There is an excellent article in the Guardian by Evgeny Morozov, who gets at the heart of what we have come to call “the fake news problem”. According to Morozov, there are two “denials” that drive not only fake news (and a host of other corrosive clickbait), but our entire information environment:
The big threat facing western societies today is not so much the emergence of illiberal democracy abroad as the persistence of immature democracy at home. This immaturity, exhibited almost daily by the elites, manifests itself in two types of denial: the denial of the economic origins of most of today’s problems; and the denial of the profound corruption of professional expertise.
I disagree with some of Morozov’s points, but overall find it a compelling argument. The problem we are looking at concerns our entire information ecosystem; fake news and clickbait conspiracy are only the latest infestations of an increasingly out of balance environment.
Calling the “liberal media” a form of “fake news” is a false equivalence. But so much of our current expertise compromised in some way, and the media is often a willing accomplice to its distribution. We see this, for example, in educational technology, where the totality of an “expert’s expertise” involves floating a startup, or working an organization that traces its money to outfits with larger (and more dubious) agendas.
Universities that used to fund research and development are increasingly reliant on corporate money as federal research funds shrink. Think tanks with political advocacy as a core mission fund an increasing amount of the studies bandied about by the press.
I believe in expertise. I believe we need a return to valuing expertise. But the trend over the past 40 years has been to mint expertise wedded to particular political results, whether its the junk science of Big Tobacco or the Merchants of Doubt of climate change. In economics, it’s even worse, with the best economists revolving through positions at banks, think tanks, and government. Can we trust an answer from that group on whether regulation works?
What happens when powerful interests learn to print expertise and push it into circulation? They same thing that happens when you do such things with currency. With no clear dividing live between the counterfeit and the real, the value of all currency suffers. (And if you read Merchants of Doubt, you’ll see that for some entities this is exactly the point — to sow a broad distrust in the idea of any expert consensus — or in the idea of expertise at all).
As we can see, the alternative to believing in expertise — the sort of knee-jerk nihilism we are seeing in some political quarters — turns out to be far more frightening than even our corrupted version of scholarship. But you can’t address the nihilism without addressing the environment that fostered it.
Monopolistic Digital Capitalism
The problem is not fake news but the speed and ease of its dissemination, and it exists primarily because today’s digital capitalism makes it extremely profitable – look at Google and Facebook – to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives.
To recast the fake news crisis this way, however, would require the establishment to transcend one of their denials and dabble in the political economy of communications. And who wants to acknowledge that, for the past 30 years, it has been the political parties of the centre-left and centre-right that touted the genius of Silicon Valley, privatised telecommunications and adopted a rather lax attitude to antitrust enforcement?
Again, this is correct. The reason these varieties of misinformation have propagated so quickly and fully is that we have developed an economy which is focused on rewarding distribution, not creation or value.
Facebook doesn’t produce content. It figures out ways to monetize the content of others. The content providers on Facebook (you and me) make nothing, and Facebook pays the providers of the content we share nothing. Facebook doesn’t benefit if you read a thought-provoking piece on the platform on that you think about on your morning drive. It makes money when you scroll, skim, comment, like, share. Like a food scientist looking for the flavor profile that makes people eat 23% more tortilla chips, Facebook’s focus is not on satiety, or even curiosity, but compulsion.
It’s worthwhile to note that this is not the only model out there. Podcasters, for example, don’t benefit from clickbait sensationalism, but from content that can maintain sustained interest for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. Longform journalism relies on your feeling of having read something satisfying to build a brand identity.
Facebook relies on you having a compulsive relationship to Facebook that devalues direct relationships to other professional content providers. And so you get exactly what you’d predict you’d get.
Morozov talks about devolution of power to the individual in a way that is unclear to me, but his comment about the click-and-share drive of social media is on target:
The only solution to the problem of fake news that neither misdiagnoses the problem nor overpowers the elites is to completely rethink the fundamentals of digital capitalism. We need to make online advertising – and its destructive click-and-share drive – less central to how we live, work and communicate. At the same time, we need to delegate more decision-making power to citizens – rather than the easily corruptible experts and venal corporations.
This means building a world where Facebook and Google neither wield much clout nor monopolise problem-solving. A formidable task worthy of mature democracies. Alas, the existing democracies, stuck in their denials of various kinds, prefer to blame everyone but themselves while offloading more and more problems to Silicon Valley.
Would breaking up Facebook and Google solve this? I’m not sure. It probably wouldn’t hurt. What I am sure of is that solutions to our current malaise are as unlikely to come out of Silicon Valley as solutions to global warming are to come out of Exxon.