The Socratic Web

The Social Benefit of Counter-Argument and the Proposed Solutions to Misinformation


Article: How to stop Fake News in its tracks: Plugins and social media integration
Author: Shane Greenup
Biographical: Founder of rbutr and dedicated to solving the problem of misinformation.
Publication Platform: (9 November 2016)


Article: What is The Socratic Web?
Author: Shane Greenup
Biographical: Founder of rbutr and dedicated to solving the problem of misinformation.
Publication Platform: (21 November 2016)


Video and Introduction Text: Fixing Fake News Without Truth or Trust
Presenter: Seb
Biographical: Video content presenter for the Disruptive Innovation Festival 2017.
Speaker: Shane Greenup
Biographical: Founder of rbutr and dedicated to solving the problem of misinformation.
Publication Platform: The Disruptive Innovation Festival 2017 (6th - 24th November 2017).
Sub Link:

Defining the Problem

Fake News, Misinformation, Click-bait, Media Bias, Belief vs Evidence, Propaganda, False Advertising, Misleading Claims, One Sided Stories, Unscientific Theories, False Beliefs, Trial by Media, Character Assassination, Defamation, Story Telling... This list goes on.

The human condition, has at its core, a mind that tries to interpret the world around it. A human being collects information through its senses, stores memory of its experiences, cross references between memory and current input, discerns patterns and builds what could loosely be defined as an understanding of the world around it. As amazing as that is, our understanding of the world is not at all perfect. We are only ever able to access a percentage of the information available on any one subject, out of the information that is available we are only ever able to give our attention to a percentage, our upbringing/training affects how we connect current input to memory in order to discern understanding and then we have the effect of a range of psychological phenomenon that can twist and distort our understanding. So what we have stored in mind is not necesarily a map of the world around us but instead an interpreted, subjectively-perceived story of that world.

As a rule, human beings are only very loosely connected to fact and it takes AN INTENTIONAL EFFORT to overcome this existential limitation in order to connect oneself more and more to an understanding of our shared, physically determinable reality. As we connect more and more through social media, we connect ourselves more and more to the words of others; this being an opportunity to grow through exposure to new ideas. But add in the phenomenon of misinformation and story telling and the task of sorting out fact from fiction can become ever more difficult for some.

Story telling and misinformation is bad enough when it is done by accident; when it is a consequence of our inherent inability to discern fact from fiction; when people think that their stories of reality are reality. But when our fact-poor minds are exploited on purpose to have us support one political movement or another, to support one market or another, to buy one product or another or to pull our attention to one advertisement rich click-bait frenzy or another, the consequences can be huge swings of opinion based on a distorted truth that feed the power hungry and make undeserving individuals rich.

Further detailing the problem as a modern issue...

Extracted from the article: "How to stop Fake News in its tracks: Plugins and social media integration" by Shane Greenup.

In case you missed it, Fake News is the topic of the month. On the tail of the biggest political upset of the century [Trump winning the USA Presidential election], Facebook and Twitter have come under fire for allowing fake news websites to spread without resistance across social media, often gaining much more attention than real news stories. Always gaining a lot more attention than the corrections which follow them.

One of the fake news authors [Paul Horner] recently admitted to Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post that he does believe that he helped get Donald Trump elected with some of his run away viral lies. Craig Silver and Lawrence Alexander of Buzzfeed news recently discovered the 100+ pro-Trump websites in the Balkans which intentionally publish a stream of the most inflammatory headlines they can create to attract traffic to their advert-covered-websites. The more outrageous their headlines, the more viral it went, the more traffic they would receive and the more money they would make.

Apparently Facebook didn't do anything to stem the spread of this misinformation because they had already received criticism for suppressing pro-right articles from their trending topics feed. Since then Mark Zuckerberg has come out and said [...] that they are actively working on a better solution now, though he still doesn't believe that fake news had any real impact on the election.

There clearly have been a large number of attempts to solve the problem of misinformation as demonstrated here...

Rise of the Fake News Plugins

In response to all of this media attention, and the genuine outrage over this serious problem, many people have started to work on external solutions to the problem. Business Insider reported that “It only took 36 hours for these students to solve Facebook’s fake news problem“. Those students invented FiB – Let’s stop living a lie, a browser plugin which uses AI to verify claims, and then correct them where possible if they are false. Lifehacker reported on the B.S. Detector plugin, saying “B.S. Detector Lets You Know When You’re Reading a Fake News Source“. This plugin, developed in under 1 hour, simply checks Facebook posts against a list of known Fake news websites and flags posts which are from them. Using the same technique, Brian Feldmen developed Fake News Alert. Esquire reported on that “This Chrome Extension Will Alert You If a News Site Is Fake“.

While it is admirable that many see the problem exists and are hoping to do their part to solve the problem, Shane warns that many of these attempts could actually make the problem worse.

Extracted from the Video Introduction Text: "Fixing Fake News Without Truth or Trust" by Shane Greenup as interviewed by Seb.

Online misinformation is a serious problem, and the fake news pandemic has mobilised the world towards finding a solution. Unfortunately all of the efforts so far require someone to arbitrate on truth or trustworthiness on behalf of everyone. This approach raises more questions and creates more problems than it solves.

In the video we are asked the question:

How should we handle misinformation?

A. Central authority declares the truth dogmatically.

B. Improve critical thinking and help the public understand complex issues.

"I've never had anyone honestly say that they want to have the internet controlled by some central authority." Explains Shane.

By putting Google, Faceook or another app developer in charge of deciding what is truth, we dangerously empower a single entity and all of its biases. Further we encourage those who feel marginalised or censored by that authority to disengage and to seek out socially reinforcing echo chambers filled with like-minded people that only ever support their existing view leading to an increased tribalisation of the web. Shane describes this phenomenon of censorship driven tribalisation as "Ideological Division on a Global Scale" as he warns of the different platforms being created as a rebellion to Facebook's and Google's existing attempts at deciding what is truth.

 In summary, the problem is multi-leveled:

  1. As human beings we have an inherent inability to know what is fact and what is truth. This inability being built into the human condition.
  2. We have people accidentally producing content on the internet that they believe to be factual which is more or less connected to fact and truth. Parts or all of this content being false.
  3. We have active players exploiting our inability to know fact and truth. They exploit this for their own self-interests and actively produce misinformation.
  4. There have been calls to try to solve the problem of misinformation which has led some to the concept of cencorship.
  5. Editorial style censorship leads to power being dangerously given to organisations whereby the inherent inabilities of those people running these organisations is as bad as it is for any individual. That is to say that the organisations doing the censoring can be just as bad at knowing fact or truth.
  6. Attempts to censor information on Facebook or Google or other platforms that provide interfaces for accessing the internet have led some people to segregate themselves into smaller, tribalistic style groups who shield themselves from ever having their ideas challenged, improved or made less wrong.
  7. For any social system to work at its optimum, we need an informed society who build their opinions from good reasoning practices, who can then act to support good and beneficial social outcomes with those perceived benefitial outcomes being evaluated scientifically and we need government emplyees to be good stuards of these good reasoning practices.

The Proposed Solution

Extracted from the article: "How to stop Fake News in its tracks: Plugins and social media integration" by Shane Greenup.

"We need at least one wildly successful solution and not another 10 or 20 false starts adding to the already cluttered space of web annotation and fact checking plugins which have come and gone over the last 20+ years of the web." Explains Shane. "What we really need is a unified effort working on one of the many well established projects. We need to put that mental muscle behind something which has already carved a path forward and demonstrated its viability."

The solution: Outsource the critiquing and make it universal.

Basically, you have to let someone else take the fall for being "biased" while you, in full neutrality, simply make it possible to access third party critiques, corrections, and rebuttals. If the information is made up or a scam, the rebuttal will quickly reveal that. Where the information is controversial, the critique will simply provide more illumination to the debate, and people may come away from it better informed. Where the information is true, the critique will likely persuade no one, leaving everyone already believing what they already believed anyway.

From the perspective of Politify and its development, we at Politify actively take Shane's advice. The Politify platform (at its current stage of development) is itself already designed to facilitate challenges to existing ideas and information and is already set up to bring the benefit of counter-arguement. The only biasses that are added to the system by Politify are those supplied by a crowdsourced attempt to discern the rules and patterns of good reason and what constitutes a valid challenge. We bias towards good reasoning, we bias towards finding the best ideas, we bias towards social benefit but we supply no definitive definition to limit what this means. Instead the community as a whole, through their own powers of intellect, champion and challenge and debate their way towards a beneficial outcome.

Shane has created an app called (pronounced as rebutter - a play on the word rebuttal). Until the Politify platform is released (and perhaps for a time after), Politify will be actively promoting the app as a tool to connect users of the web to counter argument so that they may gain a broader understanding of the subjects they engage with.

Through his writings and videos, Shane does make the point that his app is not a perfect solution to the problem of misinformation. Learning from his experiences creating, he believes that the global internet society as a whole, needs to work together to build a central database of web pages and the URLs of pages that provide their counter arguements. From this he proposes that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms should help to create what he describes as "The Socratic Web."

Extracted from the article: "What is The Socratic Web?" by Shane Greenup.

The Socratic Web refers to the web as you know it, but all content that has ever been critiqued, contradicted, or argued against, provides easy access to those critical responses.

Based on the teachings of the famous Greek philosopher Socrates, Shane summarises the Socratic method of reason as "True knowledge gained only by constantly questioning assumptions that underly all we do." In other words, the only way to truly know something is to begin with the assumption that you don't truly know anything, you will then continually question your assumptions in an attempt to be less and less wrong over time. To further illustrate the point of becoming less and less wrong over time, Shane quotes Karl Popper who was given a knighthood for figuring out how to define what is or is not science. This is summarised with the words: "Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or refute it." To help us understand this Shane provides the example of a person assuming that all swans are white. If you attempt to prove this by finding 100 white swans then most of us will know that this does not necesarily prove the assertion that all swans are white because most people have seen or at least heard of the existence of black swans. So the only genuine test of the assumption would be an attempt to try to falsify the assumption by looking for other colours of swans. If you can't find any then you can at least say that within the surveyed sample of swans, all were white. This leaves the theory open to the possibility that there may somewhere exist, a different colour of swan. Further if you do find another colour of swan then you can prove that your theory is definitely not true and with that difinitive observation, you can adjust your theory to be less wrong. For example you might then assert that all swans are either black or white. You then continue the process with the new and adjusted theory to be less and less wrong over time.

Within the context of politics, we at Politify begin with the assumption that our view, our opinion and the things we think to be true, are ideas that should be scrutinised by allowing them to be challenged. By running the gauntlet of mostly logical challenges, we seek to follow the current most fault free ideas. We take these to be the best ideas so far proposed and we follow them until the best ideas can be made less and less wrong.

This of course is discussing how ideas get tested for validity. The other side to this is how ideas get created in the first place. Here the concept of evidence based reasoning applies where it is proposed that ideas should only be created in response to some fact, observation or reliable source of information that justifies the creation of the idea. If there is no evidence to justify the creation of a theory then the theory should not exist. Of course it is not so simple in a social context. Often the person to propose an idea is not the person to prove its validity. Further some people will come to an idea without being fully aware of the evidence warranting the creation of the idea. A person operating only from a "crticial" analysis might dismiss the idea without a thorough investigation. To combat this, Politify allows all ideas. This gives the crowd the opportunity to champion by applying evidence or to challenge by proving an assertion false. Falsified ideas fall to the bottom of any subject list with tools to detect their likely invalidation.

The Politify platform is designed to allow arguments to be made in a granular, idea for idea manner. Shane's approach with The Socratic Web is instead on the level of the article which is a collection of many ideas. As we develop the Politify platform, it is expected that granular idea debates will often come from larger articles that are drawn into the system. The Socratic Web concept would provide a test environment that increases the chances of finding good sources for ideas and supporting information. Once the debates over the individual ideas have run, the best ideas from the available selections could then be pulled together again and built up into larger articles discussing proposed implementations and the process started all over again. This is bringing the socratic method and even the scientific method into politics. The scientific method being further enhanced by the collection of data and statistics as participants propose ideas and information, champion and challenge content and log their reactions to the content.

The Benefit of the Solution,, The Socratic Web and exposure to counter arguments through their use all will have the benefit of broadening people's understanding of the world and the issues we face. Collectively as a society we can test assumptions and become less and less wrong over time. As we use the socratic method and the scientific method to test ideas we can raise the current, most fault-free ideas to the top. We can harness the best ideas available to our society to bring all the benefits that those individual ideas can bring. We can stop wasting time and resources implementing poor solutions proposed in response to misinformation.

Connecting argument and counter argument can be used to:

  • Shut down Fake News
  • Correct Misinformation
  • De-incentivise Click-bait
  • Bring attention to Media Bias
  • Transform Beliefs into knowledge
  • Reduce the effect of social manipulation through Propaganda
  • Allow a challenge to False Advertising and Misleading Claims
  • Turn One Sided Stories into multi-dimensional discussions
  • Carve up Unscientific Theories and False Beliefs
  • Counter Trial-by-Media, Character Assassination and Defamation
  • Make human Story Telling less and less wrong

Proposed Implementation

Until The Socratic Web is built, until the Politify platform is relased and while we are building an audience for Politify through the release of articles, the best solution to misinformation that we have available appears to be the app. We will be promoting it eagerly in an attempt to stimulate an environment of good reasoning practices.

We will also be working collaboratively with Shane Greenup and any of his team to help develop The Socratic Web. When the time comes, we will be integrating the URL matching concept into the input and output article levels of the Politify platform.

Suggested Discussion Topics

  • The Socratic Method applied to politics
  • The Scientific Method applied to politics
  • What makes a good counter arguement?
  • What does good reasoning look like?
  • How do we define social benefit?


Cameron Gibbs
Politify Founder

Disclaimer: Politify is a neutral platform created to allow anyone to share their ideas and to debate those ideas. Views expressed by Employees, Directors, Authors, Sponsors and/or Affiliates of Politify are their own views shared with equal opportunity using the Politify network. The veiws expressed are in no way indicative of any official policy of Politify as an organisation.

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