In the video clip, the man hits the woman in the face.
There’s no audio, and it’s a very short clip, less than two seconds, so it’s impossible to say what happened beforehand, or what happens afterwards. All you see in the video is the pair of them, some distance away: the man, hitting the woman.
It’s all over social media – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and every major media outlet has the clip embedded in a story.
Watching the video, it’s not a punch. That’s clear, it’s more of a slap, and it doesn’t look really hard, but assuming that the video isn’t faked it’s an indisputable fact that the man hit the woman.
Fox News has the headline “Open warfare: Schiff and Pelosi come to blows”.
MSNBC says “Quick thinking Schiff saves Pelosi from painful sting”.
The point? We claim we need facts, but in fact we interpret everything.
Communication is old, technology is new
Communication is much, much more than facts.
The hypothetical example I’ve given shows how easily a “fact” can become part of wildly different narratives, different versions of the world.
I’m not suggesting that objective facts don’t exist, simply that we each interpret every fact to build a personal version of reality. How we build that reality, how we process, store and use our perceptions hasn’t changed in millennia. What’s more, everything we know that we didn’t experience first-hand was communicated to us by someone else, in whom we placed some trust.
We’ve been doing this for a very long time.
Humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. Best estimates suggest we’ve been using language for at least the last fifty thousand years, so for fifty thousand years we’ve been communicating with, and persuading, each other. In evolutionary terms fifty thousand years is a blink; physically and mentally we have changed very little in that time.
What has changed, vastly and very recently, is technology.
Recorded writing is only five thousand years old, and mass communication starting with the printing press only six hundred years. The telegraph is two hundred years old, radio a little more than one hundred years, and film a little less. The commercial internet has been around for one generation.
So we’ve changed little, mentally, for two hundred thousand years; we’ve been persuading and trusting each other for fifty thousand years; and we’ve been using technology to do it for only around five hundred.
In other words, parts of this puzzle have been around forever, and parts of it are very new. To understand the whole, though, we need to understand both the very old and the very new.
We also need to recognise that there are multiple parts to the firehose question. Without getting technical, in any communication there are obviously three parts: the source or provider, the channel, and the recipient. Again, to understand the puzzle we have to understand all three. They’re each important components, but ultimately I’m answering the question on behalf of a person seeking information, the information receiver; you, and me, trying to drink from the firehose.
As an information seeker I’m obviously not looking for lies, or inaccuracies, or irrelevant information, or to spend unnecessary amounts of time finding the information I want. Those may be the goals of the providers and channels, but they’re not mine, or presumably yours. We think we’re looking for facts.
Are we, though?
If we think we evaluate information rationally and logically—we’re wrong.
If we think we select information sources for accuracy—we’re wrong.
If we think information is just facts, or that “spin” is secondary to facts—we’re wrong.
If we think the channel isn’t exploiting our weaknesses and turning us into addicts—we’re wrong.
If we think the channel cares one whit about truth and lies, right and wrong—we’re wrong.
If we think there are lots of news sources out there—we’re wrong.
If we think today’s media are in the information business—we’re wrong.
If we think the firehose isn’t a propaganda tool—we’re wrong.
Even if we understand all the above, can we safely drink from the firehose?
The first part of the answer, the very old part, starts here.
- How we process information hasn’t changed for a long time, and it’s neither rational, logical nor scientific
- Most of our knowledge is second-hand. We select it from sources we trust, and that trust is based on shared beliefs and values, not objective expertise
- Facts, then, are necessary, but hardly sufficient
We’re not rational, and we’re vulnerable
The basic techniques of one-to-one communication and persuasion haven’t changed for as long as we’ve used language, because in turn, we haven’t changed. People seeking power, influence, or just simply wanting to sell things have used the same human weaknesses and foibles for tens of thousands of years. From tribal shamans to Roman orators to P. T. Barnum; they’ve all used the same techniques and exploited the same weaknesses, and those techniques are based on an understanding of how we seek, process, and interpret information from others1.
Remember, every fact you didn’t obtain first-hand you obtained from someone else, and research shows very clearly that even first-hand “facts” are likely to be inaccurate, anyway2.
Although we like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent, rational, even scientific beings, the awkward reality is that we’re not. There’s a large and growing body of evidence that demonstrates that we’re bad at all of those things. We’re bad at estimating probabilities, we’re bad at logic, we “see” and remember things selectively, and most of how we process information and make decisions is driven, not by facts and logic, but by internalised and unconsidered beliefs and values345.
What we are good at is putting a veneer of rationality and logic on top of the decisions or conclusions we already reached unconsciously when using the rest of our brains6, the bits that have survived for millions of years.
This isn’t to argue that we’re incapable of logical, or rational, or scientific thought. Clearly we are, otherwise you wouldn’t be using the internet to read this essay. What I am saying is that logical, rational, scientific thought is the exception, not the rule; it’s not our normal mode of operation, and we’re already falling into a trap if we think it is. If we think that all that we need to see and understand the world clearly is facts, then we’re already easy prey for people who know that we’re actually illogical, irrational and emotional processors of those “facts”.
The tribal shamans and Roman orators and salespeople knew and used this knowledge intuitively. They didn’t need scientific research to tell them that people react to emotion, not facts, and that they respond to appeals to shared values, not logic. Politicians sprinkle their ideologies with “facts”, but we need to understand that they’re really only a facade. The building is constructed from emotions and beliefs, and the facts are just there as window dressing.
Nobody disputes uncontroversial “facts” like electromagnetism, or the laws of gravity, despite their pervasive influence in our lives. But climate change7, vaccines8, the death penalty… And when you come to think about it, wind-farm noise and cell-phone radiation…Scientific facts aren’t “scientific” or “facts” because they’ve been generated using the scientific method. They’re “scientific” facts because they don’t contradict someone’s belief system9 or threaten their income.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly for those of us with a tertiary education or working in “scientific” disciplines, but there’s plenty of research showing that education is no proof against irrational, emotional thinking, because that’s really how we operate. Survival of the fittest has shaped our brains over millions of years to make us extremely successful pack-hunting predators. Rational, scientific thought isn’t how we’ve evolved, it’s a trick we’ve learned. We’re not born with it, it has to be slowly and carefully taught and inculcated over many years, and it’s definitely not our natural or normal mode of operation, despite how we like to view ourselves.
If you start off by thinking that facts are all that matter, or that we’re fundamentally rational beings then everything you conclude after that is going to be wrong, probably badly wrongi.
What’s also important to realise is that whether through intuition or from reading scientific research there are plenty of people out there who understand our weaknesses in how we process information. They understand what motivates us, they understand what we are likely to remember, or forget; they understand, in short, how to push our buttons.
What they then tell us does not rely on facts. Verifiable facts are a bonus, but they’re not necessary, and as we’ve seen from the hypothetical video the same fact can be used to “support” two entirely different narratives to push our buttons.
We like to think that we start with a fact, and then people try to add “spin”, but really it’s the reverse. Reality is actually all about the “spin”—how we fit the facts into our personal version of the world, based on our existing values and beliefs. Our personal version of reality is large, and built up over time. It’s very rare—but not impossible—for a single fact to significantly change how we see the world, so what usually happens is that we fit each fact into our overall reality, not change our reality to the fact. When that rare occasion does happen, when a single fact breaks apart our version of reality it’s a shocking and memorable experience, and our own knowledge that this doesn’t happen every day is proof enough of how we usually operate—spin first, fact second.
In the hypothetical video there is, of course, only one real explanation for what happened, only one objective fact, but that won’t make any difference to all of the people who choose the alternative explanation:because it fits their personal versions of the world, and because they trust the interpretation given by their trusted source.
The last point I’d like to make about our irrational but predictable processing of “facts” is that we’re each individually susceptible to “facts” that specifically fit our personal world view. Anyone who has been in a relationship for any time knows that each partner learns the other’s particular likes and dislikes, and “hot buttons”, and that knowledge can be used for good or for ill, depending on the circumstance. Until recently that kind of intimate understanding of you, specifically, as an individual rather than as a member of a very general group like “liberal” or “conservative” or “extrovert” was only possible to close friends. Not any more.
Again, technology has recently made it possible for total strangers to amass enough information about you to be able to tailor and predict your likes, dislikes, preferences and weaknesses—in short, your personality and world view—possibly even better than your best friend or partner. That places them not at arm’s length like other third-party information sources, but potentially in the same position as your trusted, one-on-one sources of information. The danger, though, is that you won’t realise how well they know you, and will assume that the information they’re providing to you is genuine, or generic, and not specifically tailored to “press your buttons”. This danger increases, obviously, if you trust them as a source.
So, in summary, we’re not rational, we process information by fitting “facts” into our belief systems, and we’re vulnerable to people who know how to exploit that irrationality.
Not a promising start…
We rely on trusted sources all the time
Historically, unless we observed something ourselves, all of our “facts” came from other people by word of mouth. This, after all, is the immense power of language. However we soon learn that not everything we are told is true, and when we move from simple facts like “I saw the man hit the woman” to interpretation “because …” we move from simply trusting our informant to tell the truth about what they thought they observed10, or heard themselves, to trusting the informant’s interpretation.
Over time we build for ourselves a list of the people whose interpretations we trust, and those we don’t.
Nowadays, as individuals we are not competent to understand first-hand the overwhelming majority of human knowledge, or most events we don’t personally witness. We rely on others to explain or interpret. When the topic is value-free, like the laws of gravity or the Higgs boson then all we care about is the expertise of the source, however when the information affects some part of our own value system then, sadly, it turns out that our trust in the source will depend far more on the source’s alignment with our own values than their actual expertise.
There is an elegant experiment11 demonstrating this. Experimenters asked people whether they’d recommend a particular book about a controversial topic, such as global warming, to a friend. The book’s jacket listed the author’s qualifications, which were extensive and impressive, and in every case were the same. However for half of the people the book jacket claimed that global warming was a high risk, and for the other half, that it was a low risk. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that the single factor that determined whether the person recommended the book wasn’t the author’s credentials, or the education or politics of the recommender, but whether the book agreed with the recommender’s own point of view.
So although we recognise that we don’t know everything and that we need to rely on other’s expertise, the single most important factor in our choice of a trusted source is whether their views and values align with ours, and that’s more important than externally validated qualifications. Put another way, given two equally qualified experts we will choose the one who agrees with us.
Simply, and brutally, values beat facts.12
An obvious implication of this is that our network of trusted sources, the people or organisations we trust to provide and interpret information, has a profound effect on how we ultimately incorporate “facts” into our world view. It explains, in part, why despite an apparently overwhelming volume of “facts” it’s still possible to have competing views on climate change, or vaccination, because most of us simply lack the skills and knowledge to understand or interpret the raw data, and we rely instead on our trusted sources. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, we select those not on their objective expertise, but on their alignment with our values and world view.
Again, technology has made a significant difference to this process, even within a single generation. Whereas thirty years ago information arrived with the newspaper or the TV news, or a trip to the library, today it’s available instantly from thousands or even millions of sources. This clearly has implications for how we select our trusted sources, and that’s part of the discussion of the new.
In summary, then, we trust others to interpret and filter all of the information we don’t gather personally, which is most of it. Our choice of trusted sources, like our own interpretation of facts, is driven primarily by alignment with our existing values and view of the world, and not by objective expertise. Technology is changing radically how many sources are available—the firehose.
Facts are necessary, but not sufficient
I’ve spent some time demonstrating that facts are secondary to spin, but it’s nevertheless true that if we want to form any kind of valid picture of the real world it has to be based on objectively true facts.
Our interpretation of those facts may still vary significantly, but it will still have some basis in reality. If the information we use is inaccurate, or worse, wrong, or worst of all, deliberately false, then of course it will be impossible for our view of the world even to approximate reality. That may suit the purposes of the information providers or the information channels, but it won’t help us achieve our goal of obtaining valid information.
So despite our significant shortcomings in how we select and process information, it’s still important that we start with objectively true facts. That facts alone are not sufficient is painfully obvious from the hypothetical video clip example, and it’s worth pointing out that additional facts wouldn’t necessarily change many people’s interpretation of what happened.
For people whose view of the world made them believe that Schiff and Pelosi were fighting, even seeing a subsequent clip where the pair were laughing and explaining what happened would not necessarily change their opinion. Instead of accepting this additional evidence as factual, they would quite possibly reject it as “spin”, as an attempt to mislead, and so might their trusted sources.
The fact of Schiff and Pelosi’s refutation isn’t in dispute. The interpretation is. The spin.
It’s worth noting at this point, also, that I haven’t actually specified which version of the hypothetical clip is actually what happened. If you’ve assumed that you know, you’ve done that without any help from me! Fair warning…
In summary, facts are necessary, but not sufficient.
I indicated at the beginning that I’m answering this question primarily from the perspective of an information seeker, not an information provider or channel, but before I continue it’s time to narrow the context further.
I haven’t defined “the firehose” at all, although hopefully it’s clearly a reference to the potentially overwhelming amount of data that’s now at our fingertips on the internet, and not so much the total static pool of data but rather the constantly arriving new data: the speed with which that new data is arriving, and its ever-increasing volumes.
I use the term “data” deliberately, because one of the problematic aspects of this vast resource is that some of it is inaccurate, and some is plain wrong, and in some cases it’s deliberately and intentionally wrong.
In theory my seeker after information could be trying to find out a fact such as the date on which the Library at Alexandria was destroyed13, and discovering in the process that it wasn’t in fact burned down in a single cataclysm of informational vandalism after all.
In practice, though, and much more likely is that they’re seeking information from the firehose, and from the place where the flow is greatest: current events, and most specifically, politics.
When you mix information, current events and politics, you inevitably get propaganda.
information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view14
the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person15
information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions16
In fact it’s implicit in the question—how to drink from the firehose—that the challenge isn’t just the volume of information; the solution to that is simple, just watch less. What’s clearly implied is that the challenge is selecting the right sources, the trusted sources, in essence knowing who to believe out of the massive volumes available. In other words how to spot or avoid propaganda.
In fact the impetus for this essay was another essay by author and Russia-watcher Peter Pomerantsev17 in which he describes what he calls the “propaganda of unreality”. In it he discusses how previous techniques for countering propaganda no longer work against the methods currently in use—predominantly by the Right—to manipulate people.
I was interested to see how Pomerantsev analysed the current situation, and what practical suggestions he could make; to see what he thought should be done to counter the current destructive, but highly effective disinformation tactics that are being employed by right-wing politicians and their supporters.
In the end I found that while he makes some excellent points and I agreed with some of his proposals, I also disagreed with several of his arguments and concluded that he’s missing a number of driving forces that are directly relevant to any effective response. Hence this essay.
Pomerantsev’s article begins with what I think is an excellent précis of the current nature of political discourse, or propaganda, as practised by an increasing number of right-wing politicians like Donald Trump:
The deliberate fuck-off to factual discourse; the wild relativity that claims all facts are subjective or indeed impossible to ever know; the nebulous nostalgia; the replacement of ideology with seemingly infinite layers of conspiracy theories, where you never have the sense that you can reach any reliable version of reality; the flooding of the information space with so much bullshit you can’t tell truth from fiction […]. This approach to exerting mass influence is one that controls people not through insisting on a single truth they should adhere to but that says, instead, that truth is unknowable; it’s an approach that doesn’t insist on an alternative reality but on a morass of competing unrealities […].18
That seems to me like a good summary of political speech from politicians, pundits and social media these days.
Pomerantsev approaches the question by examining the evolution of propaganda and political messages; that is, from the perspective of the propagandist and the political operative, and from the perspective of political theories, ideologies and manifestos. This isn’t surprising. Political writers and analysts, by nature and of necessity, consider the world through the lens of politics, and for them arguments about “isms” and competing ideologies are front and centre stage. Not for me. As I’ve explained, my focus is on the receiver, you and me. For the receiver, the influenced, all of the problems and weaknesses we’ve known about for millennia remain, and are the same. There is no change there. Obviously what has changed, and with blinding speed, is the technology available to both influenced and influencer.
Superficially, the internet looks like information nirvana. Massive amounts of publicly available information, information that was only available in libraries or by visiting government or university departments is now available twenty-four hours a day with a few keystrokes, without leaving home. The internet is interactive, rather than an imbalanced, unidirectional information flow. Streaming media is available when it suits you, rather than at programmed times. News is available as it happens, from multiple sources, and there are searchable archives of everything.
It’s a combination newspaper, library, school, theatre, TV, social club, shopping centre and government service centre. If you want to use it, how could any of this go wrong?
Choice, Maslow, Channels and Conditioning
Regardless of where it comes from and how it got there, the information that you or I finally choose to receive is there because we allowed it to be there. We chose to watch it, read it or listen to it. Drinking from the firehose is a choice—isn’t it?
If you’re reading this you’re probably in Australia. You’re certainly connected to the internet, and you have the—considerable— spare time to read this. That’s in spite of the fact that probably no more than a few thousand kilometres away there are people for whom clean water, tomorrow’s meal or a roof over their heads are their greatest concerns. They’re probably not much worried about whether Pomerantsev’s arguments or mine are more compelling. Not only are they unaffected by political rhetoric, it’s irrelevant and meaningless to them, even if they have an internet connection.
Yet in spite of these other people’s plights, we’re browsing the internet and considering these arguments. Because we’re extremely adaptable. On the same day, on the same planet we could be fleeing for our lives from an aerial bombardment, our only concern the safety of our children; or we could be the people refusing asylum to those fleeing refugees—should they escape the bombing.
We’re very adaptable. What matters to us, right now, very much depends on what doesn’t matter to us, right now, or in other words, Maslow’s hierarchy. Political discourse comes a distant second to water, food and shelter. Even if the bottom layers of the hierarchy are satisfied, it doesn’t automatically follow that the information seeker will actually seek “news”, or specifically, political information.
There’s an apocryphal Chinese curse that says “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse because stable, boring, unchanging times are safe times, are times without violent upheaval or political unrest, are times when people can live quiet, peaceful, happy lives, raise their families and enjoy life. “Interesting times” are the opposite.
In turn, when times are good and life is stable and predictable, when there are no imminent threats to basic human needs then people are content and not particularly concerned with politics or governance. It’s unfair to say that people are apathetic, however they’re unlikely to be greatly concerned with day-to-day political dramas unless they seem likely to affect them directly. If they are, it will be as spectators, not participants.
People’s interest in politics increases when there are perceived threats to their own Maslow’s hierarchy, their own peace and future, rather than when there are threats to people thousands of kilometres away, and their interest is in direct proportion to the perceived size of the threat and the level at which the hierarchy is threatened.
While this may not suit the goals of the information providers or the information channels—and more on that later—on the face of it we can simply choose not to drink, either from the firehose or elsewhere.
Or can we?
Enter Social Media.
Social Media is the largest and most pervasive social and technological change enabled by the internet so far. It’s fair to say that it’s a revolution. There are roughly seven and half billion people on the planet. More than two billion of them are on Social Media. That’s more than belong to any major religion, or share anything else, such as nationality.
Social Media has changed our relationship with information, and with each other, in many ways. Fifty years ago the newspaper arrived once a day, and you could write a letter to the Editor if you really wanted to, to be published days later. The TV news used to be on once a day also, but could cover breaking news in real-time; you still couldn’t talk back, however.
Not so Social Media. Social Media is on all the time. Not only is it on, you’re an equal contributor to the great flows of data washing down the channels twenty-four hours a day. This is fundamentally different to the periodic, infrequent, unidirectional information flows before Social Media, and its reach is global, and massive. The role of “Social Media Influencer” by definition didn’t exist before Social Media. Now it’s a profession.
However the owners of Social Media platforms are not information providers. They are information channels, and it’s really important to make that clear distinction.
Social Media platforms and their owners make their money by delivering your and my attention to people who want it; predominantly advertisers, but also, for example, politicians, or anybody else who wants information delivered. They not only sell your attention, they also sell your characteristics, your particular and specific weaknesses, your world view, so that information providers can use your weaknesses to tailor and maximise the effectiveness of their information.
It follows, immediately, that Social Media platforms want you and me to be watching their platforms as much as possible. The more we watch, the more providers they can sell our attention to and the more money they can make; also the more they’ll know about us to sell to providers. From there it also follows that they will do everything that they can to keep us engaged for as long as possible, and if we leave, to bring us back as soon as possible, and to keep us coming back as regularly as possible.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Social Media platforms behave very similarly to gambling slot machines. Psychologists have known for nearly a hundred years how to use rewards—reinforcements—to condition behaviour, and the design of slot machines19 and Social Media is a perfect example of the use of that knowledge of yet another human weakness.
It’s not an accident that YouTube carefully monitors your viewing preferences, and then seductively starts automatically playing a new video that might interest you when the video you specifically chose is over. They want us to keep watching, because they’re selling our attention, and it’s the same general principle for the other platforms. Each has its own mechanisms to reward you, to make you feel good, to feed your interests and to make you want to keep using the platform.
The platforms are not concerned with what information flows in the channels, except for one property. Information that increases interest, that keeps people’s attention, that attracts more attention is valuable, but the actual content is of no interest to the platform. It could be someone live-streaming a sports match, or live-streaming a mass murder, it doesn’t matter to the platform.
Likewise they aren’t concerned whether all of their accounts are actually human or simply bots being used to amplify information, so long as the overall effect is more revenue, more users and more attention. When they allow people to repeat information that was broadcast by conventional media—loosely, “news”—it’s not because they’re interested in becoming news sources or publishers. They simply want to reduce your need or opportunity to switch your attention somewhere else.
Likewise they have no interest whether the “news” that’s being shared and amplified is true or false, so long as it’s viewed on their platform and they receive the revenue for your attention. If anything, information that provokes controversy, that generates more traffic and more attention is good—for the platform. The platform isn’t concerned about social polarization or political division, or rather those are effects that will probably increase attention and hence revenue, so they may encourage them.
So, did we actually choose to drink from the firehose, or were we lured in, possibly by something unrelated to “news”, and found ourselves unaccountably the target for information that strangely fits our beliefs or interests? Are we like animals coming to the river’s edge for a quiet drink, not realising that someone has added an addictive and very tasty substance to the water, and is now providing free snacks to keep us around?
No matter whether we arrived here by conscious choice, or were inveigled in by cunning enticements, though, the original promise of the internet should remain, shouldn’t it? The sources are still there, and we can still use them: the permanently on-line information, the combination library, school, theatre, social club, shopping centre and government service centre?
I promised that the focus of this essay would be you and me, the information seekers, the receivers, but the time has finally come to spend some time looking at the sources, and their motives. We’ve considered ourselves, the receivers, and we’ve considered the channel, let’s finally look at the source of the firehose.
As discussed earlier, the real problem we’re trying to solve here is how to avoid, or at least detect, propaganda. Also as discussed, there are actually many aspects of propaganda that haven’t changed in thousands of years, both from source and receiver’s point of view. For many propaganda techniques the changes in technology have really made little difference20.
If we compare Pomerantsev’s list of propaganda techniques from the opening quote, his “propaganda of unreality” with this list of twelve techniques used by narcissists21 we find that the Big Lie, intentional vagueness, and repetition are all standard techniques. Appeals to former greatness are well known, and both the Big Lie—große Lüge—and the “Fake News”—Lügenpresse—were well-known techniques of Nazi propaganda. In fact the only aspect of Pomerantsev’s list that’s really new, or particular to new technology and the internet is “flooding the information space”, and clearly this is closely related to our question about the firehose.
It’s not a great work of deduction to connect the dots. Propagandists want to control the information that you receive. The internet recently and quite suddenly provided us all with unparalleled and undreamt of access to information, a disaster for propagandists. They were left with two choices: either turn off the internet, which is impractical in most countries, or make it difficult or impossible to find genuine information by “flooding the zone” with spurious information.
If there’s one genuine article out there and five hundred fakes then your chances of finding the genuine one are suddenly very slim, and remember that the channels don’t know and don’t care what’s true or false. This achieves multiple goals for the propagandist. It returns control of information to them, or rather it denies it to you, and allows them to point at the flooded zone and say “You can’t trust any of this. Trust me instead.”
This technique was bluntly described by far-right propagandist Steve Bannon in an interview as “flooding the zone with shit”22.
This can then be followed by the usual propaganda technique of saying “Warning! Times are dangerous, it’s hard to know what’s going on”—remember Maslow’s hierarchy, when people think there’s a threat they’re more receptive—followed by “We need a strong leader to show us the way, and that leader is <insert name of right-wing candidate here>”.
Flooding the zone. In other words, meet the firehose. The firehose isn’t really a problem of being “spoilt for choice”. Rather it’s a problem of “choice being spoilt”. The literally billions of voices on Social Media aren’t all expert or trustworthy sources at all, whether voicing their own opinions or simply repeating “news” that they found elsewhere. No sensible person would expect them to be, but the problem’s a little more subtle than that, and it’s akin to the spread of sexual disease.
There was a graphic advertisement during the AIDS epidemic which had the camera panning back from one couple in bed to show more and then more beds, trying to point out the simple mathematical truth that while you may know your current sexual partner you may not know who their previous partners were, or their partner’s partners, and so on. It’s the same problem with “news” that’s passed on to you by a Social Media friend. In the old days you could assume that the news was from a reputable source, but nowadays you’re trusting your friend to have been diligent and checked that the “news” that they passed on to you is actually true, and not propaganda from another trusting friend; and as we’ve seen, even if it’s “true”, the interpretation may be highly skewed. The implicit trust of friendship can allow untested “news” to spread, literally like a virus.
However, surely if you’re aware of this problem all that you need to do is to get your information from the places you got it in the past – your trusted sources?
Today the Fourth Estate is largely a myth. While “Press Barons” have been around for over one hundred years, the large distribution of ownership has dwindled away, and instead of each new form of media allowing greater diversity the same players have taken control of multiple media: newspapers, radio, TV, and cable. For example, in Australia over 160 regional newspaper mastheads are owned by a single company23, and the eight largest circulation mastheads are controlled by just two, one of them also owning a national TV channel, the other owning cable news and media outlets in the UK and the USA! In the United States, Sinclair Broadcast Group controls 193 TV stations across the country24.
This concentration of ownership wouldn’t be a problem if the owners didn’t exert editorial influence over these “news” outlets, but they do, and when they do it’s to prosecute the interests of the owners, not to provide unbiased “news”. For example, Sinclair Media dictated that dozens of local news anchors read from a single, Sinclair approved script25. Even when the heavy hand of the media oligarchs isn’t on the editors and reporters, there’s the equally strong pressure from advertisers. Most “newspapers” are careful not to run stories that are unduly critical of their major advertisers, and so some stories don’t even appear, let alone be subject to owner’s influence or political spin.
The traditional media itself is under significant pressure itself, though, from … the internet. Although media companies were quick to establish internet-based presences, they struggled with adapting their advertising methods, a significant source of revenue, to the new medium. On the emerging internet the idea of charging for information was unusual and difficult to enforce. Even as they struggled to turn what had developed as a “free as in speech”26 domain into a paying proposition, the Social Media arrived.
Social Media gave up their “pay-per-view” revenue; in fact they never charged it in the first place, because of course all their information was created by subscribers who “paid” nothing to belong, at least in currency. What they kept was the advertising revenue, and they rapidly destroyed the client and revenue base of online traditional media by offering advertisers a vastly larger viewing audience and unprecedented demographic information. Now advertisers could deliver customised advertisements, not to the entire readership of a particular paper, but even to single individuals based on extremely detailed criteria if they wished.
As a final blow, Social Media allowed its viewers to republish content from traditional media. Now you didn’t even have to leave the Social Media platform to get “news”, a big win for the platforms, and you apparently didn’t have to pay for it.
This placed immense financial pressure on the traditional media. Although “news” remained one of the things people sought on the internet, with the rise of Social Media entertainment was also widely sought, and in fact more popular.
The only way traditional media thought that they could compete with Social Media in the battle for eyeballs and advertising clicks was to turn “news” into entertainment.
It’s my contention that the vast majority of “news” outlets today are serving up entertainment dressed as news. There’s a constant turnover of headlines, stories come and go in a day or less, and there’s a huge emphasis on spectacle, shock, outrage, controversy, dispute… In other words, entertainment. In the old days there was a newspaper maxim “if it bleeds, it leads”, but nowadays it’s much more basic “you won’t believe what happened next”. Stories are chosen not for their social or political importance but simply whether they’ll appeal to the sensation-hungry viewers, expecting new blood every day. It is almost literally Bread and Circuses, only without the bread, and its a direct contributor to the volume of “information” in the firehose. The long, detailed article is largely a thing of the past; main media pages are simply a collage of headlines and leading sentences, often misleading, always designed to make you click, and they’re changing all the time for your quick hit, your addictive reward, not for your intelligent contemplation.
This febrile, daily turnover of stories and content provides the ideal environment for two things: hiding scandals, and manipulation of the Overton Window27. The Overton window is the notional range of ideas on some topic that are considered acceptable in public debate. “Shoot all litterers” is an idea outside the Overton window, however “Double the fines for littering” is not. If you are a politician who wants to promote an idea that’s currently outside the Overton window you have two choices: either get very close to the edge of the window, and keep moving out, or, more popular with right-wing extremists, deliberately float an idea well outside the window, such as “public beatings for littering”, or “cut off benefits payments for protestors.”
The purpose here is to introduce into debate an idea that previously would never have been considered, let alone said out loud. Although this idea may not be accepted, it moves the public’s perceptions of what’s acceptable and debatable, and now a less extreme idea that was previously outside the window may be within it, such as “community service for littering”.
Many of the ideas promoted by right-wing extremists lie outside today’s window, so their goal is to keep moving the window.
An ideal way to do this is with a three-day wonder. The initial, outrageous proposal is exactly what the “news” media are looking for – shock, controversy, debate, eyeballs, clicks. They’ll happily run a story featuring the outrageous proposal, and then for a day or so run stories on the backlash and “debate”. However at this point, rather than following the story as a genuine political debate, it will disappear, replaced by another outrage.
It will have achieved both the media’s and the politician’s goals. The media will have had something to keep the viewers entertained, and the politician will have moved the Overton window, ready now to propose something less outrageous than previously would have been acceptable.
Repeated use of this technique gradually shifts the public’s perceptions of norms and accepted behaviour without their realising it, and your supposedly trusted mainstream media sources are complicit, possibly without you realising it.
The one-day headline also allows truly outrageous behaviour and scandals to go unpunished, and for standards to be eroded. The initial headline story is still there, and still attracts eyeballs and clicks and debate, but again rather than following it and not allowing it to die until the perpetrator is punished the story unaccountably vanishes after a few days, replaced by some new outrage, soon to be forgotten in the constant swirl of “new” “news”. Since the politician got away with it this time, it’s de facto acceptable the next time around, and what looks like “news” and “journalism” actually contributes to the steady destruction of social norms28. This is a happy marriage between the media, propagandists, and right-wing ideologues to the overall detriment of society, and again, your trusted sources are collaborators, allowing the stories to die.
Within this compromised structure dedicated professional journalists still exist, but they are obviously under immense pressure: from owners, from editors, from advertisers, and ultimately from losing their jobs from employer’s loss of revenue. In theory public broadcasters should be immune from many of these problems, but the reality is that they’re rightly seen, like the internet, as a serious threat to propagandists and commercial media, and in nearly every country, and certainly in Australia they’ve been relentlessly targeted until they’re hollowed out or cowed into submission.
In the past we relied, implicitly, on professional investigative journalists to pursue and ultimately publish these stories. Watergate would be the obvious example. However as professional journalists lose their jobs and are muzzled by vested interests the onus for uncovering and exposing these stories falls increasingly on “citizen” journalists: amateurs or part-timers who are using the power of the internet to gather information and Social Media to network with other like-minded people.
However this is a far cry from picking up a “paper of record” and being confident that what you read is correct, correctly interpreted, and important.
For example, The New York Times used to be a paper of record, at least until immediately before the 2016 Presidential election it published the story, never yet retracted, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. sees no clear link to Russia“29. Despite publishing many good pieces of journalism since then, the Times’ obvious partiality at this and other critical moments clearly demonstrates that it can’t be trusted.
Of course your opinion may differ, but the overall point is clear. What used to be trusted sources are almost certainly suspect, or at least need to be constantly monitored for unreported bias. Their own business models, competition with channels, and conflicted relationships with “news” generators makes them unreliable at best, seriously compromised at worst.
So, now we’ve looked at our own fallibilities, at the channel, and at the sources. What’s the answer?
How to drink from the firehose
In a word, don’t.
Don’t, if by drinking from the firehose you mean using Social Media to source information from friends, from the constantly shifting media headlines, and even from previously trusted sources. What you see has been filtered and selected for you, and what you expect to be “facts” will be at best information interpreted to meet your well-understood values, or at worst will be lies designed purely to influence your mood or opinion to suit somebody else’s political or financial purpose.
How not to drink from the firehose
What’s the alternative?
If you think I’ve painted a fairly bleak picture of the internet information landscape, you’re right, because it is fairly bleak. Despite its promise, the internet, particularly as used by Social Media, traditional media, politicians and propagandists, is a dangerous place.
What can we do?
In his article Pomerantsev makes several suggestions. One of these I think has considerable merit, and that is to restore transparency to information’s origins. Until you know where a story or “facts” originated you’re helpless to understand the motives of its original publisher. This doesn’t mean that every story is either all true or all false, or that every interpretation is fair or hopelessly biased, but without knowing the source, or through whose hands it has passed it’s impossible to ask cui bono, who benefits?
The technology to sign and track digital information is widely and readily available, it should be built in to browsers and news readers as a basic property.
Then, if you know that a story originated with RT, the Russian State-owned media outlet, you can be sure that it will never contain material seriously damaging to the Russian state. If you know that a story originated with Fox News, you can fill in the blanks here for yourself. If you know that a story has no clear attribution, or is something that has bubbled around in Twitter echo chambers for a few days then you can probably ignore it altogether, as the probability its facts or interpretation are valid is vanishingly small.
Likewise if you can reliably trace information to sources that you have vetted and that you trust then regardless of whether they’re citizen journalists or mainstream media you can use that information with a much higher degree of confidence.
The second thing we can do is that if we care about reliable information we can support genuine professional journalists, either individually or by supporting their publishers. The information they produce clearly does have value, and it’s worth paying for it so that we can continue to have access. In the same way we should defend and support our public broadcasters, and citizen journalists. If they all disappear, nobody will know what’s going on, and that only suits one class of people, and it’s not us.
So far they have successfully avoided being classified as publishers. Obviously this is the last thing that they want, they want to remain as agnostic channels simply selling attention to advertisers, bearing no responsibility for the massive amounts of data flowing across their landscape. Leaving aside for a moment the huge topic and problem of their invasion of individual privacy, it still seems clear to me that although they pretend that their service to viewers is “free”, it’s not at all, there is a price to pay. Given that commercial relationship, if you’re paying to place what are essentially classified ads, and advertisers and politicians are paying to influence you, the channel must take some responsibility for the content.
Just how this should be done is contentious, and nobody is keen to see either censorship or defamation constraints unnecessarily placed on the platforms. However they currently escape the responsibilities borne by the traditional press, while being allowed to duplicate most of their business model to all our detriments. There could be no clearer conflict of interest than a Social Media platform making money from advertising attached to the live-streaming of a mass shooting, or from repeats of that video.
As usual legislation has lagged behind progress and technology, and right now we’re in a dangerous place, with literally the outcomes of elections in the balance at the mercy of a totally unregulated industry. We need to fix this.
Penultimate word: “When challenged to produce the offending insect, Congressman Schiff replied that it had flown away, leaving no way to prove the truth or otherwise of his explanation.”
Last word: be mindful of all our faults and vulnerabilities, and be sceptical of everything. It’s a jungle out there.
i Unfortunately this appears to include a good deal of economics, but that’s not the problem we’re examining here
1 “Propaganda Techniques,” in Wikipedia, November 7, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Propaganda_techniques&oldid=924981254.
2 Hal Arkowitz Lilienfeld Scott O., “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts,” Scientific American, accessed November 11, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamericanmind0110-68.
4 Michael Harris, “Neuroscience Confirms We Buy on Emotion & Justify with Logic & yet We Sell to Mr. Rational & Ignore Mr. Intuitive,” Insight Demand Ltd.(blog), March 31, 2017, https://insightdemand.com/neuroscience-confirms-we-buy-on-emotion-justify-with-logic-yet-we-sell-to-mr-rational-ignore-mr-intuitive/.
5 Cass R. Sunstein and Richard Thaler, “The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think,” December 7, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-two-friends-who-changed-how-we-think-about-how-we-think.
9 Dan M. Kahan, Hank Jenkins‐Smith, and Donald Braman, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus,” Journal of Risk Research14, no. 2 (February 2011): 147–74, https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2010.511246.
11 Kahan, Jenkins‐Smith, and Braman, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus.”
12 infinite8horizon, “Values Beat Facts. Even If You Value Facts. It’s a Fact!,”Infinite8horizon – Peter d Barnes(blog), January 5, 2014, https://infinite8horizon.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/values-beat-facts-even-if-you-value-facts-its-a-fact/.
13 “Library of Alexandria,” in Wikipedia, October 30, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Library_of_Alexandria&oldid=923722840.
14 Peter Pomerantsev, “To Unreality—and Beyond,” accessed November 7, 2019, https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/ic90uta1.
15 “PROPAGANDA | Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary,” accessed November 11, 2019, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/propaganda.
17 Pomerantsev, “To Unreality—and Beyond.”
19 “Variable-Ratio Schedules for Creating a High Response Rate,” Verywell Mind, accessed November 12, 2019, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-variable-ratio-schedule-2796012.
20 “Propaganda Techniques.” https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Propaganda_techniques&oldid=924981254
21 Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., and MFT Last updated: 1 Apr 2019 ~ 5 min read, “12 Classic Propaganda Techniques Narcissists Use to Manipulate You,” Psych Central.com, 19:00:34-05:00, https://blogs.psychcentral.com/narcissism-decoded/2017/09/12-classic-propaganda-techniques-narcissists-use-to-manipulate-you/.
22 “Has Anyone Seen the President?,” Bloomberg.Com, February 9, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-02-09/has-anyone-seen-the-president.
23 Amanda Meade, “Nine Sells 160 Former Fairfax Regional Newspapers for $115m,” The Guardian, April 30, 2019, sec. Media, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/apr/30/nine-sells-160-former-fairfax-regional-newspapers-for-115m.
24 “List of Stations Owned or Operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group,” inWikipedia, November 8, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_stations_owned_or_operated_by_Sinclair_Broadcast_Group&oldid=925163288.
25 “Sinclair Made Dozens of Local News Anchors Recite the Same Script – The New York Times,” accessed November 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/business/media/sinclair-news-anchors-script.html.
26 “Gratisversus Libre,” in Wikipedia, September 29, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gratis_versus_libre&oldid=918694874.
27 “Overton Window,” in Wikipedia, September 18, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Overton_window&oldid=916392582.
28 infinite8horizon, “Scandal, Defiance, Rinse, Repeat – The Slow Death Of Our Democracy,” Infinite8horizon – Peter d Barnes(blog), October 27, 2019, https://infinite8horizon.wordpress.com/2019/10/27/scandal-defiance-rinse-repeat-the-slow-death-of-our-democracy/.
29 Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” The New York Times, October 31, 2016, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/us/politics/fbi-russia-election-donald-trump.html.
30 Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov, “It’s Time for a New Way to Regulate Social Media Platforms,” The Conversation, accessed November 12, 2019, http://theconversation.com/its-time-for-a-new-way-to-regulate-social-media-platforms-109413.
32 Anne Applebaum “Opinion | Regulate Social Media Now. The Future of Democracy Is at Stake.,” Washington Post, accessed November 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/regulate-social-media-now-the-future-of-democracy-is-at-stake/2019/02/01/781db48c-2636-11e9-90cd-dedb0c92dc17_story.html.