The Wiki Man

The right kind of dumbing down

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

Thanks to meteoric advances in computational power, it is now possible to take abundant data from a wide range of sources, and use statistical modelling to prove… um, whatever bullshit conclusion you hoped to prove in the first place.

For all the excitement of the information age, we must remember that self-serving delusions like nothing better than large quantities of information. The internet was a gift to conspiracy theorists, for instance. But confirmation bias is also more pronounced among the educated. (No one measures the negative consequences of higher education, but a naïve faith in universals has to be one of them.)

Back in the analogue age, people couldn’t avoid exposure to shades of opinion. Today we face so many facts that it is easy to ignore awkward information altogether. In police work this is known as ‘privileging the hypothesis’, where you obsessively look for information in support of your initial theory and unconsciously fail to follow any line of enquiry which might contradict it. Something called the ‘filter bubble’ exaggerates this still more. This arises from social media algorithms which disproportionately feed people content that echoes their existing beliefs. It also doesn’t help that most social media has only three modes of emotional expression: smug, soppy and nasty. An abridged version of the ten trillion or so words on Facebook would simply read: ‘Look at me!’ ‘Gosh, isn’t this terrible!’ ‘Go fuck yourself!’

But the UK also has a particular problem with its political filter bubble which, weirdly, nobody mentions. I carelessly assumed that many people had written about it already, so never bothered doing so myself. But, on googling the topic, I can find only one article: by a Bristolian writer called Mitchell Labiak writing for the US website Policy Digest on how paywalls make us dumber.

Labiak makes the inarguable point that on both sides of the Atlantic there is almost no high-quality journalism from the moderate right-wing press available free and ungated on line. The Times, the Telegraph, The Spectator, the FT, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist all sit behind paywalls. The Guardian, the New Statesman, the Independent, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, BBC Online and Slate are all free; as are the more outlandish right-wing publications: Breitbart, Mail Online and Fox News, for instance.

If you are a moderate Burkean conservative baffled as to why the internet seems full of left-wing idealogues interspersed with the odd tin-foil-hatted right-winger this explains a lot. If you are left-wing, the internet is a black and white place, mostly filled with opinions mirroring your own, interspersed with occasional Tour-et-tish outbursts from the weirder elements of the right. Among the young, whose news is obtained largely through phone screens, it must be more skewed still. (I do still have one right-wing daughter, but this may because when she was eight I told her the Labour party would close down Bluewater and turn it into a hostel for lathe workers; at the time this was a lie.)

This problem arises because conservatives, almost by definition, are happy to pay for what they consume. They therefore pay for conservative journalism. Which then means they are the only people who get to read it.

Does this affect people’s opinions? Yes, but not in the way you expect. My friend the psychologist Robert Cialdini explained how this works: media mostly creates bias not through quality of argument but by quantity of coverage, highlighting some events and burying others. As Charles Foster Kane knew: ‘If the headline’s big enough, it makes the news big enough.’

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