archives to see what information the police had collected on them and their family, using that intelligence to harass dissidents and control ordinary citizens.
With digital devices, however, it is private companies that are mining the data gathered through this surveillance around the world. Now, warns Professor Hofmann, through the legal framework of criminal investigations governments also want access to that wealth of data, leaving it up to digital rights activists to defend their case to court.
“This is an international issue. We are scandalized when Amazon hears our private conversations at home. But now the government is saying it is going to do the same thing,” Hofman said.
“You would think that if the government does something citizens don’t like, we might turn to private markets to find alternatives. Or if the market fails us, then we can turn to government as powerful actor to restrict those unfair practices. Now, the court is the only viable alternative to defending those rights. And, I think, in the long run, this is a big issue for any democracy.”
*Atika Shubert is a senior international correspondent of CNN.
British woman dies after being bitten by dog
A 55-year-old woman died after being bitten by a dog while defending her own pet from an attack, UK police said.
Sharon Jennings was walking her dog between 6 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. in Preston, Lancashire, just over a week ago before it got into a fight with the other animal, Sky News reported.
She was bitten on the hand and neck as she tried to break the animals up after a fight had broken out on the old railway lines in Brookfield on May 31, Lancashire Constabulary said.
Her dog suffered an injury to its ear and was treated by a vet, however Jennings did not seek medical attention.
She was found unwell at her home last Monday and taken to Royal Preston Hospital, where she died on Friday night, the force added.
Police are trying to track the owner of the dog which attacked her.
The owner is described as being male with thinning grey-black hair, and was wearing a blue fleece jacket at the time of the incident.
His dog is described as “a speckled ginger-and-black canine of medium height”.
Detective Inspector Chris Wellard, of Preston Police, urged the dog’s owner or anyone with information to come forward.
He said, “Our thoughts are with Sharon’s family and friends at this incredibly distressing time.
“We’re working hard to establish what happened but need anyone with information to come forward as soon as possible.”
Former journalist Christopher Guest More Jr., one of Britain’s most wanted fugitives, was arrested in Malta over the alleged murder of a father in front of his two children 16 years ago.