Mis-information, cyber propaganda or just lack of understanding?

Recently in a telephone conversation with someone I had never spoken to before I heard something that I found concerning. She was asking for some career advice and when I suggested she investigated becoming a member of an ABTC approved organisation she hesitated and then told me that she had heard through social media that ABTC supported punishment as a training method. Before I go any further I want to make it crystal clear this is absolutely NOT true and if there is any doubt I would ask readers to visit http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/images/1ABTC%20Ethical%20Dog%20Training.pdf This document was first published in 2015 and has been in circulation ever since.

Having reassured her that what she had read was completely wrong and simply a case of someone spreading mis-information I set about examining the phenomenon of fake news and cyber propaganda. There were a number of questions to address as follows:

  1. Why would anyone deliberately post untruths on social media?

Of course we could consider the simple possibility of malicious mischief but I think that unlikely. More probable is someone seeking to undermine a good reputation in order to gain a benefit for themselves. If so, this takes us into the immoral and unhealthy realm of competition where spreading lies about others is seen as fair game. If it was a deliberate act, knowing the information to be false, this sort of behaviour becomes propaganda but if it was someone spreading mis-information thinking it to be true without checking their facts it can be classed as malicious gossip. Either way it is no less reprehensible and shows the perpetrator in a pretty poor light as they directly seek to manipulate opinion using false statements.

  1. If those spreading the untruths thought it was the truth why would that be?

Of course, if the originator mistakenly believed it to be true they may well see themselves as a crusader. In this case they would feel they were a whistleblower on unethical issues for the good of the community. In fact they are guilty of behaving unethically and actually causing damage to the very cause they thought they were helping. For the sake of this enquiry I will assume that it is not a case of deliberate propaganda and lean towards it being unsubstantiated gossip. Firstly, we have to consider where the lie originated but this can be very difficult to establish because it will have been shared and rebroadcast many times, potentially being embellished and exaggerated each time. As is the case in the game of Chinese Whispers, slight variations to the original telling of the story result in something quite different. A rumour will often start from a misinterpretation of something taken out of context or one small, usually insignificant issue can be blown out of proportion and generalised to a whole community. One can only guess that perhaps one incident carried out by one person out of more than a thousand others associated with ABTC (less than 0.1%) was judged by someone without all the facts to be contrary to anti-aversive philosophy. From this over time it has grown into the fake news being circulated.

As the late Terry Pratchett once said “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” The point being that salacious stories and tales of wicked wrongdoing are far more engaging than the truth which is, in comparison, frequently quite dull.

  1. Finally I asked myself, do the people spreading these untruths really understand the psychological principles they are quoting?

The general notion of ‘Do no Harm’ is the overarching principle that is easily understood until someone who uses shock collars for instance, insists that they are not doing any harm. In order to be more specific people start refining their definition by quoting BF Skinner’s rules of operant conditioning but this is where it starts to get bogged down, partly because it is usually viewed too simplistically and partly because his work is quoted selectively. Despite being enthusiastic exponents of force free training many people do not consider how they might unwittingly engage in positive punishment without regarding it as such. Defined as an unpleasant circumstance resulting from a given behaviour, examples can be found on a regular basis. Rushing towards a dog chewing on an electric cable could easily be described as positive punishment as is throwing water over fighting dogs, even the simple act of telling them ‘no’ or something similar fits the definition too. The counter argument proposed to these examples is that they are not training, they are management but that is avoiding the issue, whether training or management they are examples of the learning process and positive punishment is taking place.

Clearly it is a highly desirable aim to stop people carrying out regular training in classes or at home by instilling fear, pain or anxiety and this is vigorously promoted by ABTC but it is also naïve and illustrates a lack of understanding to say that you will never be a party to positive punishment under any circumstances, that is the real mis-information.

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