Saturday, November 4, 2023

The Unhappy Consequences of Government Data Manipulation

Governments have a long history of manipulating data to get what they want, which generally means expanding their powers. In George Orwell's dystopian vision of the future not only was freedom of speech gagged, even freedom of thought was forbidden. And rewriting history was a full time branch of government.

Orwell was correct to be concerned about the erosion of freedom as we move toward the consolidation of power in the hands of the few. One of their chief tactics is the manipulation of data so as to control the narrative.

Here are some examples where governments manipulated data with dire consequences.

--In the 1930s, the Soviet Union manipulated agricultural data to hide the fact that it was experiencing a famine. The government forced farmers to report inflated crop yields, and it executed anyone who reported the truth. As a result, millions of people starved to death. 

--In the late 1950s and early 60s, the United States government manipulated data to justify its intervention in the Vietnam War. The government exaggerated the number of communist troops in Vietnam and downplayed the number of civilian casualties. This helped to build public support for the war.

--In the 1970s, the Argentine government manipulated data to hide the fact that it was committing human rights abuses. The government falsified death records and thousands of people disappeared. This helped to cover up the government's crimes.

--More recently, the Chinese government manipulated data to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government silenced whistleblowers and delayed reporting the outbreak. This helped to spread the virus around the world. And in this country, we've learned how our own government coerced social media platforms into censoring view that questioned the "official narrative."

These are just a few examples of how governments have manipulated data to get what they want. Governments often use data to control their citizens and to justify their actions. It is important to be aware of this and to be critical of the data that governments present.

In addition to the above examples, here are some other ways in which governments can manipulate data:

Selecting the data that is presented: Governments can choose to present data that supports their claims and to ignore data that doesn't. It's well known that every president seeking re-election tends to claim things are better than ever. From an ocean of data, incumbents select a constellation of numbers to show how well off everyone is. "Vote for me so I can finish the great work I've begun. We're only half-finished."

Here's another example. The government wants to increase military spending so it presents data on the increasing number of threats to national security, but ignores data on the cost of all this military spending.

And how many times have we heard that we will be out of oil in ten years? I have heard this claim for near fifty years.

Changing the way that data is measured: Governments can change the way that data is measured in order to make it look more favorable. For example, a government that wants to reduce unemployment might change the definition of what constitutes unemployment.

Suppressing data: Governments can suppress data that is inconvenient or embarrassing. For example, a government that wants to hide the fact that people in our inner cities are increasingly afraid can suppress actual crime statistics and parade a few cheerful people in front of the cameras who express their delight in living here or there or wherever. I'm sure that all the employees of big box retailers leaving San Francisco or Chicago are less than thrilled at losing their jobs, etc.

Becoming aware of the ways in which governments can manipulate data enables citizens to become more critical consumers of information. In ight of these things it is apparent that as media consumers we become more discerning.

It takes work to become informed, and even more work to separate the wheat from the chaff. Because of this, Nietzsche was correct when he said that men (and he meant people) are generally lazy in this regard.

C'est la vie.

Related Links He Who Controls the Narrative Controls the People Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

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