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Leah McLaren: News that's neither true nor fake ... until you click

It has probably occurred to you by now that the truth as we believe it to be, is sometimes very different from the truth as it actually is.

This idea – that human biases in perception can create an illogical and highly subjective state of "reality" – has been well-explored in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics. Most recently, of course, there was Michael Lewis's fascinating new book The Undoing Project, about the long-time friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

These two Israeli psychologists, the former a Nobel Prize winner, first identified and put a name to cognitive bias – the brain function that prevents us from seeing the truth as it is, in favour of seeing the truth as we'd like it to be. When political commentators talk about a "post-truth world," what they are really describing is a world in which reality as we know it is formed primarily by the cognitive biases of the people in power.

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Try our quiz: What is 'fake news,' and how can you spot it?

Case in point: The U.S. President repeatedly describing The New York Times and CNN as purveyors of "fake news," because he doesn't find their stories about him flattering. If we assume Donald Trump actually believes the things he says, his is a mind utterly at the mercy of its own cognitive bias. He appears to see reality not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

But here's something much more frightening and new: What if I told you Trump and his rich and powerful allies have found a way to make their own self-serving cognitive biases become reality – in the sense that a common perception, once collectively held across a culture, can become a kind of alternate reality that obscures any objective sense of "truth"?

What if I told you Donald Trump and men like him are finding ways to get inside your head and to affect how you feel, which will (as we know from reading behavioural economics) become how the world is for you and your friends and future generations to come?

You might say I sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and while I admire your healthy skepticism, I'd also like to present you with some deeply unpalatable facts. Not alternative facts. Just regular, off-the-rack truths. According to a feature story in last weekend's Guardian newspaper, a U.S. hedge-fund billionaire by the name of Robert Mercer is the tangible link between Donald Trump's astonishing presidential victory and Britain's Brexit campaign – those two monumental and surprising populist victories of last year.

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Mercer, who happens to be Trump's largest single donor (he contributed $13.5-million (U.S.) to his campaign) is also the money behind Breitbart, the right-wing news site formerly run by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Mercer, who trained as a computer scientist and started his career developing artificial intelligence for IBM, has another interest close to his heart: mass propaganda via social-media algorithms.

In addition to his so-called "alt-right" media properties (with their not-so-covert aim of undermining the mainstream media), Mercer is reported to have a $10-million stake in a small data-analytics company called Cambridge Analytica – an off-shoot of a larger British strategy firm called SCL Group. Cambridge Analytica, according to its website, specializes in using big data sets to "identify influencers" and to achieve corporate and political outcomes "by showing organizations not just where people are, but what they really care about and what drives their behaviour."

Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump as well as the pro-Brexit campaign.

Mercer is reported to be a "good friend" of Nigel Farage, Britain's far-right Brexit champion, and reportedly offered Cambridge Analytica's services free of charge, though Farage did not declare these services as a campaign donation. So what exactly does a company such as Cambridge Analytica do? According to one key Brexit strategist, it teaches political campaigners how to scoop up vast amounts of user data through Facebook and then follow and monitor people, tracking their "likes," and using artificial intelligence to spread through their network of friends and, eventually, target them through advertising and customized content.

This data can then be harnessed to influence not just how we feel, but what we believe to be true. While Cambridge Analytica and Mercer are keeping quiet in the face of increased press scrutiny (saying only that the company abides by international laws and regulations), Facebook itself has already admitted to actively tampering with the emotional states of its users. In 2014, Facebook published the results of a study in which the social-media giant admitted to experimentally manipulating the news feed on 689,000 users' home pages: some readers got more "uplifting" stories in their feed; others saw sadder posts. Facebook found this could affect people's moods (as evidenced by the tone of their posts and comments) through a process of "emotional contagion." In other words, social media can, and likely is, being used to manipulate our collective cognitive bias on a mass scale to reflect the desires of men such as Trump and Mercer.

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If you think all this sounds like the outlandish plot of a dystopian futuristic sci-fi novel, think again. According to Professor Jonathan Rust, director of the Cambridge University's Centre for Psychometrics who spoke to The Guardian, it's nothing short of mass brainwashing – and it's happening. "The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It's what the Scientologists try to do but much more powerful … It's no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. People don't know it's happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs."

So there's the truth as we believe it to be and the truth as it actually is. In the age of social media, will it soon become impossible to tell the difference?

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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