The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label disinformation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label disinformation. Show all posts

Monday, June 20, 2022

What's Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime


The front page from the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing, there exists the term "fog of war," and it may well be that even generals and leaders don't know exactly what's going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media remain a major source of information for us. Can we use them to learn at least something about what's going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations? 

To start, we can look at how wartime news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of "La Stampa," one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. The other national newspapers weren't reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse. 

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don't claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/43. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let's go into the details.

Above, you can see an example of how news about the war was presented to Italians. The front page of "La Stampa" of Oct 12, 1941, was titled the "destruction of the Azov pocket." It was true: the battle of the sea of Azov was a major victory for the Axis forces. Even the report on the number of prisoners taken, about 100,000, was approximately correct. 

On the lower left part of the front page, you read of another front: in Ethiopia. The Italian troops fighting in the Amhara region ("Amara" in the text) are said to be offering an "indomitable resistance" against the attacking British troops. Again, it was true. The stronghold of Gondar, in Northern Ethiopia, was successfully resisting. 

That's just the first page. You can read more in the inner pages: reflections on how the defeat of Bolshevism in Russia will unavoidably bring the final defeat for England, of the victorious advance of the Italian troops in the Donetsk region, of heavy losses of the enemy on all fronts, including long lists of British warships damaged or sunk. 

So, if you were an Italian reading one of the national papers in October 1941, you would reasonably conclude that the Axis powers were winning in Russia, that Italy was successfully resisting in Ethiopia, and that the British were facing serious difficulties in all war theaters. That would not have been such a bad evaluation at that moment, perhaps the most favorable for the Axis during the whole war. 

The problem is that, as we know from our modern viewpoint, in October 1941 the German advance was already starting to slow down, and it would completely stall in early December. In Ethiopia, Gondar was just the last pocket of resistance of the former "Italian Empire." It was surrounded by the British, and it had zero chance to survive. It surrendered on Nov 27th 1941. 

How was this less than exciting news presented to the Italian readers? About the Russian front, in December they were told that the Germans had decided to stop their advance and that they were preparing to restart the offensive in spring. At the same time, they were repulsing Russian attacks. Then, about the defeat in Ethiopia, the Italians were told nothing. The fall of Gondar in November was simply not reported. Only on Dec 6, more than a month later, you could read that the "Italian officers of Gondar" were allowed to keep their swords while surrendering. From this, you could finally understand that Gondar was no more in Italian hands. As a compensation, you could read in the column nearby of "more British ships sunk in the Atlantic."

This is very typical. Bad news was simply not reported or delayed during the war. When the Italian contingent in Russia was destroyed, in 1942, it just disappeared from the news. As another example, in 1943, the British had been attacking the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea. Up to June 12th, "La Stampa" was reporting the heroic resistance of the Italian defenders facing superior enemy forces. 

Remarkably, when the news above appeared, Pantelleria had already surrendered without firing a shot. That was not reported until June 14th as just a few lines in a corner of the front page. One day later, one of the pundits of the time explained why the loss of Pantelleria was of no importance and that the final victory of Italy was certain. Then, it was silence.   

This kind of disinformation is normal: it happens everywhere, surely not just in the Italian press during WW2. The interesting part is whether we can learn something from this story. I think I can propose a few rules of thumb on how wartime misinformation works. 


1. When the news reports a major victory of your side that involves a verifiable result, say, the occupation of a city or of a region, then it is most likely true. 

2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it may be true, but it means that the enemy has superior forces in that area and that sooner or later will break through. 

3. When you don't hear anything anymore of a specific contingent, city, or region, it means that the contingent has been destroyed or that the city/region has been conquered by the enemy. 

4. When you read non-verifiable positive news ("enemy cruiser sunk" "40 enemy planes downed"), it is most likely false.

5. Whatever you hear from the "experts" has zero value. With one exception: when the  pundits start saying that "the situation looks bad, but the final victory is certain," it means that the war is lost.  

6. The golden rule: never, ever trust anything that the media tell you. 


These rules have a certain logic: despite the attempts of the media to "create their own reality" (Rumsfeld style) they cannot completely suppress the real reality. During WW2, even with the heavy censorship of the Fascist regime, Italians could find other sources of information, including what returning soldiers were telling, and the broadcasting from "Radio Londra," the British radio. Tuning to that station was forbidden and could be dangerous, but surely many people did that. Not that the British propaganda was any more truthful than the Italian one but, at least, Radio London provided Italians with a different version of the news. For instance, the fall of Gondar in 1941 was announced in British newspapers the day after it took place, with titles such as, "END OF MUSSOLINI'S EMPIRE." Radio Londra surely broadcast that and the people who listened were informed about the event several days in advance in comparison to those who had to wait for the Italian press to report it.  

About the current war in Ukraine, these rules can help. For a start, they can be used to filter out the most blatant lies. For instance, you surely heard the story of the "Ghost of Kyiv," the Ukrainian pilot said to have downed as many as 40 enemy planes (some say just six, others 10 or 20). It was non-verifiable news, and hence you could have suspected from the beginning that it was false. Indeed, it was confirmed to be fake by the Ukrainians themselves. The same is true for many reports of the rape of Ukrainian women and children. The originator of these reports, Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine's commissioner for human rights, was removed from her post by the Ukrainian parliament under the accusation of having provided exaggerated and false news. And the same goes for the many obviously exaggerated reports of heavy losses on the Russian side.

Then, even with the heavy censorship we are embedded in, we can still manage to find a trickle of information from the "other side," not better than from this side, but still providing a different angle of view. The official Russian channels do not report heavy Russian losses (obviously!). Pro-Russian pundits repeat that Russia is winning, although they have toned down their statements several times. They have been telling us, repeatedly, that the Ukraine military was going to collapse, but that is just good evidence for the validity of the rule that says, "The opinion of the experts has zero value." In any case, the reports from both sides agree that, at present, the Russians are advancing, although slowly. Therefore, it is probably true. 

About the final outcome of the war, for the time being, we are in a condition similar to that of Italians in 1941. It would have been difficult for them to understand who would win, although they might have concluded that things were not going so well as the official reports said. But, by late 1942, a critical analysis, even just of the national news, should have made clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the war was lost for the Axis. About Ukraine, instead, we cannot say much for the time being, but it is hard to think that the war could last years. So, we should be able to know more in the near future. For the time being, just don't forget the golden rule: never, never trust what the media are telling you.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Waiting for the end of the world - Sugar and the Information Paradox.


Amelia the Amoeba is the protagonist of a chapter of my book " Before the Collapse " (Springer 2019). She is a Naegleria Fowleri who has the rather nasty habit of devouring human brains but, apart from this, she kindly lent herself to be an example in the book of the mechanisms of growth of living creatures. In the following post, Alessandro Chiometti again uses the example of single-celled creatures for an interesting discussion on how our brains are destroyed, not by a brain-eating amoeba, but by an excess of available information. As a post, goes a little against the principles of modern "throwaway information", in the sense that rather than starting with trying to impress you with some flashy information, it gives you a little lesson in chemistry. But if you feel like working on it just a little, you'll see that it is a very interesting and thought-provoking post. It suggests that too much information is doing to us the same thing that too much sugar could do to Amelia: it kills our brains. And you'll learn some chemistry, too! (UB)


We are used to call "sugar" a substance that is actually sucrose, one of the many existing "sugars" which are referred to in organic chemistry as carbohydrates. These compounds can be formed by a single molecule of any sugar (monosaccharides) or by several molecules (polysaccharides). Sucrose is a disaccharide formed by the union of the two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.

Although these two molecules have the same brute formula (C6H12O6), they are very different: glucose forms a six-atom ring while fructose forms a five-atom one but, above all, it is glucose that is the primary source of energy for every living being.

The role of glucose in the various aerobic and anaerobic cycles is fundamental for the production of the molecule that carries energy in the cell (ATP) and therefore for any cellular engine that requires energy. All the nutrients we consume throughout our lives are transformed by the body into glucose or stored as precursors of this in various forms (e.g. glycogen), ready for use.

In short, it can be said that glucose, and therefore its various precursors present in nature, is what allows “life” as we know it, in the sense of mobility, movement, sport, physical and intellectual effort, growth. It is certainly no coincidence that when you want to cultivate a bacterial culture with a suitable growth medium, the sugar supply must always be guaranteed. Like us, bacteria and other microorganisms grow and multiply thanks to glucose and therefore to sugar, of course.

However, have you ever noticed that we can keep sucrose for decades at room temperature and nothing happens to it?

It does not go bad, molds do not grow and, if greedy children or ants do not get their hands on it, even after years we find it exactly where we left it. And we can consume it safely without fear that some bacteria have grown in it.

And this, I guarantee, will happen for any sugar solution in which the sugar percentage is greater than 70% (for example, honey).

This is because microorganisms are very sensitive to what we call "osmotic pressure," and for this reason when they are in contact with pure sugar or salt crystals, or being in a too concentrated solution of these, they simply die. Instantly.

The cell of a microorganism is held together by the cell membrane which is called a "semipermeable membrane." It is a barrier that, when surrounded by a liquid phase, lets the solvent in but not the solutes dissolved in it. In an aqueous solution, in practice, water would pass through this membrane but not the salt dissolved in it.

But what happens when a semipermeable membrane separates two solutions of different solute concentrations? In this case, the solvent (water in general) passes through it from the most diluted part to the most concentrated part (thanks to the strength of the osmotic pressure). The result is that the two concentrations will be equalized until they are identical.

If we are talking about a closed system like a cell it is obvious that just so much water can be contained in it. The result of a strong osmotic pressure may be that the cell will explode from inside or, vice versa, it will dry out into a ghost of itself in the desperate attempt to dilute the external concentration. That will happen to all living cells.

I know that this was a very long introduction but, it was necessary to attempt the risky speculative reasoning on what is happening in our society as regards the possibility of accessing information.

The more time passes, the more it seems evident to me that the enormous amount of knowledge that we have at our disposal has in no way increased the knowledge of people or their ability to draw conclusions. following these. Rather the opposite.

Apart from the tsunami of fake news and orchestrated disinformation, all of us today have access to an amount of data and information that was unthinkable until a few decades ago. We can access the NASA website to find out how the permafrost melting is going in real time, we can access the John Hopkins University to know every death and every contagion due to Covid on planet earth, we can see the measures taken by each country and understand who has guessed or not the management of the pandemic, we can access the sites of evolutionary biology and know the progress of the sixth mass extinction.

Yet, there is something that's going wrong. Functional illiteracy is skyrocketing. We do not know how to distinguish between an astronomy site and an astrology site. In front of a three-variable graph, we have the same attitude of the Kubrik's apes in front of the black monolith.

Many people find it increasingly difficult to complete the reading of an article that fits on a single A4 page. (By the way, are you still reading?)

And many of them, even if they read it,  remain convinced that the article proves them right even if it says the opposite of what they claimed.

Where's the problem? Where is the osmotic paradox that can justify this?

I am trying to find a correlation here (warning: speculation on reasoning already speculative per se ) by comparing the information paradox with the "sugar paradox." It seems to me that the more information comes into contact with our minds, the more Holbachian common sense comes out of our heads. It should be obvious that common sense is not learned in books. Once, we had enough of it to distinguish a charlatan from a scientist. Not anymore.

Now, let me be clear: I know very well that there has never been a golden age of information, and that there have always been profiteers of people's good faith (the “Ponzi scheme” was born in 1918, not the day before yesterday). Nevertheless, perhaps we have been suffering positivist optimism. We thought that more information was always a good thing, just like a bacterium may think that the more sugar around, the better. We really hoped that having the possibility of accessing so much information, people would have been if not better, at least more aware.

But not for me, as George Gershwin said (*).

Patience, it will be for the next species.



(*) In the original version, Chiometti referred to the Italian singer Brunori Sas