Blowing Bubbles

Study #27 - Oil and WaterAfter the 2016 election, there was a proliferation of discussion around the idea of filter bubbles and ideological blinders. For my part, at least, I heard a lot of people applying the idea of a filter bubble to explain why the election didn’t make sense to so many Americans. We stayed in our own groups, the reasoning went, and so we underestimated how different other groups were from our own. It certainly seems like that was part of the problem.

Now, nine months after the election, we are pregnant with our dissatisfaction. Trump’s administration has systematically alienated so many people that even right-wing media questions his capacity to succeed. His administration is less popular at this point than any previous administration has been. Liberals and conservatives alike talk about retaking our country.

But we’re not popping our bubbles; we’re reinforcing them. The people who believe in Trump still believe in Trump, and now they also disbelieve any story that undermines him. The people who hate Trump hate him, and exaggerate any story that confirms his ineptitude. The people who are disgusted and checked out have decided it’s okay to check out, and they confirm that bias, too. The media who focused on every whim of our reality-show presidential candidate have expanded our entire political discourse into a will-they-won’t-they, what-did-Trump-tweet-now, who’s-on-top storm of sensationalism. Instead of seeing the consequence of our preconceptions before the election and changing our approaches, we’re doubling down.

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You Won’t Believe Why People Can’t Stop Themselves From Writing Breathless Vacuous Headlines

clicks_viaTimFranklinActually, you probably will believe why, because those punchy gasping headlines are usually wrong. They exaggerate, misrepresent, and often flat-out contradict the content. When there is content, which there often isn’t, because most of the time it is just a dressed up meme or an embedded YouTube video dumped between fifteen ads and a couple paragraphs of partisan nonsense.

But maybe I do have something new to tell you: the click-bait writers aren’t the problem. The problem is us. And that includes you.

Yes, you. You are the problem.

Well, probably not “you” who are reading this. But if you shared something with a crap headline recently, maybe you are! See, there’s plenty of crap content and crap headlines. Every time we share something sloppy, we are giving it tacit approval. Every time we click on something with a crap headline, we are putting our stamp of approval on that nonsense.

I get it. It goes to the lizard brain. It’s easy to get caught up in “this thing that JUST happened [well maybe kinda not really]” or tease ourselves with that thing that “you won’t believe!!!!!.! [although you already do or you wouldn’t be looking at this anymore]” because hey, excitement is fun and cheap and the world sucks.

Unfortunately, it’s not just for enjoyment. It’s becoming the way we learn about the rest of society. We can easily find ourselves hate-clicking pieces about “Trump’s latest plan to create fascist America!” or “The sneaky way liberals are trying to distract you from real America’s problems!” We’re the ones gasping, having the vapors, and fainting over another meaningless tweet. We’re the ones frothing on the keyboard and hitting “like” and “share” before our rational brain has even caught up to the consequences.

It’s like eating candy, only a little more so—because after a few years of it, it’s becoming hard to find real information hiding in all the junk food. Not because filter bubbles and fake news, just because we indulge our urges too much, and that’s how markets work.

And that’s how markets fail. They meet our base desires, even when those base desires are bad for us. They fill our wants, but not our needs. What we need is good, thought-provoking information about what is true and how other people think about it. But what we want is to be endlessly distracted by things that are unchallenging, either because we already agree with what they mean, or because they mean nothing at all. We want to be high on the emotion, but then move on with no consequences.

There is, however, a consequence. The consequence is not only that we are bad at telling what is true, because we do not exercise the skill. The consequence is not only that we are outraged and distracted simultaneously by sickening caricatures of real events.

The consequence is that we are creating more of them. We are not just falling for the exaggerated version of reality, we are seeking it out. We want it, and we don’t restrain ourselves.

We hold the moral ideal that truth will come out on top eventually. But truth and lies don’t have power—we do. There is no absolute value in the truth, just a question of what we ask for.

The headline I put on this piece is actually pretty accurate.

You won’t believe it: because you’re the problem.

The lies are what we click on: so we’re the ones writing them.

And we can’t stop ourselves.

Because we like to be breathlessly outraged, and we care more about feeling right than being right.

 

Image Credit: Tim Franklin Photography

Give Us This Day Our Daily Outrage

Fire_viaMatthiasjpg.jpg

I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.

They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.

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Without Evidence

newspapers_viabinoriranasingheIt is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.

Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.

Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.

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How We Got It Wrong

hillary-clinton-concession-speechThe grief is palpable—if you are liberal. 11/9 is like 9/11, in that your very way of life is under attack. Which, in many ways, it is. But why it feels that way is more complicated than that.

If you are centrist, this outcome doesn’t much register—this is business as usual, maybe a little worse but not that much. And if you are conservative, it’s annoying but still a win—Trump is an unlikely hero for conservative values, but hey, you won, so who cares about the other two thirds of the country. Fuck em.

And because there is so stark a divide right now, I need to apologize to my conservative friends. I think you are dead wrong about Trump, and no, Clinton is not a corrupt criminal, and no I don’t forgive you and would never trust you with my rights—but  you were right about one thing: the media does have a liberal bias. All that grief? It’s in the media. All that confusion? Yup, that too. All our pain? Everyone seems to share it. After all, how could this happen? How could we have gotten it so wrong? The media is convulsing along with us and scrabbling for answers.

Well, in the bluntest way possible, the Onion answered that: Area Liberal No Longer Recognizes Fanciful, Wildly Inaccurate Mental Picture Of Country He Lives In. But put more kindly, we thought most of the country shared our values, or at the very least that they wouldn’t tolerate the obviously intolerable. And we didn’t realize that fairness and protecting people from harm—the principals Trump violates and derides—are themselves liberal values.

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Rhetoric Roulette

Stein_viaGageSkidmoreThe precautionary principle is critical and useful tool for addressing risk. Put simply, it encourages us to resolve uncertainty judiciously and carefully, with an awareness of possible risks. It gives us a check on unbridled enthusiasm, and a check that is altogether important. In fact, many of the regulations we have in place in society are built around precaution rather than simply assuming something is worthwhile.

So the precautionary principle has value in many uncertain circumstances, but we shouldn’t assume that it has value in any uncertain circumstance because, to be perfectly frank, all circumstances are uncertain. The question is of degree. And improperly applied, the precautionary principal can be unbridled and dangerous—the exact attitude it is intended to keep in check.

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The Rules

debateIt would be very difficult to cover politics in this country if we didn’t have any rules to do it. But there is an entire framework of unwritten rules that I, personally, believe ought to be explicit. Weekly, even daily, we the people are subject to these rules because the media, collectively, abides by them.

So I’ve decided to write them down.

The rules are: Continue reading