Parasites, Clickbait, and the Nugation of Political Debate

My two main research areas in my academic life are the economics of online and communication. Much has changed since I first got interested in these topics in the mid 90s. Some of it I anticipated: Pundits predicted the rise of perfect online competition and the consequent death of retail. I never believed this (though explaining why is too much of a tangent). Rather, some retail sectors, books and music mainly, have been transformed.

But I failed to anticipate how the intersection of online monetization and communication would affect politics. I wish I did, so I could say I told you so, but alas my crystal ball in this instance, as well as many others, was cracked.

Let’s start with a premise: Most of what is “written” online is pure rubbish. The world surely does not need yet another clickbait listicle about the Kardashians, but by the end of the day it will have one. Another premise: Much of what is “written” online is “recycled” (“curated” is the polite term). That is, it is much easier to repackage existing content rather than create new. Hence the listicle phenomenon where the article consists merely of gathering a bunch of existing stuff, say Kardashian follies, and then ordering this stuff in an attractive way, such as a list of the top 5 dumb things done by Kardashians. (Sidenote: I have nothing personal against the Kardashians. I merely feel that they get far too much attention relative to their interestingness. Others obviously disagree.)

Once upon a time, the greatest company online was Yahoo. They were pioneers of the curation model. Indeed, their initial search engine was nothing more than a database of curated sites. Even today, Yahoo’s portal (its “metro” page in Yahoo-speak) consists mainly of repackaged content. It turns out that the curation model is far more profitable than the old business model of actually hiring reporters to investigate and write about happenings in the world. The curation model has taken off. Indeed, the user generated content at social sites like Facebook and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn, consists mainly of curation, albeit on a micro and personal scale. Essays like this one are the exception.

Curation has undoubtedly affected the economics of publishing profoundly. It is the “frienemy” of original reporting, driving traffic to certain articles, yet acting as a parasite of sorts, relying on the content production of others to survive. Nowhere has this weird relationship, between curators and content makers, had a more profound effect than in politics. I believe it has increased polarization, already a problem in the pre-internet age. But, worse yet, it has made bipartisanship, or even civilized bipartisan debate, almost impossible. And, I claim, this is very bad for democratic governance.

I wish I had predicted all this at the start. I would be more famous in academic circles had I done so…maybe even in non-academic circles too. The information driving the argument in the paragraphs that follow was always there to see, but I failed to make the right logical connections to see the long-term implications.

(Sidenote: Such academic “remedies,” using 20–20 hindsight in a formal way, are all too common. Many of us, myself included, like to explain in glorious detail, how leaving the barn door open allowed the horse to escape. Or how, by squeezing a toothpaste tube just so, large amounts of paste come out and cannot be put back. Or, my favorite one way door metaphor, how once certain steps have led a woman to become pregnant, the situation is difficult to undo. We academics would then lovingly describe, and empirically document, all the steps.)

Curation has fundamentally changed politics in America, and not in a good way. But we need to go back in time, to the equivalent of the Yahoo discovery in political communication, to see how this is the case. Let’s start with one of my favorite people in the whole world, Monica Lewinsky, President Bill Clinton’s former lover.

I believe the Yahoo of politics was Matt Drudge. He is most famous for “breaking” the Monica Lewinsky story, mainly by curating a piece in the National Enquirer. This drove immense traffic to his Drudge Report website, which still bears its late 90s look and feel, and offered a compelling new business model. Drudge vacuumed the internet, and curated only the news that matched his audience’s (right-wing) ideological predilections and beliefs. Every time someone clicked on a link via Drudge Report, Matt Drudge made a little money and, as the clicks grew, so too did Drudge’s wallet. The success of this model spurred a host of imitators, more of these on the political right than on the left. For instance, the hugely successful Breitbart website expanded the Drudge model, spicing the curated articles with an opinion gloss from their own writers. InfoWars operates similarly. On the left, sites like Huffington Post, and to a lesser degree Slate, pursue largely the same business model.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is far more profitable to curate news than to report it. While Drudge and others have prospered, mainstream media has struggled. Newspapers and magazines have shrunk or shuttered operations. The parasite analogy is especially apt in this regard — -while all parasites derive sustenance at the expense of their host, some are so voracious that the host is literally sucked dry and hence dies. This might be the future, and the collapse of, the curation business model. Oddly, it might also be the best case scenario for US politics as well.

Curation built on politics has had a more subtle, and altogether more pernicious, effect: People find it more convenient to let Drudge pick their news than to visit the mainstream media directly. As a result, ideologically polarized individuals see only a portion of the news — information bubbles start to form. Worse yet, authority figures such as the President, reinforce bubbles by telling supporters that the news they don’t see consists purely of fabrications and lies. Social media performs a similar role but on a micro scale. Every time a piece goes viral, it represents micro-curation decisions by zillions of individuals, but perhaps begun by an influencer with a particular agenda, as in the case of various news stories allegedly planted by the Russians.

Information bubbles are bad for many reasons, but their worst aspect is the loss of common knowledge — individuals in separate bubbles believe different, and often conflicting, “facts” about the world. And this, in turn, destroys debate. (Footnote for academics: I am using the phrase common knowledge colloquially, not as a term of art in terms of its full logic structure and assumptions.)

Academics have formal models about why bubbles are bad under the rubric of “heterogeneous prior beliefs.” Our models of human reason say that, when trying to predict an event, such as whether it will rain tomorrow, individuals start with some beliefs, their “prior” beliefs, and then adjust them (using Bayes’ Rule typically) as new facts come in. Once they are convinced of something, i.e. their beliefs about a given event are either zero or one, then new facts have no bearing. Equivalently, if they largely disbelieve the new “facts,” their opinions will virtually unaltered.

A concrete example might help. Suppose you were interested in predicting whether the next bird you encounter will be capable of flight. If you have only ever observed penguins, and no other birds, you would put the probability of encountering a flying bird at zero. On the other hand, if another person had only ever seen sparrows and no other birds, that person would put the probability of flight at one. Moreover, if those were the prior beliefs of the two individuals, or if the first individual simply disbelieved stories about non-penguin birds, and analogously for the sparrow person, then debate between the two about the question of bird flight is utterly pointless. Neither can change the other’s mind no matter how hard they try. To a penguin person, your articles about flying sparrows are #fakenews, and vice-versa. Working together on a bird related problem or policy, such as the need to regulate power lines to prevent birds being killed, is likewise impossible. Our two individuals have become so polarized, and so cosseted in information bubbles, that bird related discussions are moot.

The above is a silly story, but illustrates how information bubbles lead to the collapse of compromise or even civilized debate. If we agree mainly as to the facts, we can sensibly debate the conclusions to be drawn from the facts, and the policy response needed. We might disagree about the implications of the facts, but minds can still be changed.

But if we cannot agree about basic facts — -Did the Russians intervene in US elections on Trump’s side? Is Global Warming real? Do vaccines cause autism? Was Obama born in America? — -then debate, and bipartisan policy making, are impossible. We end up in a democracy completely dominated, and governed by, partisan views incapable of even countenancing the premises offered by the opposition, much less the conclusions and policies to be derived from these premises.

But the bird argument is not quite the whole story. It leans too much on disbelieving all contradicting information, which is clearly too extreme. So how do we “fix” matters to make the story hang together. The answer, I believe, is capacity.

There are only so many hours in the day. No one can read all the articles produced on a given topic, such as the follies of the Kardashians, nor would they want to. Most have better things to do with their time. And this is the rub: Suppose our penguin person receives more than enough penguin articles to fill her day. She reads only some of them and certainly does not bother reading disagreeable, and most likely sketchy, pieces about sparrows. Likewise, all of the sparrow person’s time is taken up with reading about sparrows. And now we are done — -even if the two individuals are willing to countenance the possibility that articles about other birds might possibly be true — -for instance, the sparrow person might have nothing against ostrich articles other than finding them boring compared to sparrow pieces. Neither person’s mind will be changed as new facts arrive, no matter how free such information might flow.

Sadly, I think we are closer to the bird story than we realize in the US. Worse still, the impossibility of debate implies that only partisan muscle will get anything accomplished. It also implies that the policies of one party, based on one set of “facts,” will be despised by the other, operating under an antithetical set of “facts.” If you believe with all your heart that Obama is an African Muslim socialist, then there is little point in debating the merits of his health care policy. Likewise, if you believe with all your heart that Trump is a Russian tool and common crook, relying solely on nepotistic relationships to forge policy, and suffering from severe mental health problems, then debating the merits of extreme vetting and the travel ban is likewise nugatory.

Democracy, in such settings, degenerates into name-calling: Crooked Hillary, Crazy Bernie Sanders, and so on. No one’s mind is, or can be, changed, and policy hugely depends on the particular set of approved facts believed by the majority of members of Congress.

We often bemoan gridlock in government, yet a non-partisan outside observer may well take the view that gridlock seems like the best-case scenario in such a world. And so it seems that, by freeing information, by allowing it to be readily curated, customized, and circulated, by giving our citizens access to a broad spectrum of fact and opinion, we have produced a less informed, more bitterly partisan, and more dysfunctional form of democracy. And, as history teaches us, dysfunctional democracies often evolve into personal rule, even if only to get something accomplished. (See my previous article on antitrust policy and The Godfather for details of this argument.)

This whole thing frightens me. It reminds me too much of nationalistic politics in the 1930s. It reminds me too much of culture wars fought to protect the destruction of Christian culture, of race sensibilities and strengths, by outside forces, mainly Communists and Jews. The fact that none of the premises were remotely true had no bearing on their political effectiveness or widespread acceptance. Economic policy meant to revive the fortunes of a forgotten working class bears strong historical parallels at that time. Yet few seem to worry, or even care about such dangers and parallels.

Maybe I’m merely seeing shadows, ghosts of past implosions of democracies, and crying out needlessly. But I doubt it