It was mid 2014. We were sipping cold beers on a rooftop bar on a humid Saigon evening. Let’s call my friend Ryan. We were talking geopolitics. Or rather, he was raving on while I was just asking questions.
Ryan: “Yeah, basically Russia called the West’s bluff. They annexed Crimea to get access to another warm water port. And the West didn’t really retaliate. Just economic sanctions.”
Me: “Would this lead to more bloody conflict within Ukraine though?”
Ryan: “You mean like what’s happening in South Sudan since December last year?”
Me: “December 2013? I don’t get it. What happened then?”
Ryan: “Seriously? How can you not know about the civil war in South Sudan?”
I got slightly defensive: “I don’t know, guess it just never came up on my news feed. Plus, how can one be expected to keep up with what’s going on in less familiar places like southern Sudan?”
Ryan: “It’s South Sudan. You do know South Sudan and Sudan have been two different countries since 2011 right?”
I did not know. And I have to admit, my early 20s ego felt irritated at the time.
Fast forward to February 2021, I’m speaking to a friend about how much we miss travel.
Me: “Myanmar is probably one of the most under-rated destinations. But even when borders open again, not the best time to go aye. It’s tragic what’s happening there.”
Her: “What’s happening there now?”
I was tempted to say: “Seriously? How can you not know about the military coup in Myanmar?”
But I held back.
Not out of consideration of her ego, but because I’m now convinced that dismissing uninformed people as stupid is itself stupid.
- “People are ignorant.”
- “People are stupid.”
- “The West only cares about the West.”
- “The media is biased corporate propaganda.”
- “The media is biased state propaganda.”
- “The media is just click bait rubbish.”
All these statements miss the point. They grossly oversimplify the evolving incentive structures at play.
Why can’t the news keep us informed, and how should we respond?
One of the best essays I read last year, News in the Age of Abundance by David Perell, explored this very question.
I shared it with many friends. But at 16,000 words (that’s a 50 page book), most admitted they didn’t read it. So half of this post is a compressed re-blog. The other half are my own observations, augmented into Perell’s.
Why can’t the news keep us informed, and how should we respond?
Approaching this question from the lens of technology, business or sociology alone is insufficient.
A transdisciplinary lens infusing all three is required.
And my playbook for understanding such systems, for understanding where we are now, is to first study how we got here.
1. News on Newspapers
While newspapers may seem like a distant memory, for centuries it was the dominant channel for distributing news.
Even a decade ago, advertising spend on print exceeded digital.
Information was once expensive to produce and distribute. For much of history, newspapers had high fixed costs (manufacturing set-up, staff, and brand) and low marginal costs (paper and ink). This cost barrier to entry enabled local geographic monopolies to flourish alongside the national tabloids.
By the mid 20th century, the industry began to consolidate. By gaining margins from saving on shared expenses, newspapers operated on a high level of financial security in the second half of the century.
The average newspaper made 80% of revenue from ads, and 20% from subscriptions.
Now, a newspaper was a 2-in-1 package of news and entertainment. It bundled news, opinions, classifieds, job postings, sports, puzzles, and other entertainment. The widely read entertainment section in the back often subsidized the less profitable but important news at the front.
This way, investigative journalism was effectively funded by entertainment.
Eventually, newspaper sections got unbundled by the internet.
“BuzzFeed unbundled the culture section, Politico unbundled the DC-focused politics section, and The Athletic unbundled the sports section… ”
They just couldn’t keep up with Google and Facebook. Where newspapers offered an outdated, scatter-gun, brand marketing approach, the tech giants brought forth an unprecedented era of personalized marketing.
Put simply, newspapers crumbled under the weight of ruthless global competition. Today, only a few subscription papers (often business prints paid for by employers) continue to print.
2. News on Television
Television proliferated the West in the 1950s. Ownership rates in the US went from 3% in 1948 to over 90% by 1960.
Such rapid adoption of a consumer technology remains unprecedented. Even the spread of microwaves in the late 80s and cellphones in the 90s took much longer to reach 80% of households.
TV would forever change the medium and nature of shaping public opinion.
Broadcast TV transformed politics into a show business in three ways.
First and foremost, it heightened the role of image and sound over text.
Second, TV channels are also easy to switch. Style triumphed over substance. Emotion over reason. Glamour over truth. Programs were also designed so that anyone tuning in could follow. Political debates became more shallow. While newspapers highlight the message, TV highlights the messenger.
Third, TV is more passively digested compared to text. While newspapers demand active reading, TV occupies the default background of many homes. And since TV is much easier to consume than text, children become more influenced at a younger age. Gradually, more people began to outsource their thinking to the media companies to “keep them informed.”
But the history of televised news consists of two distinct epochs: before and after cable television.
“People tend to focus on content, but the architecture of our media environment matters much more. Our image-based political environment began with broadcast television but didn’t take over America until cable television.”
Unlike broadcast TV, cable TV is free from bandwidth constraints as they don’t need spectrum licenses. The number of cable networks in the US consequently grew from 28 in 1980 to 79 in 1990.
This fragmentation meant that producers no longer had to appeal to the widest possible audience.
It was now better business to cater to the specific interests of few. Rather than compromise to the lowest common denominator of the many.
Since the oligopoly owns all the networks anyway, they didn’t even need to make a choice which views to cater to. They catered to all.
For politicians, it was now better to appeal to the polarized extremes than the mild centrists. Since cable TV was introduced, the US electorate has become ever more polarized. (See False Dichotomies: An Antidote to Lose-Lose Situations for more on political polarity.)
The Overton Window – the range of acceptable opinions to the mainstream – that guided politicians remains relevant. But there now seems to be multiple windows for different channels.
So the evolution of news on TV shares a similar fate to that of newspapers. When distribution was monopolized in the early days, the media catered to a broader audience. When distribution fragmented, each outlet shifted to cater to their own niche audiences.
News on the internet would exacerbate this tendency to unprecedented levels.
3. News on the Internet
In the newspaper era, information was expensive to produce and distribute.
In the internet era, information is dirt cheap.
As with the history of televised news, internet news also consists of two distinct epochs: before and after mass smartphone proliferation in the 2010s.
Smartphones enabled pretty much everyone to carry a high-quality camera, with internet connection (and social media access), wherever they go.
Now, anyone at any time can capture stories, upload it immediately, and even live stream it.
Unlike TV, smartphones are on you all the time.
The effect is the rise of a global decentralized network of quasi-journalists and bloggers. This crowd often covers stories faster and more effectively than established media outlets.
No wonder bloggers have now become the idea scouts for journalists. There’s even organized platforms to facilitate this: like HelpAReporter.com. David Perell calls this bottom-up trickle of news events the Triangle of Information Flow.
The democratization of news publication should indeed be celebrated. But it also poses new challenges.
Wisdom of the crowds can just as easily transpire into the madness of the crowds.
Fake news is created with varying degrees of maliciousness: from shameless clickbait-fueled profit to outright political manipulation.
Of course, the problem of yellow journalism – sensationalism and exaggeration – is not a new one. Misinformation has plagued the media for as long as it’s been around.
What’s new is how easy it is now for fake news to propagate. Perhaps fake news is typically shared out of stupidity rather than bad intentions. But intentions aside, the truth is fake news spreads faster than truth.
Compounding this challenge are two more novel features of internet-era news.
First, the rise of increasingly convincing deep fakes.
Second, the downsides of social media: positive feedback loops and echo chambers.
I wrote more on this in This Person Does Not Exist: Deep Fakes and Synthetic Truth. So won’t go into more here.
Then there’s the problem of subscription media.
As digitized publications found it difficult to sell ads, they turned to subscription models in the 2010s. Recurring revenue models also command higher valuation multiples in the equities market.
The inconvenience of paywalls was a first-order effect. But the subscription model brings about a more subtle but substantive second-order effect. It amplifies pre-existing views. Just like social media algorithms.
Because most people would only pay to read what they already agree with.
Reaching a larger number of people, ad-based media were incentivized to convey diverse viewpoints. Subscription media, on the other hand, is incentivized to show what its audience wants to see.
Finally, internet news is forced to yield to the demands of constant consumption.
In the fiercely competitive attention economy, pseudo news fills the cycle.
“Pseudo-events make simple facts seem more subtle, more ambiguous, and more speculative than they really are. Propaganda oversimplifies experience, pseudo-events overcomplicate it. The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original.” – Boorstin
And a popular format of pseudo news is a sort of meta-news: news about the news.
“Instead of covering events directly, news anchors focused on how important people perceived those events. And instead of covering events objectively, journalists pivoted towards subjective interpretations of other subjective interpretations.” – Perell
This is taking the Common Knowledge Game – “I know that you know that I know” – to a whole new level.
Common Knowledge. It’s not what the crowd believes. It’s what the crowd believes what the crowd believes.
I write more on this in Common Knowledge: Why I Stopped Avoiding the Mass Media so again, won’t expand further here.
To summarize, the internet continues to catalyze the trends already set in motion by cable TV: fragmented channels and constant consumption.
4. How Should We Respond?
News has always danced between truth and entertainment.
New technologies forced the adoption of new business models. These new incentive structures changed the way news is produced, distributed, and consumed. This flowed on to the way we think, act, interact.
So where do we go from here? How should we respond?
Here’s 5 things I try my best to do.
1. Consume less news.
If you consume a lot and think too little, you’re submit yourself to the crowd.
If you think a lot and consume too little, you’ll be out of touch of reality.
The sweet spot is in the middle.
Most suffer from the former. So remember, less is often more.
Unless you consume news primarily for entertainment, then you do you.
2. Continually ask: Is this real news or pseudo news?
Indeed, the required scope and granularity of news depends on your role.
So I like to break news down into 5 levels.
Level 1: Momentous events that make a dent on history. Examples: COVID-19, AlphaGo, iPhone, World wide web, fall of Berlin Wall, Deng Xiaoping opening China, moon landing, birth control pill, Sputnik, Hiroshima, Bretton Woods.
Level 2: Key global events. Usually only a handful each year. Examples: Hong Kong protests, Brexit, Syrian Civil War, Iran Nuclear Deal, Russian annexation of Crimea, Greece bailout, US shale revolution.
Level 3: Key regional events. Or events by theme (political / military, economics / business / finance, ideas / culture / society, and science / technology / nature). Examples: Boris Johnson catching COVID, GameStop Reddit gamma squeeze, Australian bushfires.
Level 4: Top 2-3 events of the month.
Level 5: Top 2-3 events of the week.
I don’t bother with Level 6 and beyond. It’s mostly noise at this point.
3. Don’t push those with vastly different political views away.
I remember seeing a friend post: “Election time is the best time to clean up your Facebook friend list.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
If someone has a radically different worldview, it’s even more critical not to push them away. It’s difficult enough to minimize confirmation bias in our tech-dominated worlds.
Admittedly, it is more pleasing to converse with those with similar worldviews. But I experience a different kind of joy when speaking to those with vastly contrasting ones.
4. Get into the habit of seeking to understand the incentive structures of the system.
Seek out the multitude of root causes, rather than flogging the symptoms. Having read this essay, you’re on a good path.
“It’s not the media’s role to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. It is upon us consumers to realize that news is not very useful for understanding the world.” – Factfulness, Hans Rosling
5. Understand what kinds of stories spreads further and faster.
Hint: it’s often not the most important ones.
Remember the Myanmar fitness instructor story?
A gloomy conclusion is the sad reality that most cared more about the meme than what’s happening within it.
But a more optimistic, while equally rational, conclusion is that thanks to this meme, Myanmar news ha spread further than it otherwise might have.
Side note: History has shown us that dictatorships are generally shit for humanity. Be on right side of history. Support the legitimate, democratically elected government by donating here.
“This business of journalism is about pure entertainment, not the search for the truth.” – Nassim Taleb
The dance between truth and entertainment is an age old one.
Fun funds it, truth rides it.
It has always been that way, and it will likely stay that way.
So it is on us to become smarter consumers.
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If you enjoyed this, you may also like:
Common Knowledge: Why I Stopped Avoiding the Mass Media
This Person Does Not Exist: Deep Fakes and Synthetic Truth
False Dichotomies: An Antidote to Lose-Lose Situations