The Timeline of Factfulness

After last Wednesday, when it seemed that our reality was splitting at the seams, I was surprised to see financial markets seemed to ignore what was happening in Washington. It racked up a 1% gain. I later learned that financial markets have a history of being rather oblivious to social upheaval.

Similarly, a newsletter I subscribe to about recent academic research was packed with recent discoveries. Not one of the 35 links in that day’s edition pointed to anything remotely relevant to what was happening at that time in Washington, D.C (or various other state capitals in the country). That was less surprising to me than the collective shrugging off of events by financial markets, but it still made an interesting contrast clear to me.

These two corners of the world are not tied to the happenings of today. Markets look forward and lay economic bets on what will be. And apparently it had bet that the events of January 6 wouldn’t have any lasting impact.

Scientific journals look backward and report on what has already happened in the world of academic research. Neither are very focused on today.

But there is another reason why these two corners of the world seemed unfazed by the news headlines of January 6th. Science and the Markets are two examples of things driven by facts and data. Yes, emotion certainly plays a part. Investors have long known that irrational exuberance or fear can drive artificial bubbles or crashes. And the choice of research paths to take is a human one, which means it’s inevitably driven by emotions.

But both these ecosystems try to systematically reduce the role of emotion as much as possible by relying on facts and data. And because facts and data do not reveal their stories immediately but rather over time in the form of trends, they have to take a longer view of the world.

Therefore, these things operate on different timelines from the news. Financial markets use what’s happening now – today – as just one of many inputs into a calculated bet that will be weeks or months in the future.

Science takes a longer view, using the challenges of today to set a research agenda that may be years away from realizing its pay-off.  Both finance and science use what’s happening right now as one input to determine what will be in the future, but neither focus exclusively on today.

In contrast, that’s exactly what the news has to do. And it hyperbolizes the now, stripping the ordinary from the extraordinary, separating it, picking it out, and concentrating it for our consumption

The fact is, both markets and science have to operate by Factfulness, to use the term coined by the late Hans Rosling, Swedish physician and well known TED speaker. To run like the rest of the world, over-focused on the amplified volatility of the here and now that fills our news feeds, would be to render them dysfunctional. They couldn’t operate. They would be in a constant state of anxiety.

Increasingly, the engines that drive our world  – such as science and financial markets – have to decouple themselves from the froth and frenzy of the immediate. They do so because the rest of the world is following a very different path – one where hyper-emotionality and polarized news outlets whip us back and forth like a rag-doll caught by a Doberman.

This decoupling has accelerated thanks to the role of technology in compressing the timelines of the worldview of most of us. We are instantly alerted to what’s happening now and are then ushered into a highly biased bubble from in which we look at the world. Our world view is not only formed by emotion, it is deliberately designed to manipulate those emotions.

Emotions are our instant response to the world. They run fully hot or cold, with nary a nuance of ration to modulate them. Also, because emotions are our natural early warning systems, we tend to be hyper-aware of them and are immediately drawn to anything that promises to push our emotional buttons. As such, they are a notoriously inaccurate lens from which to look at reality.  That is why efforts are made to minimize their impact in the worlds of science and finance.

We should hold other critical systems to the same standards. Take government, for instance. Now, more than ever, we need those that govern us to be clear eyed and dealing with facts. Unfortunately, as we saw last week, they’re running as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

Happy New Year?

“Speaking of the happy new year, I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty… So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded.”

That sentiment, relevant as it is to today, was not written about 2021. It was actually written 80 years ago — in 1941 — by none other than John Steinbeck.

John was feeling a little down. I’m sure we can all relate.

It’s pretty easy to say that we have hopefully put the worst year ever behind us. I don’t know about your news feed, but mine has been like a never-ending bus tour of Dante’s 7 Circles of Hell — and I’m sitting next to the life insurance salesman from Des Moines who decided to have a Caesar salad for lunch.

An online essay by Umair Haque kind of summed up 2020 for me: “The Year of the Idiot.” In it, Haque doesn’t pull any punches,

“It was the year that a pandemic searched the ocean of human stupidity, and found, to its gleeful delight, that it appeared to be bottomless. 2020 was the year that idiots wrecked our societies.”

In case you’re not catching the drift yet, Haque goes on to say, “The average person is a massive, gigantic, malicious, selfish idiot.”

Yeah. That pretty much covers it.

Or does it? Were our societies wrecked? Is the average person truly that shitty? Is the world a vast, soul sucking, rotten-cabbage-reeking dumpster fire? Or is it just the lens we’re looking through?

If you search hard enough, you can find those who are looking through a different lens — one that happens to be backed by statistical evidence rather than what bubbles to the top of our newsfeed. One of those people is Ola Rosling. He’s carrying on the mission of his late father, Hans Rosling, who was working on the book “Factfulness” when he passed away in 2017. Bill Gates called it “one of the most educational books I’ve ever read.” And Bill reads a lot of books!

Believe it or not, if you remove a global pandemic from the equation (which, admittedly, is a whole new scale of awful) the world may actually be in better shape than it was 12 months ago. And even if you throw the pandemic into the mix, there are some glimmers of silver peeking through the clouds.

Here are some things you may have missed in your news feed:

Wild polio was eradicated from Africa. That’s big news. It’s a massive achievement that had its to-do box ticked last August. And I’m betting you never heard about it.

Also, the medical and scientific world has never before mobilized and worked together on a project like the new COVID mRNA vaccines now rolling out. Again, this is a huge step forward that will have far reaching impacts on healthcare in the future. But that’s not what the news is talking about.

Here’s another thing. At long last, it looks like the world may finally be ready to start tearing apart the layers that hide systemic racism. What we’re learning is that it may not be the idiots  — and, granted, there are many, many idiots — who are the biggest problem. It may be people like me, who have unknowingly perpetuated the system and are finally beginning to see the endemic bias baked into our culture.

These are just three big steps forward that happened in 2020. There are others. We just aren’t talking about them.

We always look on the dark side. We’re a “glass half-empty” species. That’s what Rosling’s book is about: our tendency to skip over the facts to rush to the worst possible view of things. We need no help in that regard — but we get it anyway from the news business, which, run by humans and aimed at humans, amplifies our proclivity for pessimism.

I’m as glad as anyone to see 2020 in my rear-view mirror. But I am carrying something of that year forward with me: a resolution to spend more time looking for facts and relying less on media “spun” for profit to understand the state of the world.

As we consume media, we have to remember that good news is just not as profitable as bad news. We need to broaden our view to find the facts. Hans Rosling warned us, “Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot.”

Yes, 2020 was bad, but it was also good. And because there are forces that swing the pendulum both ways, many of the things that were good may not have happened without the bad. In the same letter in which Steinbeck expressed his pessimism about 1941, he went on to say this:

“Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

There are two sides to every story, even when it’s a horror story like 2020.

Facebook Vs. Apple Vs. Your Privacy

As I was writing last week’s words about Mark Zuckerberg’s hubris-driven view of world domination, little did I know that the next chapter was literally being written. The very next day, a full-page ad from Facebook ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal attacking Apple for building privacy protection prompts into iOS 14.

It will come as a surprise to no one that I line up firmly on the side of Apple in this cat fight. I have always said we need to retain control over our personal data, choosing what’s shared and when. I also believe we need to have more control over the nature of the data being shared. iOS 14 is taking some much-needed steps in that direction.

Facebook is taking a stand that sadly underlines everything I wrote just last week — a disingenuous stand for a free-market environment — by unfurling the “Save small business” banner. Zuckerberg loves to stand up for “free” things — be it speech or markets — when it serves his purpose.

And the hidden agenda here is not really hidden at all. It’s not the small business around the corner Mark is worried about. It’s the 800-billion-dollar business that he owns 60% of the voting shares in.

The headline of the ad reads, “We’re standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.”

Ummm — yeah, right.

What you’re standing up for, Mark, is your revenue model, which depends on Facebook’s being free to hoover up as much personal data on you as possible, across as many platforms as possible.

The only thing that you care about when it comes to small businesses is that they spend as much with Facebook as possible. What you’re trying to defend is not “free” markets or “free” speech. What you’re defending is about the furthest thing imaginable away from  “free.”  It’s $70 billion plus in revenues and $18 and a half billion in profits. What you’re trying to protect is your number-five slot on the Forbes richest people in the world list, with your net worth of $100 billion.

Then, on the very next day, Facebook added insult to injury with a second ad, this time defending the “Free Internet,”  saying Apple “will change the internet as we know it” by forcing websites and blogs “to start charging you subscription fees.”

Good. The “internet as we know it” is a crap sandwich. “Free” has led us to exactly where we are now, with democracy hanging on by a thread, with true journalism in the last paroxysms of its battle for survival, and with anyone with half a brain feeling like they’re swimming in a sea of stupidity.

Bravo to Apple for pushing us away from the toxicity of “free” that comes with our enthralled reverence for “free” things to prop up a rapidly disintegrating information marketplace. If we accept a free model for our access to information, we must also accept advertising that will become increasingly intrusive, with even less regard for our personal privacy. We must accept all the things that come with “free”: the things that have proven to be so detrimental to our ability to function as a caring and compassionate democratic society over the past decade.

In doing the research for this column, I ran into an op-ed piece that ran last year in The New York Times. In it, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes lays out the case for antitrust regulators dismantling Facebook’s dominance in social media.

This is a guy who was one of Zuckerberg’s best friends in college, who shared in the thrill of starting Facebook, and whose name is on the patent for Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. It’s a major move when a guy like that, knowing what he knows, says, “The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.”

Hughes admits that the drive to break up Facebook won’t be easy. In the end, it may not even be successful. But it has to be attempted.

Too much power sits in the Zuckerberg’s hands. An attempt has to be made to break down the walls behind which our private data is being manipulated. We cannot trust Facebook — or Mark Zuckerberg — to do the right thing with the data. It would be so much easier if we could, but it has been proven again and again and again that our trust is misplaced.

The very fact that those calling the shots at Facebook believe you’ll fall for yet another public appeal wrapped in some altruistic bullshit appeal about protecting “free” that’s as substantial as Saran Wrap should be taken as an insult. It should make you mad as hell.

And it should put Apple’s stand to protect your privacy in the right perspective: a long overdue attempt to stop the runaway train that is social media.

Looking At The World Through Zuckerberg-Colored Glasses

Mark Zuckerberg has managed to do something almost no one else has been able to do. He has actually been able to find one small patch of common ground between the far right and the far left in American politics. It seems everybody hates Facebook, even if it’s for different reasons.

The right hates the fact that they’re not given free rein to say whatever they want without Facebook tagging their posts as misinformation. The left worries about the erosion of privacy. And antitrust legislators feel Facebook is just too powerful and dominant in the social media market. Mark Zuckerberg has few friends in Washington — on either side of the aisle.

The common denominator here is control. Facebook has too much of it, and no one likes that. The question on the top of my mind is, “What is Facebook intending to do with that control?” Why is dominance an important part of Zuckerberg’s master plan?

Further, just what is that master plan?  Almost four years ago, in the early days of 2017, Zuckerberg issued a 6,000-word manifesto. In it, he addressed what he called “the most important question of all.” That question was, “Are we building the world we all want?”

According to the manifesto, the plan for Facebook includes “spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science.”

Then, two years later, Zuckerberg issued another lengthy memo about his vision regarding privacy and the future of communication, which “will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure.” He explained that Facebook and Instagram are like a town square, a public place for communication. But WhatsApp and Messenger are like your living room, where you can have private conversations without worrying about those conversations.

So, how is all that wonderfulness going, anyway?

Well, first of all, there’s what Mark says, and what Facebook actually does. When he’s not firing off biennial manifestos promising a cotton-candy-colored world, he’s busy assembling all the pieces required to suck up as much data on you as possible, and fighting lawsuits when he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t be.

You have to understand that for Zuckerberg, all these plans are built on a common foundation: Everything happens on a platform that Facebook owns. And those platforms are paid for by advertising. And advertising needs data. And therein lies the problem: What the hell is Facebook doing with all this data?

I’m pretty sure it’s not spreading prosperity and freedom or promoting peace and understanding. Quite the opposite. If you look at Facebook’s fingerprints that are all over the sociological dumpster fire that has been the past four years, you could call them the Keyser Söze of shit disturbing.

And it’s only going to get worse. Facebook and other participants in the attention economy are betting heavily on facial recognition technology. This effectively eliminates our last shred of supposed anonymity online. It forever links our digital dust trail with our real-world activities. And it dumps even more information about you into the voracious algorithms of Facebook, Google and other data devourers. Again, what might be the plans for this data: putting in place the pieces of a more utopian world, or meeting next quarter’s revenue projections?

Here’s the thing. I don’t think Zuckerberg is being wilfully dishonest when he writes these manifestos. I think — at the time — he actually believes them. And he probably legitimately thinks that Facebook is the best way to accomplish them. Zuckerberg always believes he’s the smartest one in the room. And he — like Steve Jobs — has a reality distortion field that’s always on. In that distorted reality, he believes Facebook — a company that is entirely dependent on advertising for survival — can be trusted with all our data. If we just trust him, Facebook will all be okay.

The past four years have proven over and over again that that’s not true. It’s not even possible. No matter how good the intentions you go in with, the revenue model that fuels Facebook will subvert those intentions and turn them into something corrosive.

I think David Fincher summed up the problem nicely in his movie “The Social Network.” There, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin nailed the Zuckerberg nail on the head when he wrote the scene where Zuckerberg’s lawyer said to him, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”

Facebook represents a lethal mixture that has all the classic warning signs of an abusive relationship:

  • A corporation that can survive only when its advertisers are happy.
  • Advertisers that are demanding more and more data they can use to target prospects.
  • A bro-culture where Facebook folks think they’re smarter than everyone else and believe they can actually thread the needle between being fabulous successful as an advertising platform and not being complete assholes.
  • And an audience of users who are misplacing their trust by buying into the occasional manifesto, while ignoring the red flags that are popping up every day.

Given all these factors, the question becomes: Will splitting up Facebook be a good or bad thing? It’s a question that will become very pertinent in the year to come. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Second Thoughts about the Social Dilemma

Watched “The Social Dilemma” yet? I did, a few months ago. The Netflix documentary sets off all kinds of alarms about social media and how it’s twisting the very fabric of our society. It’s a mix of standard documentary fodder — a lot of tell-all interviews with industry insiders and activists — with an (ill-advised, in my opinion) dramatization of the effects of social media addiction in one particular family.

The one most affected is a male teenager who is suddenly drawn, zombie-like,by his social media feed into an ultra-polarized political activist group. Behind the scenes, operating in a sort of evil-empire control room setting, there are literally puppet masters pulling his strings.

It’s scary as hell. But should we be scared? Or — at least — should we be that scared?

Many of us are sounding alarms about social media and how it nets out to be a bad thing. I’m one of the worst. I am very concerned about the impact of social media, and I’ve said so many, many times in this column. But I also admit that this is a social experiment playing out in real time, so it’s hard to predict what the outcome will be. We should keep our minds open to new evidence.

I’ve also said that younger generations seem to be handling this in stride. At least, they seem to be handling it better than those in my generation. They’re quicker to adapt and to use new technologies natively to function in their environments, rather than fumble as we do, searching for some corollary to the world we grew up in.

I’ve certainly had pushback on this observation. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe, like so many seemingly disastrous new technological trends before it, social media may turn out to be neither bad nor good. It may just be different.

That certainly seems to be the case if you read a new study from the Institute for Family Studies at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution.  

One of the lead authors of the study, Jean Twenge, previously rang the alarm bells about how technology was short-circuiting the mental wiring of our youth. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” she made this claim:

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

The article describes a generation of zombies mentally hardwired to social media through their addiction to their iPhone. One of the more startling claims was this:

“Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.”

Again, scary as hell, right? This sounds frighteningly familiar to the scenarios laid out in ““The Social Dilemma.”  

But what if you take this same group and this same author, fast-forward three years to the middle of the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, and check in with over 1,500 teens to see how they’re doing in a time where they have every right to be depressed? Not only are they locked inside, they’re also processing societal upheavals and existential threats like systemic racial inequality, alt-right political populism and climate change. If 2017-2018 was scary for them, 2020 is a dumpster fire.

Surprisingly, those same teens appear to be doing better than they were two years ago. The study had four measures of ill-being: loneliness, life dissatisfaction, unhappiness and depression.  The results were counterintuitive, to say the least. The number of teens indicating they were depressed actually dropped substantially, from 27% in 2018 to 17% who were quarantined during the school year in 2020. Fewer said they were lonely as well. 

The study indicated that the reasons for this could be because teens were getting more sleep and were spending more time with family.

But what about smartphones and social media? Wouldn’t a quarantined teen (a Quaran-teen?) be spending even more time on his or her phone and social media? 

Well, yes – and no. The study found screen time didn’t really go up, but the way that time was spent did shift. Surprising, time spent on social media went down, but time spent on video chats with friends or watching online streaming entertainment went up. 

As I shared in my column a few weeks ago, this again indicates that it’s not how much time we spend on social media that determines our mental state. It’s how we spend that time. If we spend it looking for connection, rather than obsessing over social status, it can be a good thing. 

Another study, from the University of Oxford, examined data on more than 300,000 adolescents and found that increased screen time has no more impact on teenager’s mental health than eating more potatoes. Or wearing glasses.

If you’re really worried about your teen’s mental health, make sure they have breakfast. Or get enough sleep. Or just spend more time with them. All those things are going to have a lot more impact than the time they spend on their phone.

To be clear, this is not me becoming a fan of Facebook or social media in general. There are still many things to be concerned about. But let’s also realize that technology — any technology– is a tool. It is not inherently good or evil. Those qualities can be found in how we choose to use technology. 

Have More People Become More Awful?

Is it just me, or do people seem a little more awful lately? There seems to be a little more ignorance in the world, a little less compassion, a little more bullying and a lot less courtesy.

Maybe it’s just me.

It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with eternal optimist Steven Pinker.  The Harvard psychologist is probably the best-known proponent of the argument that the world is consistently trending towards being a better place.  According to Pinker, we are less bigoted, less homophobic, less misogynist and less violent. At least, that’s what he felt pre-COVID lockdown. As I said, I haven’t checked in with him lately, but I suspect he would say the long-term trends haven’t appreciably changed. Maybe we’re just going through a blip.

Why, then, does the world seem to be going to hell in a hand cart?  Why do people — at least some people — seem so awful?

I think it’s important to remember that our brain likes to play tricks on us. It’s in a never-ending quest to connect cause and effect. Sometimes, to do so, the brain jumps to conclusions. Unfortunately, it is aided in this unfortunate tendency by a couple of accomplices — namely news reporting and social media. Even if the world isn’t getting shittier, it certainly seems to be. 

Let me give you one example. In my local town, an anti-masking rally was recently held at a nearby shopping mall. Local news outlets jumped on it, with pictures and video of non-masked, non-socially distanced protesters carrying signs and chanting about our decline into Communism and how their rights were being violated.

What a bunch of boneheads — right? That was certainly the consensus in my social media circle. How could people care so little about the health and safety of their community? Why are they so awful?

But when you take the time to unpack this a bit, you realize that everyone is probably overplaying their hands. I don’t have exact numbers, but I don’t think there were more than 30 or 40 protestors at the rally. The population of my city is about 150,000. These protestors represented .03% of the total population. 

Let’s say for every person at the rally, there were 10 that felt the same way but weren’t there. That’s still less than 1%. Even if you multiplied the number of protesters by 100, it would still be just 3% of my community. We’re still talking about a tiny fraction of all the people who live in my city. 

But both the news media and my social media feed have ensured that these people are highly visible. And because they are, our brain likes to use that small and very visible sample and extrapolate it to the world in general. It’s called availability bias, a cognitive shortcut where the brain uses whatever’s easy to grab to create our understanding of the world.

But availability bias is nothing new. Our brains have always done this. So, what’s different about now?

Here, we have to understand that the current reality may be leading us into another “mind-trap.” A 2018 study from Harvard introduced something called “prevalence-induced concept change,” which gives us a better understanding of how the brain focuses on signals in a field of noise. 

Basically, when signals of bad things become less common, the brain works harder to find them. We expand our definition of what is “bad” to include more examples so we can feel more successful in finding them.

I’m probably stretching beyond the limits of the original study here, but could this same thing be happening now? Are we all super-attuned to any hint of what we see as antisocial behavior so we can jump on it? 

If this is the case, again social media is largely to blame. It’s another example of our current toxic mix of dog whistlecancel culturevirtue signaling, pseudo-reality that is being driven by social media. 

That’s two possible things that are happening. But if we add one more, it becomes a perfect storm of perceived awfulness. 

In a normal world, we all have different definitions of the ethical signals we’re paying attention to. What you are focused on right now in your balancing of what is right and wrong is probably different from what I’m currently focused on. I may be thinking about gun control while you’re thinking about reducing your carbon footprint.

But now, we’re all thinking about the same thing: surviving a pandemic. And this isn’t just some theoretical mind exercise. This is something that surrounds us, affecting us every single day. When it comes to this topic, our nerves have been rubbed raw and our patience has run out. 

Worst of all, we feel helpless. There seems to be nothing we can do to edge the world toward being a less awful place. Behaviors that in another reality and on another topic would have never crossed our radar now have us enraged. And, when we’re enraged, we do the one thing we can do: We share our rage on social media. Unfortunately, by doing so, we’re not part of the solution. We are just pouring fuel on the fire.

Yes, some people probably are awful. But are they more awful than they were this time last year? I don’t think so. I also can’t believe that the essential moral balance of our society has collectively nosedived in the last several months. 

What I do believe is that we are living in a time where we’re facing new challenges in how we perceive the world. Now, more than ever before, we’re on the lookout for what we believe to be awful. And if we’re looking for it, we’re sure to find it.

You Said, ‘Why Public Broadcasting?’ I Still Say, ‘Why Not?’

It appears my column a few weeks ago on public broadcasting hit a few raw nerves. Despite my trying to stickhandle around the emotionally charged use of the word “socialism” there were a few comments saying, in essence, why should taxpayers have to support broadcasting when there were private and corporate donors willing to do so? Why would we follow a socialist approach to ensuring fair and responsible journalism? We are the land of the free and open market. Let’s just let it do its job.

One commenter suggested that if people want to support responsible journalism, let them become subscribers. Make it a Netflix-based model for journalism. That is one solution put forward in my friend John Marshall’s  new book, “Free is Bad.”

It’s not wrong. It’s certainly one approach. I would encourage everyone to subscribe to at least one news publication that still practices real journalism.

Another commenter suggested that as long as there are donors who believe in journalism and are willing to put their money where their mouth is, we can let them carry the load. That’s another approach. 

Case in point, ProPublica. 

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom funded by donations. The quality of its reporting has garnered it six Pulitzers, five Peabodys, three Emmys and a number of other awards. It can certainly be pointed to as a great example of high-quality reporting that doesn’t rely on advertising dollars. But ProPublica has been around since 2008 and it only has a little over 100 journalists on the payroll. I’m sure its principals would love to hire more. They just don’t have enough money. 

The problem here — the one that prompted my suggestion to consider public broadcasting as an alternative — is that both subscriber and donor-based approaches are like trying to kill the elephant in the room with a flyswatter. The economics are hopelessly imbalanced and just can’t work.

Journalism is in full-scale attrition because its revenue model is irretrievably broken. Here’s why it’s broken: The usual winner in competitions based on capitalism is what’s most popular, not what’s the best. It’s a race to the shallow end of the pool.

And that’s what’s happened to real news reporting. Staying shallow in an advertising-supported marketplace is the best way to ensure profitability. 

But even the shallow end needs some water; there needs to be some news to act as the raw material for opinion and analysis content. In the news business, that water is the overflow from the deep end. And someone — somewhere — has to keep refilling the deep end.

In a market that is determined to cling to free-market capitalism, no one is willing to invest in the type of journalism required to keep the deep end full. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, applied to journalism. There are too many taking, and no one is giving back. Incentives and required outcomes are not only not aligned, they are pointed in opposite directions. 

But, as my commenters noted, that is where subscriptions and donations can come in. Obviously, a subscriber-based model has worked very well for streaming services like Netflix. Why couldn’t the same be true for journalism? 

I don’t believe the same approach will work, for a few reasons. 

First, Netflix has the advantage of exclusivity. You have to subscribe to access their content. Journalism doesn’t work that way. Once a news story has broken, there is a whole downstream gaggle of news channels that will jump on it and endlessly spin and respin it with their own analysis and commentary.  

This respun content will always be more popular that the original story, because it’s been predigested to align with the target audience’s own beliefs and perspectives. As I’ve said before, when it comes to news, we have a junk food habit. And why would you buy broccoli when you can get a cheeseburger for free?

This exclusivity also gives Netflix the ability to program both for quality and popularity. For every “Queen’s Gambit,” there are dozens of “Tiger King’s” and other brain-food junk snacks. When all the money is being dumped into the same pool, it can fill both the shallow and deep ends at the same time.

But perhaps the biggest misconception about Netflix’s success is that it’s not determined if Netflix is, in fact, successful. It is still a model in transition and is still relying heavily on licensed content to prop up the profitability of its original programming. When it comes to successfully transitioning the majority of viewer streams to its own programming, the jury is still very much out, as this analysis notes.

There are more reasons why I don’t think a subscription model is the best answer to journalism attrition, but we’ll leave it there for now. 

But what about donor-based journalism, like that found on PBS affiliates or ProPublica? While I don’t doubt their intentions or the quality of the reporting, I do have issues with the scale. There are simply not enough donor dollars flowing into these organizations to fund the type of expensive journalism that we need. 

And these donor dollars are largely missing in local markets, where the attrition of true news reporting is progressing at an even faster rate. In the big picture — and to return to our previous analogy — this represents a mere trickle into the deep end. 

There are just some things that shouldn’t exist in a for-profit setting. The dynamics of capitalism and how it aligns incentive just don’t work for these examples. These things are almost always social obligations that we must have but that require a commitment that usually represents personal sacrifice. 

This is the basis of a social democracy where personal sacrifice is typically exacted through taxation. While you may not like it, taxation is still the best way we’ve found to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. 

We are now to the point where access to true and reliable information has become a social obligation. And much as we may not like it, we all need to sacrifice a little bit to make sure we don’t lose it forever.

Friendship: Uncoupled

This probably won’t come as a shock to anyone reading this: A recent study says that it’s not if you use social media that determines your happiness, but how you use social media. 

Derrick Wirtz, an associate professor of teaching in psychology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, took a close look at how people use three major social platforms—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—and if how you use it can make you happier or sadder.

As I said, most of you probably said to yourself, “Yeah, that checks out.” But this study does bring up an interesting nuance with some far-reaching implications. 

In today’s world, we’re increasingly using Facebook to maintain our social connections. And, according to Facebook’s mission statement, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen: “People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”

The interesting thing in this study is the divide between our social activities — those aimed at bonding versus those aimed at gaining status — and how that impacts our moods and behaviors. It’s difficult to untangle the effect of those two factors, because they are so intertwined in our psyches. But according to this study, Dr. Wirtz found that some of us are spending far more time on social media “status-checking” then actually tending to our friendships.

“Passive use, scrolling through others’ posts and updates, involves little person-to-person reciprocal interaction while providing ample opportunity for upward comparison,” says Wirtz. 

We can scroll our newsfeed without any actual form of engagement — but that’s not what we were designed to do. Our social skills evolved to develop essential mutually beneficial bonds in a small group setting.

Friendship is meant to be nurtured and tended to organically and intimately in a face-to-face environment.  But the distal nature of social media is changing the dynamics of how we maintain relationships in our network. 

Take how we first establish friendships, for instance. When you meet someone for the very first time, how do you decide whether you’re going to become friendly or not? The answer, not surprisingly, is complex and nuanced. Our brain works overtime to determine whether we should bond or not. But, also not surprisingly, almost none of that work is based on rational thought.

UCLA psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson teaches young adults with social challenges, such as those on the autism spectrum, how to take those very first steps toward friendship when meeting a stranger. If you can’t pick up the face-to-face nuances of body language and unspoken social cues intuitively, becoming friends can be incredibly difficult. Essentially, we are constantly scanning the other person for small signs of common interest from which we can start working toward building trust. 

Even if you clear this first hurdle, it’s not easy to build an actual friendship. It requires a massive investment of our time and energy. A recent study from the University of Kansas found it takes about 50 hours of socializing just to go from acquaintance to casual friend. 

Want to make a “real” friend? Tack another 40 hours onto that. And if you goal is to become a “close” friend, you’d better be prepared to invest at least a total of 200 hours. 

So that begs the question, why would we make this investment in the first place? Why do we need friends? And why do we need at least a handful of really close friends? The answer lies in the concept of reciprocity. 

From an evolutionary perspective, having friends made it easier to survive and reproduce. We didn’t have to go it alone. We could help each other past the rough spots, even if we weren’t related to each other. Having friends stacked the odds in our favor. 

This is when our investment in all those hours of building friendships paid off. Again, this takes us back to the intimate and organic roots of friendship. 

Our brains, in turn, reinforced this behavior by making sure that having friends made us happy. 

Of course, like most human behaviors, it’s not nearly that simple or benign. Our brains also entwine the benefits of friendship with the specter of social status, making everything much more complicated. 

Status also confers an evolutionary advantage. For many generations, we have trod this fine line between being a true friend and being obsessed with our own status in the groups where we hang out.

And then came social media.

As Wirtz’s study shows, we now have this dangerous uncoupling between these two sides of our nature. With social media, friendship is now many steps removed from its physical, intimate and organic roots. It is stripped of the context in which it evolved. And, it appears, the intertwined strands of friendship and social status are unraveling. When this happens, time on social media can reap the anxiety and jealousy of status-checking without any of the joy that comes from connecting with and helping a friend. 

On a person-to-person basis, this uncoupling can be disturbing and unfortunate. But consider what may happen when these same tendencies are amplified and magnified through a massive, culture-wide network.

Dear US: Start Thinking Differently about Public Broadcasting

In my ongoing discussion about how to support true and reliable journalism, there is one option I haven’t talked about: public broadcasting. 

In a previous column, I talked about the difference I saw on one day in the way the news was reported in Canada vs the U.S. Largely missing in Canada was the extreme polarization I saw in editorial tone in the U.S. 

And, as I mentioned in my previous two columns — one on why free news is bad news and one on the problems with “news” analysis — the divide between news on the right and news on the left has the same root cause: the need for profitability.

The one thing I didn’t talk about in that U.S. versus Canada column is that we have a robust public broadcaster in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

“Ah,” you say, “We have public broadcasting, too. We have PBS and NPR.” 

Well, yes, but no. There are important differences in how these institutions are funded.

Let’s take PBS, for example. PBS stations are independently operated, and each have their own financials. They are members of PBS, which is not a network but rather a programming partner. Affiliates pay member dues to belong to PBS.

For example, the Seattle PBS affiliate is KCTS, whose 2019 financials show that the lion’s share of its income, over half, comes from individual donations. Corporate donations represent another 16.5%. Just 9% of its funding comes from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), supposedly representing U.S. taxpayers’ support of public broadcasting on PBS and NPR.

CPB has been a punching bag for Republicans for years now. What meager support public broadcasting does receive from CPB is constantly at risk of being chopped by Congress.  Most recently — and not surprisingly — Trump threatened to cut funding for CPB from its current level of $445 million to just $30 million. 

He did this after an NPR reporter asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if he owed an apology to the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Conservative radio jumped on the altercation, with one station tweeting, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the U.S. plus satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat Party propaganda operation.”

Trump retweeted, “A very good question.”

It actually is a good question, but from a very different perspective than what Trump intended. 

I am Canadian. I come from a social democratic country. I am free of the knee-jerk reactionism of many Americans (as shown in last week’s election) toward the word “socialism.” You have to start with that idea to understand our approach to broadcasting.

While the CBC does sell advertising, it’s not dependent on it. In its last financial report, just 14.5% of all CBC revenues came from advertising. Sixty-five percent of the CBC’s funds come directly from taxpayer dollars. As a comparison, the amount of money CBC received from the government last year was 1.1 billion, almost three times the total budget of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in the U.S. 

That highlights the difference in attitude about the importance of public broadcasting in our two countries. In Canada — following the model of Britain and the BBC — we have enshrined public broadcasting as an important part of our society that we directly support through our taxes. Not only do we have the CBC across Canada, but each province also has its own public broadcaster. 

In the more capitalistic and laissez-faire U.S., public broadcasting largely depends on the kindness of strangers. What little taxpayer support it does receive is constantly being used as a pawn in political posturing between the right and left. 

So, who’s right?

I’ll be honest. There are many Canadians — not a majority, but a significant percentage — who would like to see Canada pursue a more American path when it comes to broadcasting. “Who needs the CBC?” they say. 

But I believe strongly that the relative health of Canadian journalism when compared to the U.S. is largely due to our investment in public broadcasting. The CBC sets the norm of what’s acceptable in Canada. Its biggest private competitors, CTV and Global, don’t stray far from the relatively neutral, reliable and objective tone set by the CBC. 

If we look at reliability when it comes to public broadcasters in the U.S., we see that both NPR and PBS score top marks when it comes to lack of bias and reliability on the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart.

Unfortunately, Canadian broadcasters are not represented on the chart, so we’ll have to look for another measure. Luckily, one exists. More on this in a bit.

The doubters of my proposed hypothesis that taxpayer-funded public broadcasting means better journalism will be quick to point out that Russia, China, Cuba — heck, even Iran — all have state-owned broadcasters. These are all — as the conservative radio tweeter above said — simply “propaganda machines.” How is this different from public broadcasting?

Again, we have the conflation of democratic socialism with the U.S. right’s favorite bogeyman: communism. Y’all really have to stop doing that. 

Public broadcasting in places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are all modeled after the originator of the concept: Britain and the BBC. Although there have been many British prime ministers — Winston Churchill included — who sought to co-opt the BBC for their government’s purposes, over the past century a legislative firewall has been built to maintain the public broadcaster’s independence from the government of the day. Similar legislation is in place in Canada and other democracies with strong public broadcasters. 

So, how is that working?

Pretty well, according to Reporters Without Borders, the “biggest NGO specializing in the defense of media freedom.”

The organization’s World Press Freedom Index ranks media freedom in every country in the world. The top five countries (all Nordic and northern European countries — and all social democracies) have strong public broadcasters. In case you’re wondering, Canada scores 16th on the list. The U.S. scores 45th out of 180 countries. 

Public broadcasting — real public broadcasting, with taxpayers’ skin in the game — seems to be working pretty damned well in Canada and other places in the world. (As an interesting side note, the Reporters without Borders ranking of countries bears more than a little resemblance to US News’ Quality of Life Index). 

You should think differently about public broadcasting, because the biggest problem facing journalism in the U.S. isn’t socialism or government propaganda. It’s capitalism. 

Analyzing the Problem with News “Analysis”

Last week, I talked about the Free News problem. In thinking about how to follow that up, I ran across an interesting study that was published earlier this year in the Science Advances Journal. One of the authors was Duncan Watts, who I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous columns.

In the study, the research team tackled the problem of “Fake News” which is – of course – another symptom of the creeping malaise that is striking the industry of journalism. It certainly has become a buzzword in the last few years. But the team found that the problem of fake news may not be a problem at all. It makes up just 0.15% of our entire daily media diet. In fact, across all ages in the study, any type of news is – at the most – just 14.2% of our total media consumption.

The problem may be our overuse of the term “news” – applying it to things we think are news but are actually just content meant to drive advertising revenues. In most cases, this is opinion (sometimes informed but often not) masquerading as news in order to generate a lot of monetizable content. Once again, to get to the root of the problem, we have to follow the money.

If we look again at the Ad Fontes Media Bias chart, it’s not “news” that’s the problem. Most acknowledged leaders in true journalism are tightly clustered in the upper middle of the chart, which is where we want our news sources to be. They’re reliable and unbiased.

If we follow the two legs of the chart down to the right or left into the unreliable territory where we might encounter “fake” news, we find from the study mentioned above that this makes up an infinitesimal percentage of the media most of us actually pay attention to. The problem here can be found in the middle regions of the chart. This is where we find something called analysis. And that might just be our problem.

Again, we have to look at the creeping poison of incentive here. Some past students from Stanford University have an interesting essay about the economics of journalism that shows how cable tv and online have disrupted the tenuous value chain of news reporting.

The profitability of hard reporting was defined in the golden age of print journalism – specifically newspapers. The problem with reporting as a product is twofold. One is that news in non-excludable. Once news is reported anyone can use it. And two is that while reporting is expensive, the cost of distribution is independent of the cost of reporting. The cost of getting the news out is the same, regardless of how much news is produced.

While newspapers were the primary source of news, these two factors could be worked around. Newspapers came with a built-in 24-hour time lag. If you could get a one day jump on the competition, you could be very profitable indeed.

Secondly, the fixed distribution costs made newspapers a very cost-effective ad delivery vehicle. It cost the newspapers next to nothing to add advertising to the paper, thereby boosting revenues.

But these two factors were turned around by Internet and Cable News. If a newspaper bore the bulk of the costs by breaking a story, Cable TV and the Internet could immediately jump on board and rake in the benefits of using content they didn’t have to pay for.

And that brings us to the question of news “analysis”. Business models that rely on advertising need eyeballs. And those eyeballs need content. Original content – in the form of real reporting – is expensive and eats into profit. But analysis of news that comes from other sources costs almost nothing. You load up on talking heads and have them talk endlessly about the latest story. You can spin off never ending reams of content without having to invest anything in actually breaking the story.

This type of content has another benefit; customers love analysis. Real news can be tough to swallow. If done correctly, it should be objective and based on fact.  Sometimes it will force us to reconsider our beliefs. As is often the case with news, we may not like what we hear.

Analysis – or opinion – is much more palatable. It can be either partially or completely set free from facts and swayed and colored to match the audience’s beliefs and biases. It scores highly on the confirmation bias scale. It hits all the right (or left) emotional buttons. And by doing this, it stands a better chance of being shared on social media feeds. Eyeballs beget eyeballs. The gods of corporate finance smile benignly on analysis content because of its effectiveness at boosting profitability.

By understanding how the value chain of good reporting has broken down due to this parasitic piling on by online and cable platforms in the pursuit of profit, we begin to understand how we can perhaps save journalism. There is simply too much analytical superstructure built on top of the few real journalists that are doing real reporting. And the business model that once supported that reporting is gone.

The further that analysis gets away from the facts that fuel it, the more dangerous it becomes. At some point it crosses the lines from analysis to opinion to propaganda. The one thing it’s not is “news.” We need to financially support through subscription the few that are still reporting on the things that are actually happening.