Brexit, Trump, ISIS - Why media is the new government
Democracy is wonderful - in theory. But when put into practice, things look different. Today, a politician shares an idea. Then the media amplifies it. In the digital age, the amplification is on hyper steroids. No problem, if ideas spread fairly. But our brain does not pay equal attention to positive and negative news. In result, headlines screaming angst deafen opportunity.
9 out of 10 news articles are about negativity. Crime, corruption, catastrophe, death, and violence sell. On the hunt for clicks and shares, publishers understand that we are hyper sensitive to fear. Fear of missing out. Fear of being a victim. Fear of being left behind. Fear of being forgotten.
Sex sells. Fear sells better.
As the saying goes “a message from the brain, reaches the ass. A message from the heart, reaches the heart.” A story has more power than a statistic. Pictures are more powerful than scientific papers. And the simpler the story, the easier it spreads.
Are you more afraid to die of cancer or a terrorist attack? The latter brings up much more vivid images. But cancer killed more than 65,000 times as many people in the US over the past 10 years. Yet, we fear terror the most.
Politicians and opinion leaders know this. Fear wins elections.
The #Brexit referendum was about fear. Fear of immigration and EU legislation. The United States spend 50,000 times as much on the fear of terror than any other cause of death. The NRA fears that stricter gun control leads to less self-defense of US citizens.
Curiosity kills. Suspicion survives.
The psychological explanation is simple. For survival, our brains were hardwired to detect danger (the attacking saber-toothed tiger). Exploration was not meant to enjoy priority in our lives. Survival first, everything else second. Suspicion keeps you alive. Curiosity may kill you. Hence protecting the status quo feels more natural.
The same is still true today. While we are no longer afraid of tigers, negativity still dominates our thinking. A single observation of negativity may kill an entire history of positivity. For example, when you catch your partner cheating on you. Within moments, years of beautiful memories, gifts, and travel get shattered. Likewise, an Islamist flies into the World Trade Center on 9/11, and you start looking at every Muslim with suspicion when you board your flight — even 15 years later.
Now reconsider what you read above about the influence of negative news coverage. And if you were a politician, what message would you try to spread? But why do even experts fall victim to this?
The Great Wall of China hoax
Many people know that the the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. Only few people understand that this is false. With 9m width, the Great Wall of China is narrower than any highway (not to speak of the pyramids or shopping malls). But neither the Great Wall nor any highway is visible from space without technical help. People often don’t verify information before adopting it.
When we read the news, we don’t fact-check. We expect the politician, the journalists or the publisher to have done that.
There are people that argue that smoking does not cause cancer, that sugary fast food is healthy, and that the right to bear arms protects rather than harms us. And then there are people who believe the exact opposite. For either of them, they believe a narrative. The simpler the message, the more vivid the image, the more narrated the story, the easier we get swayed.
And to make matters worse, we suffer from confirmation bias. We pay more attention to information confirming existing beliefs. A coffee-lover and steak-fan reject studies that find their favorite food to cause cancer. When was the last time you changed your opinion?
The invisible hand of democracy is broken
In economics, Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market reaches a market equilibrium. In a democracy, elections are this equilibrium. A fair outcome, in which nobody can be better off without anyone else being worse off. In theory, this is tremendous. In practice, it is far from reality. Humans are neither a rational homo oeconomicus nor homo democraticus.
Being rational means making informed decisions based on facts. But we do not know all the facts. Not all facts carry the same emotional weight. Some people intentionally lie to sway you. Most facts the media portrays cover negativity.
Not all facts are created equal.
But does democracy allow subjectivity, biases, hypocrisy, and lies? Regardless of what you think, how would you try to win elections?
What ISIS, Trump and Brexit have in common
The Brexit referendum was about fear. The name already suggests a bias. What if the name would have been Bremain instead? But regardless of wording or political views. Elderly citizens wanted their status quo back (independence from the EU; less immigration), while the young wanted to keep the status quo (they grew up in the EU amongst immigrants all their lives).
George W. Bush won the elections with the war on terror. The United States invaded Iraq based on the fear (and lie) of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Donald Trump tries to win the US presidential election. His rhetoric spreads fear. He understands that ‘more jobs for Americans’ is far less powerful than saying ‘fewer jobs for Mexicans’. Likewise, ‘strengthening the Christian belief’ is not going to win you elections. But ‘keeping potentially dangerous Muslims out of the country’ could. If you oppose his ideas, you would have to scream five times as loud or often. Fear outperforms opportunity.
And even ISIS is using the same mental and medial techniques. A single video of John Foley getting decapitated, spreads more fear than any propaganda speech.
One American IS victim killed in the US spreads more fear than 10 US soldiers killed in Afghanistan. But 10 US soldiers killed in Iraq spreads more fear than 100 Iraqi soldiers getting killed. Not even deaths are created equal.
The economics of media attention and impact are cruel.
Media is a powerful tool. Democrats, demagogues, and dictators know this. But who is who?
Why the media is the new parliament
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right. But some speeches spread faster than others. In the past, Silvio Berlusconi and Michael Bloomberg literally own media companies. Today, Donald Trump only owes the media a few catchy statements. In return, they amplify his words beyond its original significance — financially and politically a much better deal for Trump. In result, the click rates go through the roof.
The only shortcoming in this political debate? Fear trumps feasibility, simplicity trumps scientific proof, tweet trumps truth [no puns intended].
Latest example? The medial Brexit promise to invest £350m into the national healthcare system instead of the European Union. It lasted for months during the campaign, but the promise was broken not even 24 hours after the referendum. Lots of political upside with no legal downside. Freedom of speech in politics is not about truth, it is about reach.
Political debate is not driven by how good an idea is, but by how easy it spreads. Media drives democracy.
So is it easier to rewire our brains to become more resilient? Or should we reconsider the role the media plays? Does the media do us a favor by uber amplifying negative messages? Would we be worse of if the media had decided not to show the decapitation of John Foley? Or did the media, in fact, amplify the attention of IS in its own hunt for clicks and likes? And then, why do we as consumers click on such links? Why are we numb to daily terror attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, but uber react when terror comes to our own neighborhood?
We restrict access to porn, but allow live coverage of terror attacks on the news…
We are part of the media. We are the media that we consume.