The political atmosphere in America seem to have deteriorated a lot in the last few years. A lot of yelling. A lot of arrogance and overconfidence. A lot of trusting of stories that confirm what we already believe as opposed to stories that challenge what we only think we know. And a lot of trusting of stories that are literally not true.
People don’t just disagree with each other. They can’t imagine how a decent human being could disagree with their view of immigration or the minimum wage or President Trump.
It’s not just America. It seems to be happening in Europe as well. Everyone seems angry.
Being a member of the virtuous tribe means not only carrying the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself. You have to also believe that the people carrying any other card are fools or dupes, or worse — evil. This means an end to not just civilized conversation, but often to any kind of conversation at all.
This is dangerous. When you can’t imagine that your political opponents might possibly be right it dehumanizes them. It justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of.
It’s tempting to think that all of this is nothing new. Politics is a blood sport, after all. You should see what they said about Thomas Jefferson when he ran for President.
But I think something actually has changed.
It’s related to tribalism — our desire to join together with people and be part of something larger than ourselves — our embrace of religion, sports, politics. Tribalism is very old. Probably embedded in our DNA. So what has changed?
What has changed is our ability to feed and indulge our tribalism, particularly with news and politics. This new-found ability is the result of the transformation of the news and information landscape. It began with cable news. The internet has taken it to a new level.
First, the good news about that transformation: for a curious person interested in discovering things about the world and how it works, this is the greatest time to be alive. Podcasts, online education courses, wikipedia, and youtube videos are incredible resources for learning.
This profusion of informational choice lets me customize the news and information I consume. There are many ways to do that but the most common way is through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook and Twitter entertain us, let us keep in touch with friends, learn things we couldn’t have imagined and by friending and following the right people, they let us discover an unending stream of content, a stream we curate for ourselves.
I don’t listen to one news channel. Or even three. Or one newspaper. Or a few magazines. With Twitter and Facebook, I create my own newspaper, my own news channel. I can get the highlights of every network. Every newspaper. Every pundit. Every talking head. Any reporter who does interesting work. This information revolution is an extraordinary achievement.
Think of news and information as a buffet.
In the old days, the news buffet came from three suppliers — ABC, NBC, CBS and maybe your local newspaper. It was a pretty cushy environment for the networks. They jockeyed for market share but they all had a pretty good deal. Bland was the order of they day.
They served the informational equivalent of meat and potatoes. There was some variation but not much. Each station pretty much served up the same meat and the same potatoes. Oh, maybe one had french fries while the other had baked potatoes and the third had hash browns. But it was just potatoes. And it was only open a few hours a day.
When there’s only one television in the house, quality tends toward the lowest common denominator. Carving out a niche for programming that only a minority wants to watch isn’t profitable. Carving out a niche that a minority doesn’t want to watch is also unprofitable. They’ll veto that channel in a house with only one television. But as America got richer and televisions became cheaper, suddenly there’s an opportunity to customize.
That let cable create a lot more variation. You could have Fox News and MSNBC. You could have fish. And even some tofu. They were open pretty much all day.
And when the internet comes along and everyone has a smartphone, everyone watches what they want to watch and the world gets a lot more interesting. With Twitter and Facebook there’s ethnic food and fancy cuisine and diner food and paleo and even some crazy stuff on the edges, the news equivalent of chocolate covered locusts. You can go back for more any time you like.
The news business suddenly became very challenging. It suddenly became a lot harder to make money. The organizations that figured out how to make money survived. A lot of newspapers didn’t. A lot of news sites on the internet struggled to pay their bills. There was a big shakeout that’s still going on. But one thing is very clear. Traffic is crucial. Visitors, eyeballs, attention are all scarce. Getting more of them helps pay those bills.
That’s the obvious part. Here’s the not so obvious part. When it’s a giant buffet with competitors all over the place and people able to customize what they see and read, the providers are going to change what they serve.
The providers are going to change what they serve.
The competition is fierce to get the viewer’s attention. There’s an increased urgency to give the viewer what the viewer wants. If you do what you’ve always done, you probably don’t survive. Nobody wants the same well-done steak and the over-cooked mashed potatoes anymore. Viewers put up with it when they had to. Now they don’t have to. So if you’re a news organization and you want to stay alive, you have to attract more viewers, more attention.
And that leads to some strange dynamics.
Who is CNN’s biggest competitor? You’d think that would be Fox News. But their competition is really MSNBC and the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos and people on twitter who give people what they want. People and sites that cater to those who lean to the left. The biggest competitor of Fox News isn’t CNN — it’s Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and sites that cater to the right.
To get more views, you need to be a little bit louder in favor of the home team and a little less nuanced. You can’t just politely disagree with the other tribe. You need to vilify them. Outrage sells when competition is this intense.
And just to get people to pay attention you have to be more entertaining than the rest of the options people have for screen time.
So think about yourself. What do you want to watch? What grabs your attention when it comes to news and politics?
If you’re like most people, you have a tendency to read what makes you feel good about yourself. Hard to read things that challenge your preconceptions and that are charitable to the other side.
How many stories have you read that turned out to be wrong? Do you know? How much time do you spend making sure that what you believe about some policy issue — immigration, or trade, or the Middle East, is really backed up by the evidence and the facts?
When somebody writes a speculative story that turns out to be false, when do you notice? Who pays a price? I see reporters at respected outlets making claims that don’t hold up. Reporters I follow on Twitter who work for top-tier media outlets are also competing for attention. They seem louder, angrier and more partisan than reporters were in the past.
Louder and angrier sells. That’s part of the reason Trump won the nomination. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, used louder and angrier and almost beat Hillary Clinton.
After a while, I can’t hear you any more. All I hear is my own choir which admittedly, sounds very sweet to my ear. My tribe makes the best music, after all, doesn’t it? The problem is that if I never hear you, I start to imagine you aren’t worth hearing. Echo chambers are dangerous. Even when I hear you, I don’t bother to listen. What could I possibly learn from someone who is always wrong?
The news really isn’t that much different than any other product where there’s a lot of competition. Suppliers work hard to make the customer happy. Otherwise, the customer tries something else.
Think about the market for shoes. Zappos, the shoe website, carries about 50,000 kinds of shoes. A near-infinite selection to find the shoes you want. No charge for returns. What a delight for a shoe-lover.
When you shop for shoes, what do you care about? You want them to fit. You want them to be comfortable. And you want them to have some kind of style — you care about what other people might think about your shoes. You don’t want someone judging your shoes as old-fashioned or out-of-date. Unless that’s the look you’re aiming for in which case, old-fashioned might be just right.
Fit, comfort, style. How well does that work in the shoe market? It’s fabulous. It’s easy to find shoes that do what I want. That’s what the internet lets me do for my shoes.
I think that’s increasingly the way the internet lets people get their news. Fit, comfort, and style.
People want to consume news that that fits their preconceived notions.
People want to consume news that makes them comfortable.
People want to consume news or hold views that that their friends expect and respect.
Fit, comfort, style.
When the shoes I buy don’t fit, my feet hurt, so I return them. But what’s my incentive to drop the views I hold that aren’t true or that hurt the country? I can keep watching a news channel or follow people on Twitter who are wildly inaccurate and where’s the feedback to tell me I need to change the news I consume or the views I hold?
On one level, I shouldn’t really care. If you want to watch Shakespeare and I want to watch cat videos, isn’t that what makes the world go round? After all, I don’t try to convince you that you bought the wrong shoes and that you’re hurting your feet. But it’s a little different when it’s news because it might start to change how you vote and how you feel about your neighbor who doesn’t vote the same way you do.
And all of the above is about real people shouting and yelling. There are also fake accounts that try to rile people up and manipulate them. What’s the next election going to look like when the ads I see are tailored to my political views without my knowledge? Who is going to decide how data is used to influence not just the shoes I buy but the political stories I see? We are in uncharted territory here.
The standard answer to these problems used to be what is called media literacy — help people understand that not everything they read is true.
But what if people don’t care about what is true?
Think about that for a minute.
I know. You’re different. But if you really are, if you really just care about objective truth and never indulge in your tribal urges, you’re really special. One of a kind. The rest of us, alas, are deeply flawed.Truth isn’t the only thing we care about. And if we care about it at all, it’s pretty far down the list after fit, comfort, and style. The return to discovering the truth just isn’t high enough. As a citizen, your incentive to figure out whether your deeply held policy views are good or bad for your country or the world is pretty small. After all, you’re not in charge. Even if you bother to vote, your one vote is unlikely to break a tie. So why spend a lot of time studying the evidence for and against your views?
You may remember Deflategate — the scandal where Tom Brady of the New England Patriots was accused of deflating footballs below the regulation level of pressure to make them easier to throw. It was hard to know what really happened. There was evidence on both sides of the issue.
In one survey I saw, 75% of the American people thought Tom Brady was a cheater. But in four states, that number was less than 22%. I think you can probably guess which states those were — Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Deliciously, Connecticut, which is the dividing line between Boston and New York sports fans, was in between, at 55%.
So people’s views on Deflategate were correlated with their tribe, the group they identified with and rooted for or the group they hated. Evidence isn’t what determined your view of Deflategate. Tribalism is a much better predictor. This is not surprising. And it’s not really important to the ultimate scheme of things even if you’re a Patriots fan or a Patriots hater.
But some issues are a little more important. Did Donald Trump collude with the Russians? Or did he get framed? Did the Russians interfere in a substantive way with our election? But is the way we decide how to view this world any more reliable? Yes, there’s a lot more at stake. But we use the same tribal instincts to make our judgments.
If we only consume news that confirms our tribal identity and that shows up the tribes on the other side of the political fence, we not only stick to our views, we stick to our views with a lot more enthusiasm and undeserved certainty. If I only listen to what I like to hear, I can’t hear you any more and you can’t hear me. That’s no way to run a democracy.
If you read the New York Times day in and day out, you’re going to be much more confident that Trump is a threat to America and that impeachment is necessary to prevent racism and oppression from running rampant and America becoming unrecognizable. And if you watch Fox News day in and day out, you’re going to be much more confident that Trump is the victim of a left-wing conspiracy and that he is all that stands between the United States turning into something unrecognizable.
When tribalism trumps the search for truth, democracy is going to struggle. The ability to indulge our tribalism and the increased certainty many people have about what is true makes it a lot harder to have a country that works, a political system that works, an economy that works. As Yeats put it: when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate certainty, the center will not hold. I worry that we are heading toward a very dark place.
One of the great virtues of the American system of government has been its inertia. The checks and balances make it hard to move the ship. But if the views of the citizenry head toward the extremes and become less amenable to change, we may get some very unusual political candidates and politicians. And political outcomes may oscillate a lot more widely.
The other day I came across an article “How to Fix What’s Gone Wrong with the Internet.” But what if what’s gone wrong with the internet is us? What if our nature is the problem? How do we fix ourselves?
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
The problems I’m laying out here are a classic case of what economists call a market failure — a situation where my private incentives lead to unattractive social outcomes. If I don’t care much about the truth and care instead about fit, comfort, and style — if I can’t hear you and you can’t hear me — my choices are going to end up hurting you and your choices are going to end up hurting me. Economists typically advocate government intervention of some kind to fix these kinds of problems as if politicians and bureaucrats will simply implement the best policy. Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats face their own private incentives that often conflict with what is a good outcome.
In this case, putting the problem into the government’s inbox doesn’t do anything to avoid the problem. The whole problem is that the way we choose our politicians and policies are being corrupted by the information landscape. There’s no reason to think that the people chosen by that process will be interested in providing the truth or being objective.
Another way to state the problem is that news providers have lost any sense of objectivity. Objectivity doesn’t pay anymore. But it doesn’t pay in politics or policy either. Letting the government deciding on speech or news or anything to do with the stream of information we receive is unconstitutional and dangerous.
And I doubt the Elon Musk solution of creating a Yelp-like solution for rating the truthfulness of news stories will work very well. Yelp is a way people rate restaurants. But with restaurants, we eat the food. We don’t eat the political views we hold. We don’t know if the food is really good or actually poisoning us. The world is too complicated. A Yelp-like solution is going to end up like a Deflategate poll. People will just indulge their tribalism.
A different worry I have is that Google and Facebook and Apple will self-regulate in ways that aren’t necessarily conducive to truth. I have no reason to think that people in those organizations will have the right incentives either. To the extent they have monopoly power of some kind, they will be able to indulge their own flavors of tribalism.
We have a serious problem and the standards ways we have of fixing it are unlikely to make it better. So what is to be done?
Let’s start with what we can do as individuals and what can we can do as groups from the bottom up to improve the information landscape.
We don’t know everything we think we do.
I’ve learned to enjoy saying I don’t know. Admitting ignorance is bliss. Recognize, as Shakespeare suggested, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.
Second, follow some people on Twitter or Facebook who don’t agree with you. Try to find folks who are relatively civil. Otherwise following people who disagree with you may just make you madder. See step one, humility.
Third, hold your anger for a day — don’t ratchet up the rhetoric. Do your part to bring more civilization and more civility to the world of social media.
Fourth, spend less time on the internet and more time with human beings. Easier said than done, especially for young people. If you can’t quit, take a day off — a sabbath from discord.
Fifth — try to notice when you enjoy outrage. Not good.
Sixth, maybe find some outlets for your tribalism that aren’t political. Try religion. Or sports. Or something else that connects you to other human beings.
And while market forces may struggle to create a set of objective, civilized, news source, market forces may improve things through different channels. Someone might start a competitor to Facebook or Twitter. Consider using them. If you’re worried about google, use Duck Duck Go.
As economist Arnold Kling wrote recently:
I am sick of reading about people who want to regulate Facebook. You didn’t come up with the idea. You didn’t build the business. Now that it’s here, who the heck do you think you are telling them how to run it?
It’s not that I’m happy with Facebook. Far from it. But to me, the best way to fix it would be to come up with something better. I figure that if we really do come up with a much better way of running a social network, then some entrepreneur will be able to make a success out of our idea.
I think Arnold is on to something. These alternatives will emerge. We ought to be especially open to jumping ship and trying them especially if they promote civility.
Finally, I think there are things that foundations and think tanks can do. The Hoover Institution already works with the Brookings Institution to discuss financial regulation. Brookings and AEI have joint venture on regulation. I can imagine a project where economists on opposite sides of a policy issue such as immigration or the minimum wage agree to explore the issue empirically together, taking a chance that the results will not confirm their biases.
And while there is always an incentive to yell and exaggerate as a way to draw traffic, I can imagine a cultural norm emerging that would frown on such behavior even when it pays. Each of us can help push us in the direction of creating that norm by our own actions and choices. I encourage all of us to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
POSTSCRIPT: You can listen to my EconTalk monologue based on this essay (with a few bonus digressions), here: