Secret Costs of Free Media

Polarization. It’s when you dip your toe into the water and get pulled into the deep end. It’s like when you agree to a drink with a friend, then find yourself in the wee hours, begging lady luck to give you a straight flush so that you can break even. It’s the idea equivalent of “just the tip”. We see it more and more as a result of living in the echo chambers that social media has trapped us in.

Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr – you’ll consistently find it increasingly common to be surrounded by like-minded people, whether you wish to be or not. Try this experiment – go to youtube and search one of the following: “vegetarianism”, “gun cleaning tutorial”, and/or “9/11 conspiracy”. Choose the one that is least-like your personal beliefs, open a video, and then watch as the suggested videos on the side evolve with each additional video you jump to. It will pump you through media arteries until you’ve reached the extremities. A solid sense of righteousness, and the drip drip drip of outrage to keep you in the invisible silo you’ve been stowed away in. There isn’t even an option to choose to diversify what shows up in your feeds. The goal is mere engagement by showing you what you want to see. And what do people want to look at? Things that reinforce their existing beliefs.

Does this mean we might not even realize that our media diet is unvaried and one-sided? That we believe we’re well-informed and anyone who disagrees with us is either uninformed or stupid? Yes, yes it does. It also means we become even more susceptible to the “false consensus effect”; the belief that our personal beliefs are more common than they actually are. Every additional “like” we click on facebook causes it to vomit up more of the same and blot out any dissenting views.

Mainstream media plays a similar game.

I was having a discussion recently about the male birth control pill. Remember hearing about that? If so, there’s a chance you heard about the outrageous study which found that the pill had similar side-effects to those of the female pill, and thus was stopped part-way through because men deserve better. The same side effects clearly aren’t acceptable for men to suffer through, but women, obviously disposable, serve better as guinea pigs. Sexist assholes; fuck ‘em, right?

Maybe this makes you angry – which is entirely the point. Let’s think about this for a moment. First: the study was stopped part-way through. What are some possible reasons to end a study? Maybe the funding dried up, or the results had been compromised. In any case, is it likely that a multi-billion dollar company would prefer ideology over profits? Sexism over Dollars?

If the male birth control pill were as able to pass safety standards, they would have put it on the market and let men decide whether they would buy it or not. It’s already been developed, and they’re marketing to half the population. As the situation stands, the real difference was not in the company’s motivations, but rather in the laws surrounding drug regulations. In short: the female pill was released in 1960, and the laws were significantly changed in 1961. The real questions: would the male pill be released had it been created in 1960? Would the female pill be released if it were invented today? Likely: yes, the male pill would’ve been approved; and no, the female pill wouldn’t be released today. But let’s not argue about alternative histories.

Back to the media: which is a headline that will be shared and clicked on? “Male birth control shut down early due to stricter FDA standards” or “Men Quit Male Birth Control Study Because It Was Giving Them Mood Swings. Also: Woman Up!”? To rephrase the question: which is more emotionally inflammatory? Well, Cosmo ran the second one; apparently, they thought that would gain some traction.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to feminism, but pretty much any hot-button issue you can think of. If the title makes you feel righteous rage, indignation, and/or superiority – then it’s likely worth a little more investigation and digging. Sure, Trump has pushed the envelope of recent years to make outlandish things appear commonplace, but even those can be cherry-picked from his habit of meandering speeches and putting his foot in his mouth, only to be followed by the other when called out. He’s a fan of doubling down.

What is the origin of inaccurate news?

Reread this section’s heading. I could have chosen to use a more concise term for the news, i.e., “fake”. If we want to push forward the narrative that the media shouldn’t be trusted, then, by all means, continue using that specific term. Personally, I refuse. Facts are not relative. People should not be allowed to construct our own reality based on whatever flawed research makes us feel the most comfortable.

How did we get here?

Well, this article seems to believe it stems all the way back to the 60’s for America. Another explanation is from Ryan Holiday’s book, “Trust Me; I’m Lying”, which describes the fall of respectable media in response to the rise of the blogosphere.

First, there was the weekly news report, then came the nightly news. After that, the 24h news cycle, followed by the as-fast-as-can-be-updated blog. This is a simplification of the media’s progress, but notice how the time frames for acquiring, vetting, and packaging news is ever shrinking. First, it filled an hour every 7 days, then an hour a day, 24 hours a day, and, finally, infinite. The blogosphere is limited only by the amount of content you can generate. You have functionally limitless space to put as much content as you can create and see what sticks. If it’s stale or needs to be tweaked, you can change it on the fly. Hell, get something glaringly wrong, and the opportunity for a follow-up presents itself for even more clicks.

The pressure from competitors getting the scoop is a severe threat to the news industry. The first to break a story will get the majority of the attention, which can cause mishaps such as when Fox prematurely declared George Bush the winner in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, despite it still being a close race. Cue other major outlets following suit within 4 minutes for fear of not capturing reader’s eyeballs.

And that’s what this is all about really – eyeballs. Most of these outlets are “free”, which is to say that we pay no money for access. As the internet has progressed, this is the form we chose to go with – for the worse.

The media is free but comes with a cost.

With the internet, we have expected things to come free. By doing so, we forced companies, websites, and apps to go the ol’ advertisement route for revenue generation. The media’s interests have moved to a new neighborhood, and we have to recognize their new digs. Are they telling us fair-handed, well-researched articles that inform us of the things we actually should be aware of? Keeping power accountable and the populace informed? Or are they portraying ideas that will get ad agencies the most views by any means necessary? Did we choose the even-handed, conscientious parent who makes us do our homework; or the fun, indulgent parent who forgets to pick us up from school but gives us pizza for dinner every night?

Recognize what’s on your social media page. The titles are increasingly inflammatory and unbelievable, and yet we seem to fall for them time and again. Often they are presented as questions which can summarily be skipped by assuming the answer is a simple “no”. Does this pill magically make you more attractive to other people? Can this doctor cure any illness? Has the fluoride in your water been shown to increase suggestibility? No, no, no.

You can’t make false statements, but questions are fair game. In other words: Betteridge’s law of headlines.

Not so fun fact: some major news outlets have scaled back their fact-checking departments as far back as the 90’s, which is to say nothing of the minor outlets and blogs (Newsweek, for instance, hasn’t had any since ‘96). They claimed that they were outsourcing the fact-checking responsibility to the reporter themselves, who are often under pressure of tight deadlines. The only outlets who care are the organizations that have hard-won reputations to uphold, but, again, if one major outlet makes an unvetted claim, dominos fall. In a competition between survival and credibility, it’s clear which is more important. Funny enough, one potential savior in the battle for truth is one the most used purveyors of false information: Facebook itself.

As of December 2016, Facebook began working with four fact-checking organizations to flag misleading news. They want to put banners on links that say it’s been proven false, as well as warnings that the article has been debunked, should you still choose to share it. It would be a huge step if they followed through with this plan, but I have yet to see any evidence of this as of one year later. I’m pessimistic about the future of this program since there’ve been rumors that the Trump campaign used Facebook ads to sway the election by working to discourage voters that were likely to vote for Hillary. Instead of turning around, it seems Facebook is being used even more nefariously.

Our media diet has spoiled.

If you were to eat only sugar and salt, your tongue would love you. Your body craves these flavors because we’re built to favor them, but pursuing them to the exclusion of everything else will leave you malnourished, unhappy, and fat. Outrage, cuddliness, and humor are our emotional equivalents to these, hitting us on the right dopaminergic level that keeps us wanting more. Words like “rampage”, “crazy”, and “secret” are all purposely chosen to pique our interest, such as the title of this article. This particularly applies when peering into the lives of pseudo-god celebrities and powerful people alike, placating us into believing that we’re better than them and that we wouldn’t do the same, or worse, if placed in their positions. It makes us feel justified in our beliefs, our choices, our lives. But it doesn’t educate us, it doesn’t advance our goals, and it doesn’t help us understand the other side of the aisle.

Vote with your dollars.

If we want to reshape the internet – the most influential and powerful tool we’ve ever created – to realign with the people’s best interests, our best interests, we need to stop assuming the things we digest are without cost. Realize that by not paying, it costs us much more than money: our discourse, our sanity, and our societies.

If you use an app with the option to pay for it, consider doing so. If you have to stop and seriously crunch the numbers before opening your wallet, then don’t. By paying, it aligns the producer’s and the consumer’s interests, allowing them to cater to what we need and not purely what feels good.

A saving grace among news outlets is ProPublica, an American non-profit, that runs based on donations in favor of the public’s interest. It is dedicated to performing in-depth investigative journalism to unveil truths that may not be as sensationalistic and fast as shot-from-the-hip gossip articles, but is serving the media’s purpose. There’s a reason why rebels or new regimes first take over media outlets during coups. Imagine a preschool that operates by teaching only that which earns the school advertising revenue. Let’s throw companies like ProPublica some money to avoid that situation.

Lastly, we need to apply critical thinking before spreading clickbait articles that should obviously raise red flags about their trustworthiness. If it seems too outrageous to be true, it probably is – even if it confirms your bias. Huxley’s dystopian vision was of being entertained into pacification, while Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was about people being unable to handle differing views; buying into emotionally satisfying headlines without reading past them, and not engaging with conflicting ideas are both solid steps towards those outcomes. MLK Jr. had it right that we need to understand each other and discuss our differences for us to advance as a society.

This “pay for media” may seem self-serving coming from a free blog, but I neither have ads nor ask for donations. It may not even be original, but I believe some things need to be continually repeated until we make the shift and take the internet back.

Relevant Reading

Trust me; I’m Lying – Ryan Holiday (Book)

How America Lost Its Mind – Kurt Anderson (Article)

Adam Ruins Everything – Adam Ruins the Internet (S01E23) (Clip)

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