My understanding of how the media works was out-dated… and dangerously optimistic.
Confession time: I’ve been dangerously behind the times.
Things had moved faster than I thought, and I need to catch up.
I used to congratulate myself for having the media pegged. I had a nice little narrative that helped me rise above the depression and anxiety that too much news can give you.
That story went like this:
- Humans are emotional creatures, and we are particularly primed to fear and disaster.
- The primary objective of news outlets is to sell units and make money.
- Putting one and two together, media outlets will go out of their way to frame things in a negative light, and put greater emphasis on disaster and woe. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
- Therefore, you can’t trust the media for an accurate take on reality. It’s heavily biased towards bad news. Watch too much of it, then you too, will feel bad.
I thought I was so smart.
But the world has changed, and we need to catch up.
There a few huge changes that have take place in recent years.
The first is that the traditional media are no-longer the gate-keepers they once were. We now have thousands and thousands of different options, all available at the click of a button.
However, this diversity is funnelled through a very narrow gateway. Mostly we’re talking Facebook and Twitter.
A recent study found that 44% of Americans use Facebook as their primary news source.
So this massive diversity finds itself crammed into an extremely competitive single marketplace.
At the same time, our news-consumption has gone online. We don’t buy the whole paper and read whatever’s there anymore. We follow our interests. If we don’t like the angle, if we don’t like the writer, if we don’t like the topic, or if we simply get bored, we move on.
People have also started using the news they consume as a way to express their identity. Such and such a twit said something that offends my tribal identity. Let me share something that covers the event well – according to my personal filter of the facts – so that you will all know how much I care about the issue.
I await your likes.
And we know that a lot of people will share a story, even if they’ve never read it, let alone paused to think about whether it was true. The headline gives me the emotional response I’m looking for. Share.
Traditional media outlets also used to be constrained by the facts. They might have presented biased angles or op-ed pieces, but most things still had to be grounded in fact. They cared about their reputations.
Many modern news-creators aren’t so phased about ‘facts’. The aim isn’t to educate and enlighten. The aim is to titillate and enrage. You’ve probably noticed at least a few articles where you thought, ‘this is obviously B.S.’
However a few bad apples ruins the batch. Since the fake-news outlets are competing with real news outlets in the same marketplace, we create a race to the bottom. Even establishment outlets are now turning to click-bait. They have to, otherwise they’ll be left behind.
Algorithms then amplify the problem. Facebook watches what you like and interact with very carefully, and then gives you more of the same. And then more and more of it.
Ultimately, your “newsfeed” becomes an echo-chamber for the facts you already believe and the opinions you already agree with.
Since everything you’re exposed to confirms what you know, the more outrageous examples – things that would seem outrageous to a genuinely partial observer – don’t seem so outrageous – so long as they’re broadly in line with your world view.
As a result, it becomes much harder to tell fake-news from real-news.
And since we also exist in competitive social spaces, we’re also more inclined to share things that are shocking and outrageous.
In this space, outrageous bullshit flies and flies. Like rumours of Bill Clinton’s illegitimate black son. Or Trump’s interview with Playboy Magazine in 1988 where he said he’d run as a Republican because Republicans are stupid.
Even stuff that doesn’t seem to serve any agenda – like Kurt Cobain supposedly predicting a Trump victory back in 1993.
It’s a competitive space, so whatever sells.
What’s more, the ginormous scale of Facebook creates opportunities for message refinement and targeting.
During the third Presidential debate, Trump A/B tested social media messages with 175,000 variations!
I use A/B testing myself. Say I’m running an ad. I create two versions. On one ad I put a picture of a smiling woman. On the other, a smiling man. Then I send it out to a sample and see which one does better.
I then pick that one as my main ad and send it out more broadly.
So that’s A/B testing with two variations. What does A/B testing with 175,000 variations look like? The mind boggles. There would have been multiple versions for white voters. Multiple versions for black voters. Multiple versions for men, and then again for women. Red state vs Blue state, old vs young etc.
Facebook gives you opportunities for endless targeting, which means more ways for the message to slip into people’s echo chambers.
For a while there I was celebrating the death of traditional media. I was looking forward to the end of the fear-trade and the democratisation of information.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. Rather, we have created echo chambers for ourselves, and those echo chambers are rapidly filling up with emotive bull-shit.
I’m not sure that’s really better.
You need to know that this is going on. This is the new reality.
Don’t trust anyone.
Where is all this heading?