On Economics
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On Economics

Censoring news media

A demand-side point-of-view

I’m no fan of censorship. Of any kind. I’m even against censoring lies from people who do bad things.

Not because I agree with these lies. But because censorship is messy and inefficient at best. And usually, censorship is less about protection from lies, and more about suppressing people. Often the opponents of governments and other powerful entities.

Even when what is censored is actual lies, the process is rarely beneficial. When lies are censored, liers gain legitimacy and importance. “The big, bad state censored me. So I must be right” etc. etc.

On the other hand, too much media is misleading people. And the growth of the internet and social media have given liars and misinformers unprecedented reach and audience. Too many people are making too many vital decisions based on too many lies. Like voting in democratic elections.

But what to do?

Supply and Demand

There are two sides to any news. #FakeNews or otherwise. There is supply. Journalists, media organisations and ordinary people who supply news. And demand. The people (like you and I) who consume the said news.

Traditional censorship works by governments and other regulators pontification on what the supply side is allowed to do. Or more often, not allowed to do. For example, our government could say “No one is allowed to publish any news about the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka”. And if such a law is enforced, no Sri Lankan medium will be able to publish news on the topic.

But there is another way to do censorship. On the demand side. Whatever media choose to say, the people who consume can choose not to consume some mediums and channels.

Buffoons, Blabbering and Balls

I don’t have a TV at home. That’s just one method I use for “demand-side” censorship. I don’t want to fill my living room with a bunch of buffoons blabbering utter balls. And I enjoy the resulting peace and quiet.

While I don’t watch TV, I do read newspapers, both hard copies and on the internet. I read blogs and subscribe to magazines. And there is plenty of misinformation and disinformation in these media. Even “reputable” mediums have bias. And that’s quite natural. All humans and human organisations are biased to some extent.

But while bias is not new, two other phenomena are new.

  1. Humans a paralysed by the sheer volume of information. Under these circumstances, it is easy to be shallow and uncritical.
  2. Technology has primarily supported misinformation and its dissemination. The combination of mental paralysis and powerful technology leads to further paralysis and more technology. A vicious cycle ensues.

Hence, humans have become slaves to technology. How might we put technology back in its proper place? Make it our slave again?

Intelligent Demand-Side Censorship

Too many people have resigned to the paralysis of social media, information overload. Like a drug that starts as an innocent recreation, then becomes a chronic addiction, and finally a complete master. And too few people believe that the tide can be turned.

But there is hope. Because most of the unbelievers also believe that the only way to solve the problem is through supply-side regulation.

I’m not asking you to, like me, stop watching TV. That instrument is far too blunt. But there are far more intelligent and nuanced ways in which we might control our media exposure. And technology might be a helpful slave, as opposed to being a despotic master.

Enter Tom.

Tom Hayden

Imagine you had a trusted friend who always accompanied you while you consumed media. A sort of Tom Hayden-eque Consigliere*, who nudges you when something is wrong.

* Tom Hayden is the adopted son, lawyer and adviser to Don Corleone, the title character of the novel and film, The Godfather

For example, suppose you read the following on social media:

“Reporter X says that Politician Y said that the GDP of Sri Lanka is Z”

Tom Hayden would point out, quoting Wikipedia, which in turn references the IMF, that Sri Lankan’s GDP is actually W, not Z.

Tom would also point out that Politician Y is famous for lying, and, in fact, 47.34% of everything she says is a lie. More importantly, she would point out that Politician Y is expected to get a 67% kick-back from a development loan.

And not just about Politician Y. Tom would point out that, while Reporter X doesn’t actually tell lies, he doesn’t say anything of use either. 70% of what he says are quotes of famous people like Politician Y. And he never checks if these quotes are accurate.

But Tom would be no mere fact-checker. He would give far more thoughtful and useful advice.

For example, he might criticise you for only reading a small set of media that you like. Like newspaper A and blog B. He might point out that newspaper C has a much more diverse viewpoint.

You might even ask Tom to keep track of the variety and diversity of your media diet. Like you might ask a good (food) nutritionist, to track what you eat.

What next?

I am a computer scientist. And we computer scientists build stuff. We have built many bad stuff in the past, but we have also built good stuff. We are also capable of building good stuff that will turn bad stuff into better stuff.

This article is an early-stage “product specification” in disguise. I want to build a “Tom Hayden”. Currently, I’m trying to understand what “features” Tom should have.

Please comment with your thoughts, features and comments!




Articles on Economics by Nuwan I. Senaratna

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Nuwan I. Senaratna

Nuwan I. Senaratna

I am a Computer Scientist and Musician by training. A writer with interests in Philosophy, Economics, Technology, Politics, Business, the Arts and Fiction.

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