Blog 05/2019 – Ulrich Schnabel

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About our Blog 2019

After receiving very positive feedback on our blog contributions last year, we would like to continue this still young tradition of the Liechtenstein Academy Blog also this year.

Also in 2019, it is important for us to consider very different perspectives in order to offer you the most stimulating possible offer. Once again, we have been able to attract four well-known guest authors, who, with no editorial filters, write about their personal thoughts. Look forward to complex issues, simply explained by Ulrich Schnabel, philosophical insights from Dr. Ina Schmidt, astute thoughts by our language and legal expert Carlos A. Gebauer and constructive considerations of our health expert Christoph von Oldershausen.

We wish you a stimulating read.

Your Liechtenstein Academy team


«The art of looking away»

Why shocking images and false reports are very often spread – and how to handle them


«What has once been thought cannot be taken back», wrote the dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt in his timeless classic The Physicists. Today – in the world of Youtube, Facebook and Instagram – all terrorists, demagogues and influencers are aware of the modern version of this sentence: «What has once been seen cannot be undone». This is because images and videos burn even more vividly in our lasting memory than abstract thoughts. Therefore, assassins – such as those from Christchurch, who shot over 50 people in New Zealand in March – are so intent on documenting and spreading their actions over the Internet. Such assassinations are not just about the (randomly targeted) victims; the real intention is to spread fear and uncertainty among all those who are watching as widely as possible.

This raises the question: how do we face this attack on our emotions? More generally, how do we get those images or pieces of information out of our heads that we really do not want to remember? This does not simply apply to the shocking video of a terrorist attack (or the horror movies that haunt you), but also to the notorious «fake news», that creeps like poison into the collective mindset, where it leads a corrosive life of its own. So we return to Dürrenmatt’s fatal saying: what has once been seen or heard can rarely be removed from memory.

This is because forgetting on demand does not work, unfortunately. For a long time, researchers have been working on a «pill for forgetting» i.e. on medication intended to eradicate traumatic memories – which would not only be helpful for victims of terror but also traumatized soldiers. However, as interesting as these experiments are, they have not yet led to any really usable medication. Besides which, one would probably have to be prepared for all sorts of unwanted side effects, because who can guarantee that such a drug would not remove positive memories as well?

No – the safest protection against unpleasant images or fake news remains not to let them into your head in the first place. But if you do become «infected», you should at least not spread it further. This, however, is much easier said than done in the multimedia age because the more shocking or frightening the information, the more attention it attracts, and the more often and the further it gets spread. This is evidenced by a large-scale study by the MIT Media Lab in Boston, for which researchers examined over 4.5 million tweets. The result: false statements are shared nearly twice as often as those containing other content and reach other Twitter users six times faster than true news!

To refute false reports, it is imperative that you resist the temptation of repeating their contents in detail. At any rate, this is the advice of the researchers who have studied the impact of fake news. The psychologist Gordon Pennycook and the economist David G. Rand presented their test subjects with various false statements and noted that with each repetition, the statements were perceived as more credible. This was even true when statements were explicitly marked as «false». The note «contested by independent fact-checkers» – such as Facebook uses – proved in the study to be largely ineffective. «Any benefit of such a note is immediately erased by the effect of being repeatedly presented», write Pennycook and Rand.

In consequence, we should therefore not spread false reports, or do so as sparingly as possible. That is the advice of professional fact-checkers like Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-founder of the website Summing up the pertinent research of the last two decades in a meta-study, it was also found that detailed (albeit critical) reports on fake news can inadvertently reinforce their impact. So what can be done? «It does not help to simply tell people that their facts are wrong», Jamieson told the New York Times. It is better to come up with new evidence and a definitive counter message. The researchers also recommend involving the public and encouraging them to critically enquire and test statements and arguments.

So, before you next share a sensational message or a shocking video with one click, consider that you may be making yourself complicit in a disinformation campaign that is relying on exactly that – your reflex to spread the message. For all the commotion around data protection and upload filters, the most important question of the internet age remains: what do we leave in our heads?

Written by: Ulrich Schnabel