The Internet and Us - Part 4: Defensive ConsumptionSun, 20th Jan '19, 12:05 am::
The 24-hour news cycle could have unleashed an era of meticulous, nuance-driven news coverage but it gave us an echo chamber of soundbites. Imagine tuning in at 8am for public policy news, 12pm for local project updates, 4pm for geopolitical briefing, 8pm for fiscal analysis, and midnight-to-morning for a summary of global news in the past 24 hours. But instead we ended up with each hour starting with 6min of breaking news, then 12min of expression of shock, followed by 6min of reading of tweets and playback of soundbites, capped with 18min of yelling by disparate panelists. Throw in 18mins of ads and we got an hour of news. Repeat this 18 times a day with a different set of shouting faces and replay 6 of those hours between midnight and 6am and we have the global 24-hour news media format.
No matter the country, language, or channel, the format is essentially the same. You can't fault any specific entity for this because this is the natural order of any attention-seeking broadcast platform. Gravity makes all rocks fall down. 24-hour news cycle makes everyone repeat things 24 times a day. If they deviate from the norm, they lose viewers and shut down, reinforcing the format in the remaining networks.
Social media could have made all of TV news inconsequential. There is no specific air-time and the web doesn't end at 59 minutes. But it didn't fix any of TV's problems, but rather exacerbated them. Whereas TV started with experienced journalists repeating pre-approved talking points, social media gave a loudspeaker to anyone without any barriers. So whereas conflicts of interests sort-of mattered in the TV-era, nobody knows on the internet what biases someone has or which masters they serve. If it is in their interest to create outrage, they will create outrage. And boy have they championed the sport of creating outrage.
How we ended up here is relatively straight-forward. In a winner-take-all voting system, it is guaranteed that voters will end up aligning with one of two major parties. It doesn't matter how educated, rational, or compassionate the people are, if every voter can only select one person on a ballot, and whoever gets the most votes wins, it is absolutely certain that you will end up with two, diametrically opposed parties. And furthermore, over time the parties will continue to get further and further apart. If instead the voters could choose more than one candidate, preferably by ranking their choices in order of preference, then more than two parties can gain support and candidates who unite the people will win, instead of the most polarizing ones.
The same happens on the Internet when image macros, tweets, and 30-second muted video clips reduce the depth of an issue and leave you with only one of two choices - like/retweet/share or ignore. Remember ignoring is treated as dislike by social media algorithms so even if you think you are not making your opinion known, you are. When every bit of content online is judged on how much attention it receives, then only the most attention-grabbing content gets to the top. And there is nothing that gets more attention than something that causes us to fume in outrage and disbelief. How can X happen? I can't believe X said Y! Does nobody care about Z anymore?!
Our natural reaction to all of this is to exclaim that media is biased! Just like everyone has an accent but do not think they have an accent, all news is biased except the news you agree with. But biased isn't bad. Bias is natural. Our biases show where we come from, what values we espouse, what causes we are willing to stand up for. I am extremely biased in favor of legal immigration, interracial marriages, and having pets. Doesn't matter if it is suddenly proven that cats are destroying humanity or computer programmers from India will cause global meltdown in 2038. I'm not giving up my cats and I'm not voluntarily renouncing my US citizenship. I am biased and I stand by it. Biases aren't really a problem. The problem is our inability to recognize the bias in ourselves when we come across rage-inducing headlines and instantly give in to the rage.
I've been online for two decades now and not ONCE have I benefited from being instantly infuriated by something I read online. Not once has my life been better because of a visceral gut-reaction to an image stamped with some words by an anonymous troll. But I can't even count the number of times it has spoiled my mood, which most likely ruined a meal or a day trip. It doesn't matter if I was reading something true or false, important or trivial. All that mattered is that it instantly caused me to change how I felt, regardless of how my life was going normally. I could be having the best day with my family and friends and suddenly breaking news ruins the moment. Two days later it comes out that the original news while true is toothless because of some nuanced stipulation, and all of my rage subsides. The overly simplified news fed my pre-existing biases and caused me monetizable outrage. People made money from me being angry and frankly, I don't want to be a part of it.
So how do I de-bias the news I am consuming? One of the favorite things I learned in a Computer Science class years ago was how to use an unfair coin to simulate a fair coin toss. An unfair coin is any coin where the odds of landing on heads or tails is not exactly 50%, say if the coin is smoothed out on one side, causing it to be lighter and landing slightly more often. Flip a fair coin a trillion times and you would expect close to 500 billion heads and 500 billion tails. But flip an unfair coin i.e. a biased coin a trillion times, and you could get 430 billion heads and 570 billion tails. So how can you use an unfair coin in a fair way?
Just flip twice instead of once. If you get heads followed by tails, that's heads. If you get tails followed by heads, that's tails. If you get two heads or two tails, ignore the results and flip twice again. That's it. This method is proven to give you a fair, unbiased coin toss. Yes, you might have to flip the coin a lot of times in case you keep getting doubles initially - HH, TT, HH, TT, TT. But the first time you get either a HT or TH, you have a fair outcome.
Another trick I learned long ago that involved deciding the fair outcomes between two parties was about splitting a piece of cake into two. While both sides will fight to get the larger piece of the cake, there is a simple way to make it fair - flip a coin to let one party cut the cake into two and the other party gets to take either of the cut pieces. If the cutter tries to cheat and makes one slice much larger than the other, the picker can take the larger piece, leaving little for the cheating cutter. So it is in the best interest of the person cutting the piece of cake to make it as fair as possible.
To save me from outrage, I combine these two methods. First, regardless of how insane a news article seems, I wait 48 hours to decide. In two cycles of 24-hour news, the opposition will either properly refute or the original party will provide additional proof. I am willing to give the benefit of doubt to any side but I am not willing to give in to financially-motivated entities that profit from me to be offended. If something doesn't enrage me two days after I heard about it, then it wasn't worth being enraged two minutes after. Next, I mentally swap all proper-nouns in negative articles to people I like. If the article no longer antagonizes me with the names swapped, then I have proof of my hidden bias and no longer care about the original article.
This is not the proper strategy for journalists or media personalities with influence. They need to do what they believe is right. This strategy is like defensive driving for the Internet. I am not trying to solve the problem with the Internet. I just don't want it to corrupt my mind. Some motorists describe defensive driving as "driving as if everyone else on the road was drunk." I web-surf like everyone else is trying to indoctrinate me into their angry little cult. So far so good.