Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

Why Quitting Facebook is Easier Said than Done

Not too long ago, I was listening to an interview with a privacy expert about… you guessed it, Facebook. The gist of the interview was that Facebook can’t be trusted with our personal data, as it has proven time and again.

But when asked if she would quit Facebook completely because of this — as tech columnist Walt Mossberg did — the expert said something interesting: “I can’t really afford to give up Facebook completely. For me, being able to quit Facebook is a position of privilege.”

Wow!  There is a lot living in that statement. It means Facebook is fundamental to most of our lives — it’s an essential service. But it also means that we don’t trust it — at all.  Which puts Facebook in the same category as banks, cable companies and every level of government.

Facebook — in many minds anyway – became an essential service because of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. More users = exponentially more value. Facebook has Metcalfe’s Law nailed. It has almost two and a half billion users.

But it’s more than just sheer numbers. It’s the nature of engagement. Thanks to a premeditated addictiveness in Facebook’s design, its users are regular users. Of those 2.5 billion users, 1.6 billion log in daily. 1.1 billion log in daily from their mobile device. That means that 15% of all the people in the world are constantly — addictively– connected to Facebook.

And that’s why Facebook appears to be essential. If we need to connect to people, Facebook is the most obvious way to do it. If we have a business, we need Facebook to let our potential customers know what we’re doing. If we belong to a group or organization, we need Facebook to stay in touch with other members. If we are social beasts at all, we need Facebook to keep our social network from fraying away.

We don’t trust Facebook — but we do need it.

Or do we? After all, we homo sapiens have managed to survive for 99.9925% of our collective existence without Facebook. And there is mounting research that indicates  going cold turkey on Facebook is great for your own mental health. But like all things that are good for you, quitting Facebook can be a real pain in the ass.

Last year, New York Times tech writer Brian Chen decided to ditch Facebook. This is a guy who is fully conversant in tech — and even he found making the break is much easier said than done. Facebook, in its malevolent brilliance, has erected some significant barriers to exit for its users if they do try to make a break for it.

This is especially true if you have fallen into the convenient trap of using Facebook’s social sign-in on sites rather than juggling multiple passwords and user IDs. If you’re up for the challenge, Chen has put together a 6-step guide to making a clean break of it.

But what if you happen to use Facebook for advertising? You’ve essentially sold your soul to Zuckerberg. Reading through Chen’s guide, I’ve decided that it’s just easier to go into the Witness Protection Program. Even there, Facebook will still be tracking me.

By the way, after six months without Facebook, Chen did a follow-up on how his life had changed. The short answer is: not much, but what did change was for the better. His family didn’t collapse. His friends didn’t desert him. He still managed to have a social life. He spent a lot less on spontaneous online purchases. And he read more books.

The biggest outcome was that advertisers “gave up on stalking” him. Without a steady stream of personal data from Facebook, Instagram thought he was a woman.

Whether you’re able to swear off Facebook completely or not, I wonder what the continuing meltdown of trust in Facebook will do for its usage patterns. As in most things digital, young people seem to have intuitively stumbled on the best way to use Facebook. Use it if you must to connect to people when you need to (in their case, grandmothers and great-aunts) — but for heaven’s sake, don’t post anything even faintly personal. Never afford Facebook’s AI the briefest glimpse into your soul. No personal affirmations, no confessionals, no motivational posts and — for the love of all that is democratic — nothing political.

Oh, one more thing. Keep your damned finger off of the like button, unless it’s for your cousin Shermy’s 55th birthday celebration in Zihuatanejo.

Even then, maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and call the ol’ Shermeister. It’s been too long.

The Hidden Agenda Behind Zuckerberg’s “Meaningful Interactions”

It probably started with a good intention. Facebook – aka Mark Zuckerberg – wanted to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions”. And so, early last year, Facebook engineers started making some significant changes to the algorithm that determined what you saw in your News Feed. Here are some excerpts from Zuck’s post to that effect:

“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.”

That makes sense, right? It sounds logical. Zuckerberg went on to say how they were changing Facebook’s algorithm to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions.”

“The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”


Let’s fast-forward almost two years and we now see the outcome of that good intention…an ideological landscape with a huge chasm where the middle ground used to be.

The problem is that Facebook’s algorithm naturally favors content from like-minded people. And surprisingly, it doesn’t take a very high degree of ideological homogeneity to create a highly polarized landscape. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. American Economist Thomas Schelling showed us how easy it was for segregation to happen almost 50 years ago.

The Schelling Model of Segregation was created to demonstrate why racial segregation was such a chronic problem in the U.S., even given repeated efforts to desegregate. The model showed that even when we’re pretty open minded about who our neighbors are, we will still tend to self-segregate over time.

The model works like this. A grid represents a population with two different types of agents: X and O. The square that the agent is in represents where they live. If the agent is satisfied, they will stay put. If they aren’t satisfied, they will move to a new location. The variable here is the level of satisfaction determined by what percentage of their immediate neighbours are the same type of agent as they are. For example, the level of satisfaction might be set at 50%; where the X agent needs at least 50% of its neighbours to also be of type X. (If you want to try the model firsthand, Frank McCown, a Computer Science professor at Harding University, created an online version.)

The most surprising thing that comes out of the model is that this threshold of satisfaction doesn’t have to be set very high at all for extensive segregation to happen over time. You start to see significant “clumping” of agent types at percentages as low as 25%. At 40% and higher, you see sharp divides between the X and O communities. Remember, even at 40%, that means that Agent X only wants 40% of their neighbours to also be of the X persuasion. They’re okay being surrounded by up to 60% Os. That is much more open-minded than most human agents I know.

Now, let’s move the Schelling Model to Facebook. We know from the model that even pretty open-minded people will physically segregate themselves over time. The difference is that on Facebook, they don’t move to a new part of the grid, they just hit the “unfollow” button. And the segregation isn’t physical – it’s ideological.

This natural behavior is then accelerated by the Facebook “Meaningful Encounter” Algorithm which filters on the basis of people you have connected with, setting in motion an ever-tightening spiral that eventually restricts your feed to a very narrow ideological horizon. The resulting cluster then becomes a segment used for ad targeting. We can quickly see how Facebook both intentionally built these very homogenous clusters by changing their algorithm and then profits from them by providing advertisers the tools to micro target them.

Finally, after doing all this, Facebook absolves themselves of any responsibility to ensure subversive and blatantly false messaging isn’t delivered to these ideologically vulnerable clusters. It’s no wonder comedian Sascha Baron Cohen just took Zuck to task, saying “if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”. 

In rereading Mark Zuckerberg’s post from two years ago, you can’t help but start reading between the lines. First of all, there is mounting evidence that disproves his contention that meaningful social media encounters help your well-being. It appears that quitting Facebook entirely is much better for you.

And secondly, I suspect that – just like his defence of running false and malicious advertising by citing free speech – Zuck has an not-so-hidden agenda here. I’m sure Zuckerberg and his Facebook engineers weren’t oblivious to the fact that their changes to the algorithm would result in nicely segmented psychographic clusters that would be like catnip to advertisers – especially political advertisers. They were consolidating exactly the same vulnerabilities that were exploited by Cambridge Analytica.

They were building a platform that was perfectly suited to subvert democracy.

Running on Empty: Getting Crushed by the Crush It Culture

“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Elon Musk

Those damned Protestants and their work ethic. Thanks to them, unless you’re willing to put in a zillion hours a week, you’re just a speed bump on the road to all that is good in the world. Take Mr. Musk, for example. If you happen to work at Tesla, or SpaceX, or the Boring Company, Elon has figured out what your average work week should be, “(It) Varies per person, but about 80 sustained, peaking above 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.”

“Pain level increases exponentially above 8o”? WTF, Mr. Musk!

But he’s not alone. Google famously built their Mountainview campus so employees never had to go home. Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma calls the intense work culture at his company a “huge blessing.” He calls it the “996” work schedule, 9 am to 9 pm 6 days a week. That’s 72 hours, if you’re counting. But even that wouldn’t cut it if you work for Elon Musk. You’d be a dead beat.

This is the “Crush It” culture, where long hours equate to dedication and – by extension – success. No pain, no gain.

We spend lots of time talking about the gain – so let me spend just one column talking about the pain. Pain such as mental illness, severe depression, long term disabilities and strokes. Those that overwork are more likely to over-eat, smoke, drink excessively and develop other self-destructive habits.

You’re not changing the world. You’re shortening your life. The Japanese call it karoshi; death by overwork.

Like so many things, this is another unintended consequence of a digitally mediated culture. Digital speeds everything up. But our bodies – and brains – aren’t digital. They burn out if they move too fast – or too long.

Overwork as a sign of superior personal value is a fairly new concept in the span of human history. It came from the Puritans who settled in New England. They believed that those that worked hard at their professions were those chosen to get into heaven. The more wealth you amassed from your work, the more evidence there was that you were one of the chosen.

Lately, the creeping Capitalist culture of over-working has most firmly embedded itself in the tech industry. There, the number of hours you work has become a proxy of your own worth. A twisted type of machismo has evolved and has trapped us all into thinking that an hour not spent at our jobs is an hour wasted. We are looked down upon for wanting some type of balance in our lives.

Unfortunately for the Musks and Mas and other modern-day task masters – the biology just doesn’t support their proposed work schedules.

First, our brains need rest. Back in the 18th century when those Puritans proved their worth through work, earning a living was usually a physical endeavour. The load of overwork was spread amongst the fairly simple mechanical machinery of our own bodies. Muscles got sore. Joints ached. But they recovered.

The brain is a much more complex beast. When it gets overworked, it loses its executive ability to focus on the task at hand. When your work takes place on a desktop or laptop where there are unlimited diversions just a click away, you suddenly find yourself 45 minutes into an unplanned YouTube marathon or scrolling through your Facebook feed. It becomes a downward spiral that benefits no one.

An overworked mind also loses its ability to spin down in the evening so you can get an adequate amount of sleep. When your co-workers start boasting of being able to function on just 3 or 4 hours of sleep – they are lying. They are lying to you, but worse, they are lying to themselves. Very few of us can function adequately on less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep. For the rest of us, the negative effects start to accumulate. A study found that sleep deprivation has the same impact as drinking too much. Those that were getting less than 7 hours of sleep faired the same or worse on a cognitive test as those that had a 0.05% blood alcohol level. The legal limit in most states is 0.08%.

Finally, in an essay on Medium, Rachel Thomas points out that the Crush It Culture is discriminatory. Those that have a disability or chronic illness simply have fewer hours in the day to devote to work. They need time for medical support and usually require more sleep. In an industry like Tech where there is an unhealthy focus on the number of hours worked, these workers – which Thomas says makes up at least 30% of the total workforce – are shut out.

The Crush It Culture is toxic. The science simply doesn’t support it. The only ones evangelizing it are those that directly benefit from this modernized version of feudalism.  It’s time to call Bullshit on them.

The Tourification of Our World

Who wouldn’t want to be in Venice? Gondolas drift by with Italian gondoliers singing “O Sole Mio.” You sit at a café savoring your espresso as you watch Latin lovers stroll by hand in hand on their way to the Bridge of Sighs. The Piazza San Marco is bathed in a golden glow as the sun sets behind the Basilica di San Marco. The picture? Perfect.  

Again, who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?

The answer, according to the latest population stats, is almost everyone. The population of Venice is one third what it was in 1970.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I changed the sentence slightly in the second version. I replaced “be” with “live.”  And that’s the difference. Venice is literally the “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

A lot of people do visit, well over 5 million a year. But almost nobody lives there. The permanent population of Venice has shrunk to below 60,000.

Venice has become tourified. It’s a false front of a city, one built for those who are going to be there for 48 to 72 hours. In the process, everything needed to make it sustainable for those who want to call it home has been stripped out. It has become addicted to tourist dollars — and that addiction is killing it.

We should learn from Venice’s example. Sometimes, in trying to make a fantasy real, you take away the very things needed to let it survive.

Perfection doesn’t exist in nature. Imperfections are required for robustness. Yet, we are increasingly looking for a picture of perfection we can escape to.

The unintended consequences of this are troubling to think about.

We spent a good part of the last century devising new ways to escape. What was once an activity that lived well apart from our real lives has become increasingly more entwined with those lives.

As our collective affluence has grown, we spend more and more time chasing the fantastical. Social media has accelerated this chase. Our feeds are full of posts from those in pursuit of a fantasy.

We have shifted our focus from the place we live to the “nice place to visit.” This distorts our expectations of what reality should be. We expect the tourist-brochure version of Venice without realizing that in constructing exactly that, we set in motion a chain of events resulting in a city that’s unlivable.

The rise of populist politics is the broken-mirror image of this. Many of us have mythologized the America we want — or Britain, or any of the other countries that have gone down the populist path.. And myths are, by definition, unsustainable in the real world. They are vastly oversimplified pictures that allow us to create a story that we long for. It’s  the same as the picture I painted of Venice in the first paragraph: a fantasy that can’t survive reality.

In our tendency to “tourify” everything, there are at least two unintended consequences: one for ourselves and one for our world.

For us, the need to escape continually draws our energies and attentions from what we need to do to save the world we actually live in, toward the mythologization of the world we think we want to live in. We ignore the inconvenient truths of reality as we pursue our imagined perfection.

But it’s the second outcome that’s probably more troubling. Even if we were successful in building the world we think we want, we could well find that built a bigger version of Venice, a place sinking under the weight of its own fantasy.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.

Looking Back at a Decade That’s 99.44% Done

Remember 2010? For me that was a pretty important year. It was the year I sold my digital marketing business. While I would continue to actively work in the industry for another 3 years, for me things were never the same as they were in 2010. And – looking back – I realize that’s pretty well true for most of us. We were more innocent and more hopeful. We still believed that the Internet would be the solution, not the problem.

In 2010, two big trends were jointly reshaping our notions of being connected. Early in the year, former Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker laid them out for us in her “State of the Internet” report. Back then, just three years after the introduction of the iPhone, internet usage from mobile devices hadn’t even reached double digits as a percentage of overall traffic. Meeker knew this was going to change, and quickly. She saw mobile adoption on track to be the steepest tech adoption curve in history. She was right. Today, over 60% of internet usage comes from a mobile device.

The other defining trend was social media. Even then, Facebook had about 600 million users, or just under 10% of the world’s population. When you had a platform that big – connecting that many people – you just knew the consequences will be significant. There were some pretty rosy predications for the impact of social media.

Of course, it’s the stuff you can’t predict that will bite you. Like I said, we were a little naïve.

One trend that Meeker didn’t predict was the nasty issue of data ownership. We were just starting to become aware of the looming spectre of privacy.

The biggest Internet related story of 2010 was WikiLeaks. In February, Julian Assange’s site started releasing 260,000 sensitive diplomatic cables sent to them by Chelsea Manning, a US soldier stationed in Iraq. According to the governments of the world, this was an illegal release of classified material, tantamount to an act of espionage. According to public opinion, this was shit finally rolling uphill. We revelled in the revelations. Wikileaks and Julian Assange was taking it to the man.

That budding sense of optimism continued throughout the year. By December of 2010, the Arab Spring had begun. This was our virtual vindication – the awesome power of social media was a blinding light to shine on the darkest nooks and crannies of despotism and tyranny. The digital future was clear and bright. We would triumph thanks to technology. The Internet had helped put Obama in the White House. It had toppled corrupt regimes.

A decade later, we’re shell shocked to discover that the Internet is the source of a whole new kind of corruption.

The rigidly digitized ideals of Zuckerberg, Page, Brin et al seemed to be a call to arms: transparency, the elimination of bureaucracy, a free and open friction-free digital market, the sharing economy, a vast social network that would connect humanity in ways never imagined, connected devices in our pockets – in 2010 all things seemed possible. And we were naïve enough to believe that those things would all be good and moral and in our best interests.

But soon, we were smelling the stench that came from Silicon Valley. Those ideals were subverted into an outright attack on our privacy. Democratic elections were sold to the highest bidder. Ideals evaporated under the pressure of profit margins and expanding power. Those impossibly bright, impossibly young billionaire CEO’s of ten years ago are now testifying in front of Congress. The corporate culture of many tech companies reeks like a frat house on Sunday morning.

Is there a lesson to be learned? I hope so. I think it’s this. Technology won’t do the heavy lifting for us. It is a tool that is subject to our own frailty. It amplifies what it is to be human. It won’t eliminate greed or corruption unless we continually steer it in that direction. 

And I use the term “we” deliberately. We have to hold tech companies to a higher standard. We have to be more discerning of what we agree to. We have to start demanding better treatment and not be willing to trade our rights away with the click of an accept button. 

A lot of what could have been slipped through our fingers in the last 10 years.  It shouldn’t have happened. Not on our watch.

The Joy of Listening to Older People

The older I get, the more I enjoy talking to people who have accumulated decades of life experience. I consider it the original social media: the sharing of personal oral histories.

People my age often become interested in their family histories. When you talk to these people, they always say the same thing: “I wish I had taken more time to talk to my grandparents when they were still alive.” No one has ever wished they had spent less time with Grandma and Grandpa.

In the hubris of youth, there seems to be the common opinion that there couldn’t be anything of interest in the past that stretches further than the day before yesterday.  When we’re young, we seldom look back. We live in the moment and are obsessed with the future.

This is probably as it should be. Most of our lives lie in front of us. But as we pass the middle mark of our own journey, we start to become more reflective. And as we do so, we realize that we’ve missed the opportunity to hear most of our own personal family histories from the people who lived it. Let’s call it ROMO: The Regret of Missing Out.

Let me give you one example. In our family, with Remembrance Day (the Canadian version of Veterans Day) fast approaching, one of my cousins asked if we knew of any family that served in World War I. I vaguely remembered that my great grandfather may have served, so I did some digging and eventually found all his service records.

I discovered that he enlisted to go overseas when he was almost 45 years old, leaving behind a wife and five children. He served as a private in the trenches in the Battle of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. He was gassed. He had at least four bouts of trench fever, which is transmitted by body lice.

As a result, he developed a debilitating soreness in his limbs and back that made it impossible for him to continue active duty. Two and a half years after he enlisted, this almost 50-year-old man was able to sail home to his wife and family.

I was able to piece this together from the various records and medical reports. But I would have given anything to be able to hear these stories from him.

Unfortunately, I never knew him. My mom was just a few years old when he died, a somewhat premature death that was probably precipitated by his wartime experience.

This was a story that fell through the cracks between the generations. And now it’s too late. It will remain mostly hidden, revealed only by the sparse information we can glean from a handful of digitized records.

It’s not easy to get most older people talking. They’re not used to people caring about their past or their stories. You have to start gently and tease it out of them.

But if you persist and show an eagerness to listen, eventually the barriers come down and the past comes tumbling out, narrated by the person who lived it. Trust me when I say there is nothing more worthwhile that you can do.

We tend to ignore old people because we just have too much going on in our own lives. But it kills me just a little bit inside when I see grandparents and grandchildren in the same room, the young staring at a screen and the old staring off into space because no one is talking to them.

The screen will always be there. But Grandma isn’t getting any younger. She has lived her life. And I guarantee that in the breadth and depth of that life, there are some amazing stories you should take some time to listen to.

This Election, Canucks were “Zucked”

Note: I originally wrote this before results were available. Today, we know Trudeau’s Liberals won a minority government, but the Conservatives actually won the popular vote: 34.4% vs 33.06% for the Liberals. It was a very close election.

As I write this, Canadians are going to the polls in our national election. When you read this, the outcome will have been decided. I won’t predict — because this one is going to be too close to call.

For a nation that is often satirized for our tendencies to be nice and polite, this has been a very nasty campaign. So nasty, in fact, that in focusing on scandals and personal attacks, it forgot to mention the issues.

Most of us are going to the polls today without an inkling of who stands for what. We’re basically voting for the candidate we hate the least. In other words, we’re using the same decision strategy we used to pick the last guest at our grade 6 birthday party.

The devolvement of democracy has now hit the Great White North, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.

While the amount of viral vitriol I have seen here is still a pale shadow of what I saw from south of the 49th in 2016, it’s still jarring to witness. Canucks have been “Zucked.” We’re so busy slinging mud that we’ve forgotten to care about the things that are essential to our well being as a nation.

It should come as news to no one that Facebook has been wantonly trampling the tenets of democracy. Elizabeth Warren recently ran a fake ad on Facebook just to show she could. Then Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook last week when he said: “While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I worry about living in a world where you can only post things that tech companies decide to be 100 per cent true.”

Zuckerberg believes the onus lies with the Facebook user to be able to judge what is false and what is not. This is a suspiciously convenient defense of Facebook’s revenue model wrapped up as a defense of freedom of speech. At best it’s naïve, not to mention hypocritical. What we see is determined by Facebook’s algorithm. At worst it’s misleading and malicious.

Hitting hot buttons tied to emotions is nothing new in politics. Campaign runners have been drawing out and sharpening the long knives for decades now. TV ads added a particularly effective weapon into the political arsenal. In the 1964 presidential campaign, it even went nuclear with Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” Ad.

But this is different. For many reasons.

First of all, there is the question of trust in the channel. We have been raised in a world where media channels historically take some responsibility to delineate between what they say is factual (i.e., the news) and what is paid persuasion (i.e., the ads).

In his statement, Zuckerberg is essentially telling us that giving us some baseline of trust in political advertising is not Facebook’s job and not their problem. We should know better.

But we don’t. It’s a remarkably condescending and convenient excuse for Zuckerberg to appear to be telling us “You should be smarter than this” when he knows that this messaging has little to do with our intellectual horsepower.

This is messaging that is painstakingly designed to be mentally processed before the rational part of our brain even kicks in.

In a recent survey, three out of four Canadians said they had trouble telling which social media accounts were fake. And 40% of Canadians say they had found links to stories on current affairs that were obviously false. Those were only the links they knew were fake. I assume that many more snuck through their factual filters. By the way, people of my generation are the worst at sniffing out fake news.

We’ve all seen it, but only one third of Canadians 55 and over realize it. We can’t all be stupid.

Because social media runs on open platforms, with very few checks and balances, it’s wide open for abuse. Fake accounts, bots, hacks and other digital detritus litter the online landscape. There has been little effective policing of this. The issue is that cracking down on this directly impacts the bottom line. As Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Even given these two gaping vulnerabilities, the biggest shift when we think of social media as an ad platform is that it is built on the complexity of a network. The things that come with this — things like virality, filter bubbles, threshold effects — have no corresponding rule book to play by. It’s like playing poker with a deck full of wild cards.

Now — let’s talk about targeting.

When you take all of the above and then factor in the data-driven targeting that is now possible, you light the fuse on the bomb nestled beneath our democratic platforms. You can now segment out the most vulnerable, gullible, volatile sectors of the electorate. You can feed them misinformation and prod them to action. You can then sit back and watch as the network effects play themselves out. Fan — meet shit. Shit — meet fan.

It is this that Facebook has wrought, and then Mark Zuckerberg feeds us some holier-than-thou line about freedom of speech.

Mark, I worry about living in a world where false — and malicious — information can be widely disseminated because a tech company makes a profit from it.

The Difference Between a Right-Wing and Left-Wing Media Brain

I’ve been hesitating to write this column. But increasingly, everything I write and think about seems to come back to the same point – the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. That divide is tearing the world apart. And technology seems to be accelerating the forces causing the rift, rather than reversing them.

First, a warning: I am a Liberal. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my columns, but I did want to put it out there. And the reason I feel that warning is required it that with this column, I’m diving into the dangerous waters – I’m going to be talking about the differences between liberal and conservative brains, particularly those brains that are working in the media space.

Last week, I talked about the evolution of media bias through two – and what seems increasingly likely – three impeachment proceedings. Mainstream media has historically had a left bias. In a longitudinal study of journalism,  two professors at University of Indiana – Lars Willnat and David Weaver – found that in 2012, just 7% of American journalists identified themselves as Republican, while 28% said they were Democrats. Over 50% said they were Independent, but I suspect this is more a statement on the professed objectivity of journalists than their actual political leanings. I would be willing to bet that those independents sway left far more often than they sway right.

So, it’s entirely fair to say that mainstream media does have liberal bias. The question is – why? Is it a premediated conspiracy or just a coincidental correlation? I believe the bias is actually self-selected. Those that choose to go into journalism have brains that work in a particular way – a way that is most often found in those that fall on the liberal end of the spectrum.

I first started putting this hypothesis together when I read the following passage in Robert Sapolsky’s book “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” Sapolsky was talking about a growing number of studies looking at the cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives: “This literature has two broad themes. One is that rightists are relatively uncomfortable intellectually with ambiguity…The other is that leftists, well, think harder, have a greater capacity for what the political scientist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls ‘integrative complexity’.”

Sapolsky goes on to differentiate these intellectual approaches, “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”

Going from “gut to head” is a pretty good quality for a journalist. In fact, you could say it’s their job description.

Sapolsky cites a number of studies he bases this conclusion on. In the abstract of one of these studies, the researchers note: “Liberals are more likely to process information systematically, recognize differences in argument quality, and to be persuaded explicitly by scientific evidence, whereas conservatives are more likely to process information heuristically, attend to message-irrelevant cues such as source similarity, and to be persuaded implicitly through evaluative conditioning. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to rely on stereotypical cues and assume consensus with like-minded others.”

This is about as good a description of the differences between mainstream media and the alt-right media as I’ve seen. The researchers further note that, “Liberals score higher than conservatives on need for cognition and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives score higher than liberals on intuitive thinking and self-deception.”

That explains so much of the current situation we’re finding ourselves in. Liberals tend to be investigative journalists. Conservatives tend to be opinion columnists and pundits. One is using their head. The other is using their gut.

Of course, it’s not just the conservative media that rely on gut instinct. The Commander in Chief uses the same approach. In a 2016 article in the Washington Post, Marc Fisher probed Trump’s disdain for reading, “He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

I have nothing against intuition. The same Post articles goes on to give examples of other presidents who relied on gut instinct (Fisher notes, however; that even when these are factored in, Trump is still an outlier). But when the stakes are as high as they are now, I prefer intuition combined with some research and objective evaluation.

We believe in the concept of equality and fairness, as we should. For that reason, I hesitate to put yet another wall between conservatives and liberals. But – in seeking answers to complex questions – I think we have to be open and honest about the things that make us different. There is a reason some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives – our brains work differently*. And when those differences extend to our processing of our respective realities and the sources we turn to for information, we should be aware of them. We should take them into account in evaluating our media choices. We should go forward with open minds.

Unfortunately, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir. If you got this far in my column, you’re probably a liberal too.

* If you really want to dig further, check out the paper “Are Conservatives from Mars and Liberals from Venus?, Maybe Not So Much by Linda Skitka, one of the foremost researchers exploring this question.

Trump’s Impeachment: The Biggest Media Showdown of All Time?

Note: A shorter version of this ran in MediaPost where it was edited for length. This is the full version as I originally wrote it. GH

In my lifetime, the articles of Impeachment of have been prepared to go to the House of Representatives twice: once for Richard Nixon in 1974 and once for Bill Clinton in 1998. As this week begins, it looks like we’re heading for number three with Donald Trump. I thought it might be interesting to look these impeachment proceedings in the context of the media landscape. As I started my research, I realized this actually shows the dramatic shifts both in our media and in the culture of our ideologies. It’s worth taking a few minutes to examine them.

First, a little historical housekeeping. Two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon resigned before the articles got to the House for voting. Because I’m looking at impeachment in the context of media, we won’t spend too much time on Johnson, but we’ll still look at it for the history of a Republic Divided.

Impeachment tends to crop up when there is a deep ideological divide in the country. The rifts naturally extend to Washington and its political climate. What is fascinating is to see how these divides have been reflected in the media landscape as it has evolved.

Andrew Johnson, 1868

First of all, to provide a somewhat objective baseline to begin with, let’s begin with a quick assessment of each impeachment case using two criteria from David Greenberg, a professor of history from Rutgers, author and a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. First, was Impeachment and conviction justified? And secondly, was impeachment and conviction possible? Remember, no presidential impeachment case has won the vote in both houses, leading to the removal of a president.

With Andrew Johnson, Greenberg’s answer to those two questions was, “Justified? Probably not.” and “Possible? Most definitely.” Johnson survived the senate impeachment debate by a single vote.

The Impeachment of Johnson was a direct result of differing opinions over reconstruction after the civil war. A Democrat, Johnson ran headlong into resistance from a Republican controlled Congress and Senate. Although the odds were stacked against him, 10 Republicans broke party ranks and voted against impeachment in the senate, which fell one vote below the required two-thirds majority.

Richard Nixon, 1974

According to David Greenberg, Nixon’s impeachment was both justified and possible. Tricky Dick was heading for almost certain impeachment when he resigned on August 9, 1974.

The U.S. in 1974 was deeply divided ideologically but this rift did not extend to the media. The US media landscape was relatively monolithic in the 70’s, dominated by national newspapers and the three big television networks. Media coverage of the Watergate scandal followed the lead of one of those national papers – the Washington Post – and the now mythic reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. With a few exceptions, this media bloc definitely leaned left in its political views.

It’s also important to note the timeline of the Watergate revelations. Impeachment proceedings didn’t even begin until the Senate investigation was over a year old. By that time, there was substantial evidence pointing to both initial crimes and subsequent cover ups. The case was so damning – culminating in the release of the famous “smoking gun” tape – that even Republican support for Nixon quickly evaporated. We also have to remember that left-leaning media outlets had all the time in the world to erode public support for the president. This is not to condemn the journalism. It’s just acknowledging the media realities of the time.

The “Watergate Effect” would make its mark on national journalism for the next two decades. Suddenly, there was a flood of bright, idealistic (and yes – primarily left leaning) young people choosing journalism as a career. America’s right became increasingly frustrated with a media complex they saw as being dangerously biased to the left. One of the most vocal was Nixon’s own Executive Producer, a twenty-something named Roger Ailes.

Bill Clinton, 1998

This brings us to the Clinton Impeachment case, launched by an extra-marital affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. According to David Greenberg’s assessment, this impeachment was neither justified nor possible.

What is interesting about the Clinton case is how it marks the emergence of a right-wing media voice. The impeachment itself was largely a vendetta against the Clintons driven by Pentagon employee Linda Tripp and prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Tripp secretly recorded her conversations with Lewinsky in which she acknowledged the affair with Clinton. Lewinsky met Tripp after she had been reassigned to the Pentagon by White House aides hoping to avoid a scandal. Tripp then took the recordings to Newsweek hoping they would go public immediately. Given the implications of the story, Newsweek elected to sit on the story to give them the chance to do some further verification. Tripp was frustrated and had a book agent walk the tapes over to the Drudge Report, a fledgling Right-Wing story aggregator with a subscriber email list. They immediately published, causing a flustered mainstream media to follow suit.

Almost a year after the affair became public, Impeachment proceedings began. By this time, something called “Clinton Fatigue” had set in. Although the public was initially titillated by the salacious details, as the story dragged on, we all were struck with a collective and distasteful ennui. One got the sense that mainstream media were hoping the whole thing would eventually just go away. Eventually it did, after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate by all the Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

What Clinton’s impeachment did do was give a voice to the Right-Wing media which found a home in the explosion of cable channels and the very first online news sites. That same Roger Ailes was granted the helm of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. The Conservatives were able to outflank the established media machine by laying claim to the emerging media platforms. This was media with a difference. Although the left-wing bias of mainstream media was generally acknowledged by most, it was largely an unspoken truth. Most journalists professed to be resolutely neutral and unbiased. The Right-Wing media was not so subtle. Their role was to counteract what they felt was a leftist spin machine.

The Clinton Impeachment also drove another wedge into the right-left split that has widened ever since. The staffers on Kenneth Starr’s prosecution team included current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and recently resigned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Also, an ex-investment banker by the name of Steve Bannon was thinking he might give entertainment and media a shot.

Donald Trump, 2019

So, what do we have to look forward to? As we seem to be barreling towards impeachment, how will the story play out in today’s media and political landscape?

Professor David Greenberg is quick to point out that these are uncharted waters. It makes little sense to look for historical precedent, because this impeachment will be unlike anything we have seen before. For what it’s worth, he says the Impeachment of Donald Trump is justified, but is highly unlikely to be successful, given that the Senate is controlled by a seemingly uncrackable Republican majority.

But here are the wild cards that we in the media should be watching:

 1) the speed at which this is playing out is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We are only one week into this.

2) We have never had a President – or a White House – like this.

3) We have never had a media landscape like this. There is a very vocal Right-Wing Media Machine that has proven to be every bit as effective as the mainstream media.

4) The way we consume – and interact – with media is light years removed from two decades ago. This shift has been so massive that we are still grappling with understanding it.

5) The general public has never been networked the way we are now. We have seen the fallout from network effects both in the 2016 US Election and the UK’s Brexit vote. What part will the network play in an Impeachment?

Buckle up!