Statistics, Propaganda and Social Media

The first casualty of war is the truth.

Not just the first, but throughout and after.

I saw yet another comment on social media about the death toll in Gaza at the hands of the IDF being unreliable.  I explained how they are checked and considered reliable.  The person replied saying

Despite the statistical anomalies.

How many people reading or posting on social media are good at research, media analysis and statistical analysis? I was trained in the latter a long time ago and qualified in social science research more recently. I like to think I have a fair idea how to check this stuff and the academic marks I got tended to agree.

So, let’s look for sources for statistical anomalies in the Gaza death tolls reporting. They are almost all Jewish media or Israeli media. So there is bias in the reporting if only those sources are doing so.

Checking those articles, they are referring either to one source, or to another media article also using that one source or other media sites using the Jewish or Israeli sites as their source. So this is not widespread conclusion of differing groups, but of one individual.

The source is Abraham Wyner who produced a paper which was published as “How the Gaza Ministry of Health Fakes Casualty Numbers”. It is unusual for an academic title to be editorialised like that. It implies he was starting with a conclusion and looking for the evidence to support it, which is a red flag. So, who agrees with him?

The Gazan death figures, the underlying data on names and ID numbers and the method used to count them, have been analysed by media organisations, academic research departments, mathematicians and social scientists all of whom have been satisfied they are accurate.

He is one lone exception. Could he be right and everyone else wrong?

In his blog a Bit of DNA, mathematician Lior Pachter wrote ‘A note on “How the Gaza Ministry of Health Fakes Casualty Numbers”’. In this he explains how Wyner carefully chose a specific 15 day sample, used graphs arranged as cumulative rather than an x-y plot to mislead, and took advantage of how the statistics come in batches from verification of ID numbers to provide the false answer he sought. If you go through the comments on that post by other specialists, you’ll get explanations of how Wyner was able to produce his misleading article.  It is more to do with how the data is passed from hospitals to be checked and then on for reporting and it being done in batches, and then utilising that fact to identify a cherry-picked sample to suggest all the data is wrong.

(During the Covid-19 pandemic it was noted how few people died at the weekend but lots on Mondays, suggesting the numbers were false.  That was because admin people like me, in the hospitals providing the statistics to National health England, don’t tend to work at weekends.  So the stats for Monday included Saturday and Sunday.  A similar thing happens with how the identification records of the Gazan victims are validated in batches.)

So, the one person challenging the figures has been debunked.

tl:dr: The source of the statistical anomaly suggestion has been debunked. That one poor source It is used, however, by biased sources as counter-propaganda to claim the death toll figures are false, when they are, actually, very reliable.  This poor journalism is then picked up and repeated across the Internet as if it were truth.  And so people propagate the view that killing in war is acceptable because they don’t have to think about the victims because the numbers might be dodgy.

It is amazing the harm can be caused by one bad academic + rubbish journalism + biased media + poorly educated people + social media.

The technical and other technicalities of a new organisation

What have I learned from my volunteering?

A friend expressed a desire to create a peace organisation and the first things that sprang to mind were:

  • the need for a name. It must be meaningful, appropriate, memorable, decent, SEO-friendly.
  • the means to raise funds
  • sufficient independence to get on with what the founders want to achieve
  • it needs publicity
  • it could do with high profile supporters
  • a blog can be helpful for giving less formal, more human, messages
  • a web site is essential
  • a web site requires people to keep writing content
  • a web site requires maintenance, applying updates, security controls, interfaces with social media, checking backups are working, detecting having been hacked
  • at least one domain name (needed for the web site and, ideally, email addresses)
  • something controversial to gain media coverage and attention
  • an understanding of its target audiences and how to communicate with them
  • knowledge of similar organisations with which to collaborate
  • the means, time and knowledge to create and drive collaboration with other organisations
  • a purpose
  • a plan
  • an idea of what “finished” or “success” will look like
  • specific responsibilities and authorities for individuals involved so they know what they should, can and cannot do
  • email addresses for the organisation and its individuals
  • a governance model with a committee or leadership and defined rules for managing it to prevent infighting
  • a legal structure (unincorporated, ltd co by guarantee, community interest company, charity, etc.)
  • a social media policy: which web sites and internet facilities to use, when, how with defined messages with defined purposes
  • a mailing list and the means to manage it
  • an online discussion forum with the supporting active moderation
  • an online shop with the necessary legal processes to protect people’s payment details and the staff and processes to deliver what is sold
  • equipment such as computers, mobile phones with cameras, franking machine, printer(s)
  • staff with the necessary recruitment, supervision, retention, development and appraisal processes
  • volunteers with the necessary recruitment, supervision, retention, development and appraisal processes
  • financial management, ideally with open reporting
  • an ethical policy regarding the law, environment, procurement, staff and anything else appropriate, with the supporting monitoring and reporting processes
  • the means of sharing information between staff and volunteers with appropriate backup, recovery, anti-virus and security controls
  • accounts with suppliers (e.g. stationery), technical services (e.g. Zoom) and so on, with the means of securely keeping passwords

Social media. Just say no.

I had a Facebook account.  I used it for researching for my undergrad degree: war crimes, arms industry, connections between religious cults and weapons (that is scary); end-timers; the plethora of arms in the USA and its consequences; mass shootings; historical political revolutions; why people believe what they do.  History, psychology, just war theory, religious extremism, politics.  But when I got critical of the NRA and arms industry and using facts to counter their arguments in their own groups, my Facebook account got blocked.  Weird.

I created another Facebook account for my postgrad study.  Similar subject areas, but used it in particular for eco stuff.  Having noticed some trends in how organised trolling is done, I started outing some trollers, in particular in Greta Thunberg’s feed.  There are scores of them posting the same memes and every account has one picture, one post on the wall, a home town and a university.  They may have many friends, all with the same structure.  Anyway, after a couple of days of showing these accounts were all interlinked and behaving in the same way … my Facebook account was suddenly deleted.  No reason given.

I created another Facebook account for personal use.  Real me, real photos, real location and history.  Again I noticed the trends in trolling and posting.  For example, have a look at Boris Johnson’s feed and watch for a few days.  As soon as he posts anything, there is an instant, fast and steady trickle of near-identical posts using the same memes over and over.  These are obviously created by a script.  But it gives an effective impression of genuine support and others are drawn in.  Any programmer or script kiddie should be able to see how the algorithm works.  And just time the rate of comments and likes – see how there is a linear degradation of the rate as would be expected as the comments increase in number.  And with the next post it starts again.  Almost all the posts and likes on his feed are created by one or more bots.

Anyway, I just posted something expressing my view on a social issue on a local group.  The abuse started within seconds.  The respondents were really nasty, and each had fakes bits to their profile so they could not be identified.  Cowards.  I’ve had that before but this was fast, nasty and furious.  And in a page that has been very quiet for months and my post was on-topic.  Very odd.

I’ve had enough of Facebook.  I think it serves no good but enables an awful lot of bad.  And trying to use it for good is not appreciated by Facebook.  Some of what goes on is vicious, some dangerous, much deceiving and some downright sinister.  It does not make me happy.  I won’t be back there.  I’ve seen enough.