The Nature of Information
One of the many prevailing problems of human nature is our proclivity towards narrative fallacy. It is our inability to look at a series of facts without forcing some logical link in between them. In other words, we like stories. Stories bind things together. They make them more memorable and seemingly more likely. Consider these two statements:
1. The king died and then the queen died.
2. The king died and then the queen died of grief.
Somehow, the second statement seems more graspable. More real. Instead of two separate pieces of information, we now have one compact one. By adding a story we reduce the overall dimension of the presented facts. Not only do we prefer to present information in the form of stories, we also tend to weave any new information into existing narratives.
The media and politicians use this human tendency to their great advantage. It’s much easier to make people interested in something by creating a story for them. Appealing to their emotions. Information is simpler to process if they are in the form of a story with a clear hero and a clear villain. Whatever happens in life, they can find the people who suffer from it to get you to sympathize with the victim and more importantly, they will find the person to blame so you can hate him.
However, the desire to create narrative frameworks for any information is not necessarily a nefarious or even a conscious act. It is simply how human minds operate. Nevertheless, when it comes to media reporting it can become quite dangerous. An example of our desire to weave any new information into a narrative is shown in the stories following the capture of Saddam Hussein. At 13:01 Bloomberg News came with the following headline: U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM. Despite this wonderful reasoning, after the U.S. treasure bonds fell half and hour later, as they tend to do, they had to issue a new headline. At 13:31 came out this correction: U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS. The same event was used to explain two contradictory outcomes. Marvelous.
What happened there is the failure of our internal programming that makes us seek cause-and-effect relationships even in completely unrelated events. In our minds the capture of Saddam Hussein was a big event and whatever else happened at the same time must be somehow connected. Even if it otherwise makes no sense. This happens in the news all the time – you are presented with a cause to swallow the news and make them more grounded and concrete. Especially after the event has already unfolded unexpectedly and we seek a causal explanation. Just try reading the transcripts of the Federal Reserve Board meetings before and after the 2008 crash and you will see how quickly people can go from “everything will be great (thanks to us) for the foreseeable future” to “here is 101 explanations for why things went wrong and nobody could stop it”.
Narrating the Emotions
Nonetheless, not all media misapprehension can be traced back to involuntary bias or uninformed misunderstanding. Some of it is just pure marketing tactics. Journalists – like all good salesmen, tricksters, scammers, con artists, contractors, politicians, and other seasoned bullshit peddlers – know that the best way to push people around, is to appeal to their emotions. Best example of this would be the staggering difference between real crime rates and the levels of reported crime. Despite the fact that the real crime rates in the western world have been going down for decades, the news reporting on crime has increased and our perception is that crime rates are rising every year. Feeling of safety might be nice but fear sells much better. Thanks to the usage of emotional narratives, anyone can become an industrial producer of misconception.
Where this game becomes really dirty and dangerous is, as ever, when politics get involved. Recent years have been witness to a rise in far-right and far-left movements pretty much everywhere. Despite these movements being portrayed as lying on the opposite ends of the political spectrum they are practically identical in one respect – the appeal to tribalism. Be it on a national, racial, socio-economic or gendered level these movements are based on the same recipe – creating in-groups that are good and out-groups that are bad. Whether the hatred is aimed at the rich, the men, the Jews, or any other select group, the principles are the same. Select a target demographic you want to influence, describe a conflict, assign blame to “the others”, and prescribe solutions – usually involving a particular person getting power. With enough repetition and appeal to emotions, people will get hooked on this narrative.
Edward Glaeser describes how such a supply chain of hate-creating stories can influence peoples opinions, voting behaviours, and perceptions in a process he calls the Political Economy of Hatred. Learning how politicians and the media can use emotions to shape our views is critical in understanding not only the modern day practices of some rather unscrupulous subjects, but also how some of the worst atrocities in history came to pass with the consent of the masses. Emotions shape our perceptions of reality and narratives shape our emotions. We should always be aware of how they can be used to influence our mind.
The Clickbait Cycle
Another problem we have to face is the shifting way in which we consume information. Despite the fact that the technological revolution allows us unprecedented access to nigh infinite array of information, it seems that in the era of “fake news” and short attention spans people refuse to wait for the morning newspaper editions or spend an hour watching a series of boring reports on TV. They much prefer the quick snappy headlines and simple stories you can consume while undergoing your daily bowel movement. Breaking news now means whatever amazing thing happened in the world in the past few minutes and whoever presents it first gets the clicks. The question now is whether the clickbait structure is a new step in news evolution or the battle cry of a dying media.
This immense race for the breakiest of the braking news means higher proclivity towards presenting stories from less and less trustworthy sources. It is now a commonplace to see “allegedly”, “some people say”, “according to anonymous sources”, “possibly” or other “lawyer friendly” terms, that unequivocally herald the imminent arrival of some unsupported, grade A bullshit. Nevertheless, presenting these dubious or outright made up sources as part of a narrative makes us more likely to believe them. And on the other hand, newspapers choosing to follow a narrative makes them more prone to accept unverified sources, which would be otherwise individually rejected.
Moreover, essentially anyone can now start their own news business through the magic of internet and social media marketing. The vast competition from all sides makes even the once trusted, objective news sources turn to more sensationalist headlines, biased reporting, and hysteria-inducing stories to make you believe “the end is nigh” at least once a week. The result of this is that the line between mainstream news and tabloid journalism becomes increasingly blurred.
That Heinous Algorithm
So what about other sources? Not only is social media a solid part of our lives for over a decade at this point, it is also becoming a source of information for more and more people. If you do get your news from social media, you will have all the articles tailored to your preference. No more wading through a series of uninteresting updates on boring topics or uncomfortable opinions from people you disagree with. Changing your mind is for suckers anyway. Luckily, what social media does is gather information about your preferences and then present you with more things that fit your worldview. Convenient, but dangerous.
What this algorithm leads to is an ever-growing group of people who never have to encounter an opposing view. In the case of Twitter, as you view and react to tweets with particular political leanings, you will be slowly exposed to more and more radical content. Left or right, social media algorithms create the perfect echo chambers. No matter what opinions you shout into the social media algorithm, they will come back at you louder and stronger. This creates a positive reinforcement loop, which amplifies your biases and shields you from any opposing arguments. Combine this with the sense of anonymity and lack of negative feedback of online discussions and you might come to understand why is our political landscape becoming increasingly more radical.
Escaping the Narrative?
At this point you might ask yourself how to get around this problem. How can you get any sort of truth out of the media without falling prey to the overlaying narrative and its inherent fallacies? That is a million dollar question. You could try to watch two or more opposing news sources to try and minimize the effect of political bias. For example, watch CNN and Fox News and only trust the things they agree on. However, that is rather time-consuming and does not save you from the drag towards sensationalism that most news sources suffer from. You could try studying up on all the important topics in life but who has the time (or could be bothered).
In the end, there is no sure way to prevent falling for the narrative fallacy and only consuming true facts. It is unlikely we will all suddenly become strict empiricists or that we gain prime expertise in all the important topics. It is unlikely that we will be able to dodge all the multitudes of uncorroborated nonsense spewing from the media. The only thing we can do is to be mindful of the power of narratives, critical of our own views, and always approach any story with utmost skepticism. So my main advice when it comes to media narratives is that, much like a midget at the urinal, you’re just gonna have to stay on your toes.