The Jackpot of the Availability Cascade

Jack Luna
Jack Luna
Oct 12, 2020 · 8 min read

You’re a soldier in the information war, but do you know what the endgame feels like?

Photo by Chansereypich Seng on Unsplash

Imagine two combatants of relatively equal strength. They’re both very good, very well practiced. They know all the moves.

The only way one of them can win is when the other one slips up and lets their guard down. Maybe it’s exhaustion that causes the slip. Maybe it’s the surprise of a secret move they’ve never trained against, a move their opponent was holding onto for just the right moment.

Whatever the reason, the match ends and a champion is declared.

Some in the crowd erupt in joy while others fall into a shocked silence.

It was a long fight. A tense fight.

But in the end, the winner was decided.

Those who cheered for the victor go home energized and self-satisfied; those who were rooting for the loser go home disappointed and turn their attention to other battles.

Some people were neutral the whole time, just spectators to the fight, but not many.

It’s almost impossible to watch a contest like this — a brawl between two powerful duelists at the top of their game — and not give in to the very human urge to pick a side.

I’m describing the intellectual clash between millions of Americans on issues in the public sphere — abortion, universal healthcare, illegal immigration, welfare, climate change.

Like the two combatants I described above, the opposing sides in these battles have become entrenched.

They can’t convince their opponents to give up. Nor have they been able to persuade enough neutral fighters to rally to their cause and overwhelm their adversary.

Many of these battles span years, decades, and even generations.

In some cases — like the conflict over what power states should have versus what power the federal government should have — the battle has been raging since the founding of our nation.

And the battlefield is massive.

It’s more of a battle-space, actually, because it spans both the real and conceptual realms.

For the largest and longest-running battles, those who lead the charge against the opposing side have managed to accumulate a large supply of rhetorical munitions, a “pro” for every “con.”

For the newest battles, the attackers wonder whether they can use the element of surprise to achieve victory quickly.

Can the defenders be defeated swiftly before they have a chance to muster?

Or will the attackers charge forward valiantly, winning a few quick victories only to become bogged down in a massive war of attrition they’re not yet prepared to fight?

If you’re still new to the information wars — or maybe you’ve been around awhile and just can’t quite grasp the metaphor I’m using — it might seem that I’m describing more of an ongoing process, something like history rather than a battle that actually can be won.

But there’s a reason lobbyists and dark-money groups and nonprofits throw billions of dollars every year into the prolonged battles they’re fighting.

It’s because their ideological crusaders are holding the line and hoping for a Big Event — bad luck, an error by their opponent, or something totally unexpected — that will break the deadlock and pave the way to victory.

But before I provide you with a technical definition for what’s known as an “availability cascade,” consider the following:

On September 10, 2001, many Americans were aware that global terrorism was a threat but were disinterested in committing U.S. forces overseas.

Four days later — on September 14, 2001 — the American attitude had changed so rapidly and decisively that the U.S. Congress authorized the President to wage a global war on terrorism: only one member of the U.S. House of Representatives opposed the resolution, and the U.S. Senate agreed unanimously with only two Senators abstaining.

You know what happened between September 10th and September 14th, 2001, don’t you?

Suffice to say, even though skepticism about deploying American forces overseas was quite high throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the 9/11 attack was such a spectacular event that a long, long time had to pass before anyone could publicly criticize American aggression overseas without being accused of treachery.

Vice President Dick Cheney, along with his buddies in the military-industrial complex, had warned for years about the threat of global terrorism only to be rebuffed by bureaucrats and politicians who said things like “the American public doesn’t like military adventurism” and “the American public can’t stand to see Americans dying on foreign soil.”

Then, all of a sudden — voila! In the span of just a few days, the Vice President won his battle over U.S. intervention abroad as the arguments of his opposition collapsed just as quickly and suddenly as the buildings of the World Trade Center on that September morning.

If you’re itching for a technical definition for this phenomenon as opposed to just a single illustrative case study, here it is.

The term “availability cascade” was first used by economist Timur Kuran and legal scholar Cass Sunstein in a 1999 paper published in the Stanford Law Review.

The term was not used in the context of convincing Americans to go to war, however, but in the context of risk regulation.

Kuran and Sunstein noticed the way environmental and public-health activists — who they gave the fancy title of “availability entrepreneurs”—used the mass media to persuade the public on issues related to health and the environment.

The two academics were concerned about how activists could whip up public sentiment over a particular issue and force the government to take unwarranted or even destructive actions based on populist fear and anger rather than sound economics or science.

Kuran and Sunstein defined the availability cascade as follows:

A self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.

Said another way, the availability cascade is basically a meme that becomes legitimized and popularized — whether rightly or wrongly, accurately or not — by “going viral.”

And I don’t mean the sort of one-off visual/textual meme we’re exposed to on Facebook or Twitter, although these are certainly innovative weapons in the information wars.

Rather, the availability cascade is a process of repetition that frequently follows from a Big Event and leads to widespread belief adoption, suddenly and decisively shifting public perception and creating an overwhelming call to action.

Whether you want to think about the availability cascade as a meme, “going viral,” or a come-to-Jesus moment, it’s absolutely a real phenomenon.

Like a river that suddenly bursts free of its banks and etches a new course into the landscape, the availability cascade can lead to a decisive victory in the information wars when little resistance is encountered.

While we’re speaking of rivers, one of the most famous availability cascades in American history occurred in the summer of 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in downtown Cleveland.

The river, which was one of the most chemically polluted in the United States, had actually caught fire something like 13 times before, including a massive 1952 fire that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to boats, a bridge, and a riverfront office building.

Although the 1969 fire wasn’t that bad and no photographs of it were available, this didn’t stop Time magazine from publishing a dramatic photo from the far more destructive 1952 fire, shocking enough people that the public outcry eventually led to various environmental improvements such as the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

You could convincingly argue that the entire cascade surrounding the Cuyahoga River fire was manufactured given that the photographic evidence had been manipulated.

And indeed, that’s exactly what happens when smart and savvy availability entrepreneurs craft a compelling narrative out of small events and/or less-than-complete information.

But lest we worry that all of history has been manipulated, it’s helpful to also consider examples of purely organic availability cascades.

While approaching its mooring in Lakehurst, New Jersey, from Germany in 1937, the hydrogen-filled airship Hindenburg burst into flames and crashed. The disaster was recorded on film and quickly rushed out to the theaters via newsreel.

Although the airship industry had been sputtering for years, the Hindenburg crash touched off an availability cascade that airships were not safe and permanently ended their use for commercial passengers practically overnight.

If you haven’t seen (or don’t recall) the Hindenburg newsreel footage, it’s worth discovering (or rediscovering).

I can only imagine what it would have been like in 1937, as an average person who had up until that point seen only primitive special effects out of Hollywood, to sit down in the darkness of a theater and watch real footage of tiny human beings scattering like ants beneath the hulk of a flaming dirigible as it fell to Earth.

But while the Hindenburg newsreel is dramatic, it plays only a soft prelude to some of the more intense and opinion-swaying imagery we’ve seen in the years since.

Although availability cascades are not always touched off by fires, explosions, and violence, it certainly seems to help — among the first things that come to mind are atomic bombs detonating, U.S. television coverage of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the World Trade Center falling down, and the chilling gun-sight camera video from 2007 that shows jovial U.S. soldiers gunning down two Reuters journalists and other civilians in the streets of Iraq.

More recently, the widely watched video that showed the brutal and unnecessary killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, touched off a public conversation that had all the hallmarks of an availability cascade in the making.

Although it remains to be seen whether more significant changes are ahead for police departments across the country, it’s possible that in retrospect the video of the killing will be viewed as the “tipping point” that forced America to finally confront the disproportionate violence police officers commit against people of color.

A strong visual component of the availability cascade is clearly important, and herein lies the challenge for today’s information warriors who hope to hit the jackpot and win a decisive victory.

For one thing, many issues do not yield well to dramatic visual imagery. This is, thankfully, one of the many challenges faced by tin-foilers in the anti-vaxx space, who lack a compelling image that “proves” vaccines cause autism. (They don’t.)

Meanwhile, even if a strong visual component exists, information warriors still face an uphill battle given how thoroughly Americans have already been exposed to dramatic imagery — including fictional explosions of spaceships, planets, Death Stars, and the like. Though obviously much of the violence we have seen isn’t real, our subconscious minds don’t necessarily know this. Imagery is imagery.

As people’s sensitivity thresholds rise, so too does the threshold needed to ignite the availability cascade and give it a life of its own.

This means that information warriors will search out ever-more-stupefying ways to get people’s attention and win a decisive battle on issues in the public sphere.

So consider yourself warned.

Or — if you happen to be a foot-soldier in the information wars — consider yourself informed.

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Jack Luna

Written by

Jack Luna

I’m more than just a writer. Don’t bother looking for me on Twitter. This is my home at the moment.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Jack Luna

Written by

Jack Luna

I’m more than just a writer. Don’t bother looking for me on Twitter. This is my home at the moment.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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