297 - Transparency

Transparency here is used to mean the intention to garner trust by sharing information with a modicum of precision; to open yourself for inspection as a person (or body or representative of one) so as to engender greater trust. The delightful people at Full Fact sent me a report [1] to read that prompts me to this topic. ¹

Full Fact exists to fight against bad information. Bad information leads to bad decisions. In that grey area between good information and bad information lies misleading information. This might at its mildest be a bit of so-called spin, but too often what we see is more blatant. Thus we learn to check many facts in this world we live in that has too much fake news and deliberately falsified information.

Misinformation and disinformation are different. In both cases the information is misleading, causing one to believe something which is partially or totally untrue. The precision of the term depends on intent. You are misleading if you are unaware of the veracity of what it is you are communicating; disinformation has the intention to deceive. I suggest "Miss it or Diss it" as a way of sorting them out.

Many occurrences that are subsequently identified as misinformation happen when the fine detail attached to an item is discarded. Today's coronavirus deaths are <number>: here, it is difficult for today's deaths to have been counted yet, many deaths have not yet had their cause identified and some never will. So <number> can be quoted as correct (at the time, today, from declared source) but could still (as we have been discovering recently) cause us to subsequently understand that we are incorrectly reading properties into this information that are not true. So, even when the information is the best available it may still need some caveats. But of course we trim that off and call this expedience.


I've written several times that I see trust as a growing issue in our society. Of course, it may be that I have wider trust issues and I am transplanting them on everyone's behalf. However, the spread of false and misleading information (together and separately) can damage public debate, pose risks to public health and erode public trust.

Harms from misinformation can be categorised (source [2] p5, top pic at the time of writing in reds and browns) and you can read about this at some length in [2].

One of the situations where public misinformation is dangerous is in politics, so it is excellent that in Britain we trust various government sources such as Hansard (what was actually said in Parliament) and the ONS (Office of National Statistics) and that, these days, such a lot of material is published by the government. And that this is made available at no charge but that of the time it takes you to find it and read. We tend to trust the media (your chosen preferred medium) to do this process for us and I suspect this is a general error, since it too is an echo-chamber and therefore subject to the same general faults. All this in an environment where our declared trust—in the UK—that a politician can be trusted to tell the truth has held steady and low, between 17 and 19% [Source, near the end].

To that end, Britain has the Freedom of Information Act 2000, one of whose objectives is open government.  The website data.gov.uk included 23,000 datasets back in March 2016 [4].  If you want to compare nations, see [5]; the UK does rather well, for once.

Thinking of another extreme and growing facet of our society, we could view the widespread use of cctv as a demonstrating a lack of trust. Quite who is distrustful of whom is not so clear. What camera owners generally say is that they are protecting something, perhaps their property or our collective safety. We might view acceptance of the cameras as a general trust given by us that this information is used wisely to the benefit of us all in the sense of preventing or reducing crime; in a sense, as a form of insurance. We could also view the same thing as the very same people (us, the public) being shown that they cannot be trusted to behave in line with expectation. So we have something of a conflict, in that trust is given by the public that whatever is captured will be used safely and wisely but at the same time the existence of the cameras exhibits a distinct distrust in behaviour. I wanted to use the word panopticon here. ²


You would think that transparency would lead to trust, and more of one leads to more of the other. See [6], where the last two paragraphs reads: 

So, while the push for transparency is one of the most impressive political achievements of our time, what is disturbing is the growing hope that transparency alone will improve our societies and be enough to re-build trust in institutions. Dreaming for transparency we are “dreaming of systems so perfect so no one will need to be good". 

The brief story of modernity is of how the personal trust accumulated in traditional societies has been transformed into trust in impersonal institutions, and how people who used to trust their neighbours now trust strangers. But we will again need politicians who inspire trust if we want to overcome the current crisis. Transparency will not be enough.

Transparency in business runs up against the same problems as governments have, that you still want some control of what is made available. This is modified transparency of course but there needs to be a declared test of what is kept hidden. [7] So one could be too transparent, giving away information that is inappropriate such as employee personal details, exact recipes rather than ingredients. That is, stuff not theirs (and wrong) to give away and legitimate trade secrets, both of which could be described as damaging.  [8] does better, pointing to transparency as “the full, accurate, and timely disclosure of information.Or not damaging but trustworthy. ³

Downsides? Too much transparency moves public perceptions to the negative [source]; it can have a negative effect on employees (you want your salary published?); it could disadvantage you in a competitive environment—imagine a competitor using your released data but not releasing their own. See [9] too, which includes the comment that  employees who rank high for Stability and Structure thrive on predictability, consistency and security and are quick to be lose motivation if transparency disrupts that.  So there needs to be some restraint, a line of enough transparency. Which, of course, implies a battle with the press, who can be relied upon to always want more.

Returning to the issue of bad information with respect to transparency, it is clear from what I have read (I can't be bothered to source this) that transparency must not fudge an issue. People reading what purports to be transparent sharing have the bullshit meter fully functional, so if a mistake has been made and learned from, this is what should be reported and shared. Obfuscation at any level is interpreted as sufficiently dishonest (or insufficiently honest) to be taken as largely untrue, which entirely defeats the objective of being transparent and, apparently, leads to far more of what was shared being rejected as dubious. That is, the trust is broken.

So a possible immediate example is (has been) the announced target of 100,000 tetsts for Covid-19 being available by the end of the April, interpreted as being the news to be announced on 1st May. Except that it should have been more clear at the outset that this was available tests, capacity for tests, not tests actually taken. What we were shown as having been counted was a surge on the last day of April such that we were told 122,000 had occurred (to compare with 83,000 the day before). But subsequent usage has been around the 80,000 mark. Transparency as explained here ought to point out first (before any misunderstanding occurs) what it is that is being counted (capacity would be sensible, since that is what is controlled by the minister, Matt Hancock). Second, explaining that 'some medical personnel will need frequent testing' would be sensible. Third, the predictable issues with misunderstanding this number —and the issues that come to light as the number is bandied about, collecting attributes it wasn't given—should be dealt with immediately. Admitting any errors in that message would be good transparency. The count of 'tests given' measures swabs taken and home kits sent (so 'given' is accurate) and tests completed might well be 5-7 days later for completion. Capacity is much higher (but hard to tie down figures for) and in my mind, transparency would discuss why the demand is so different from capacity, where I'd imagine 70-80% take-up suggests the supply is about right geographically. Result: any trust being built up by the politicians fell back to its old level (close to disgusted, 18% as reported elsewhere here) simply because the vaunted transparency was evidently not occurring. Among the things that disturb me about this is that we apparently cannot accept a politician indicating that something has been misspoken or misunderstood or mistaken. I do not understand why this is not allowed, why it is that apparently we refuse to allow for improvement. Instead, any politician making a mistake must, it would appear, be replaced; this ensures that there is no improvement, which is contrary to the interests of everyone but the anarchists and nihilists.

DJS 20200505

small edits 20200628

[1] https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/fullfactreport2020.pdf

[2] https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/full_fact_tackling_misinformation_in_an_open_society.pdf

[3] https://perils.ipsos.com/index.html  Do the quiz (me:6/9), then read the slides, then do the quiz (me:9/9)

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/open-and-transparent-government  A boring read. Try instead

https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-freedom-of-information/what-is-the-foi-act/

[5] https://opendatabarometer.org/leadersedition/report/

[6] https://www.opengovpartnership.org/trust/does-more-transparency-mean-more-trust/

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikekappel/2019/04/03/transparency-in-business-5-ways-to-build-trust/#6fae57586149

[8] https://blog.experts-exchange.com/ee-blog/transparency-in-business-why-it-matters/ 

[9] https://www.tlnt.com/the-ugly-side-of-transparency-in-the-workplace/

[10]  spare space


1   Transparency (1) what happens when an established parent has subsequent issues with their gender identity. The issues are not because of being a parent, but not being a parent denies one transparency. 

Transparency (2) Someone with an imaginary child.

Transparency (3) The property of a material to pass light largely unrestricted. Hence a transparency is a term for see-through picture, light through one side, viewed from the other.

Transparency (4) The property of a situation in which information is made available as a substitute for light, allowing a position for others to understand what has occurred.

Edit 20200601, the word misinfopedia appeared in mail last week. In hunting for where I might have seen it I came across disinfopedia.

2 Panopticon -  a term coined by Jeremy Bentham, British philosopher, in 1787, originally describing a prison with cells arranged around a central circular well (a rotunda) so that everyone could be seen all of the time. Hence it has become a place where an observer has access to everywhere in an institution without the users aware of being watched or not. A peeping tom's nirvana.  This term is used now for places with widespread cctv and you will find references to Foucault who described the panopticon as a diagram of political technology. sample source.


3 Principles   (source [1], p9 edited/paraphrased)

There are three straightforward principles that we believe all those who choose to make serious claims in public debate should be held to.    

   Get your facts right                    Back up what you say with evidence              Correct your mistakes


4 Coronavirus

The report at [1] was published April 2020 so probably writing was finished in March, at some time around the moment of lockdown but, I think, just before that. Pages 27-30 reference the widespread claims (I only ever read it as an excuse for a joke) that 5G is harmful to health and responsible for the spread of the virus. I had not recognised that some people misunderstood this enough to vandalise phone masts and negatively accost network engineers.

5 I wanted to insert a link to a source, but the only one I can find updated daily is the worldometers one, accessed directly or from essay 293.


   ⁵.  ⁶  ⁷  ⁸  spares


Small edits made 20200528. This week we have had the circus created around Dominic Cummings' trip to Durham during the first half of April. It is established (with ? added to things that could usefully be confirmed) that he and his wife and (autistic?) child went in an unbroken drive the 260 or so miles from their house in London to a house on his father's farm/estate. [Can Mrs Cummings drive? Did they really do this drive in a single shift, which is way over my personal limit? Really, no toliet stop?] Having arrived at the house [how to get the keys?] they spent some time being ill and (reason offered) the safety net was access to adjacent family if necessary. Food was delivered to the door. Trip (60 miles the round trip) to Barnard Castle (April 13th?) 'to test eyesight okay to drive' largely disbelieved as unreasoned and unreasonable. Much easier to discredit this statement and to label it as unsafe behaviour. Return drive to London, so soon after the Barnard Castle trip it reads as unsafe all over again, and again claim made that there were no stops. Claim made, and at least partially substantiated, that London home made 'a target' by press attitudes and reporting. That is, as far as I can see, the ONLY part of the tale that makes the Cummings' situation different from any member of the public. It is undeniable that Cummings made himself an enemy to the Press in advance of this. It is also patent that the same press takes no more notice of rules (e.g., for personal space when acting as paparazzi) than DC is accused of doing. What clearly rankles with all is that many people denied themselves a very similar trip simply because it was against the rules as generally understood. Further, if what he did was 'right', then many people missed an opportunity to better their own positions and understandably resent this hugely. Short term effect already evidenced this week: we have proof (not that we needed it) that there are different rules for the elite; that 'transparency' is only as good as the completeness of the information, and its believability; that recognition of differences of perception (i.e. making what others would call a mistake, even if you yourself still think you made the right choice) is worthwhile. Whether or not one should apologise for failing to meet what others think is their expectations is not something I can decide; I think it is clear that the Press demands all sorts of behaviour they do not themselves live up to, even if individuals succeed. To put that another way;  He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone. [John 8:7, translated loosely, since it ought to read "cast first a stone at her".]

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