Information Monopolies

Fake news is not new. I think the recent clamor about it is just a result of a previous political establishment having been usurped by a new coalition of news media and politicians and the information monopolies that profit with off their rise. Advertising based pseudo-curated content platforms like Facebook and Google have made it possible to target far more individuals far more accurately than ever before. Those in politics who have best taken advantage of this are the ones winning the elections. I’m not saying that Breitbart and co. are scheming geniuses who’ve cracked social media, but rather that social media selected them. Far right conspiracy blogs and news sites aren’t new. Drudge Report started in 1995 as an email-based news blog. Breitbart launched over ten years ago. It just happened that as Facebook and Google pivoted from being personal profiles and hyperlink based search results to platforms that can show us everything we “want”, even before we know we “want” it. Google search and Google news display news based on proprietary magic whatever Google thinks you want to read, or thinks you should read, or gives them the most advertising revenue. Facebook has also aggressively shifted towards showing us the news and more and more “sponsored” content mixed in with the things our friends actually post. As Ethan Zuckerman writes, Facebook denies that it is a publisher yet it clearly is curating content and not giving users any real choices regarding what they see (users can’t modify what type of content the algorithms select for, they can only block specific pages/profiles).

A novel feature of today’s fake news is that different people believe in different lies. In the good old days vast majorities of Americas were caught up in the fake news’ web. Before the invasion of Iraq, 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein played a direct role in the 9/11 attack. There were no such links nor reason to think so. 40% of Americans still think that the US discovered active weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq, they hadn’t. Heck, in 1876 Western Union, the telegraph monopoly and the Associated Press, the only wire service that was allowed to use Western Union’s lines coordinated to suppress negative news and further positive news about their chosen candidate for president, Rutherford B. Hayes [Tim Wu]. Comparatively, only 10% of Americans believe that there is strong evidence that Obama was born outside the US.

But why Trump? Hayes was Western Union’s candidate, but I doubt Trump was Google’s and Facebook’s. Rather I think that Facebook and Google care primarily about advertising sales, preventing federal regulation and tax evasion; i.e. profits. In response to the election and the spread of fake news, both companies have promised to stop it by improving their proprietary magic algorithms and filter out fake news. The benevolent monopolists in Mountain View and Menlo Park feel that they have a civic obligation (or financial need to appear to be civic minded…) to stop the spread of lies. This is like Western Union and AP promising never to manipulate another election, without giving up their monopolies. The problem is that big tech’s ability to manipulate individuals (voters) has grown so great that it is inherently a threat to democracy. Elections are won by the side that figures out how to best rig the system (news media not necessarily ballot boxes) and manipulate the most voters. Truth be damned.

Obama had big data, JFK had makeup, Roosevelt had the radio, Hayes had the telegraph and Luther had the printing press. Some of these examples are more spectacular than others, but all show a similar trend; new communication technologies reward those best able to use them and disrupt the previous elite. These upsets aren’t necessarily the work of single politicians, the Daily Mail began publishing misinformation since at least the start of the 20th century without being connected to any single prime minister. More tabloids followed and supported both Labour and the Conservatives in sensational fashion. Cable news networks like Fox have unarguably had major impacts on US politics.

The key difference between historical fake news and the modern version is that it has become decentralized. There’s no one person to blame and no one clear motive. I think this is a result of two changes, the generally decentralizing effect of the internet and a loss of trust in large entities. That the internet has allowed more people to create content that can reach arbitrarily large audiences far more easily than before is well documented. Anyone who can use the internet can write a blog or start an online tabloid complete with all caps headlines and retouched photos. The loss of trust in large entities is based on empirical measurements that Ethan Zuckerman points out in his election postmortem. If people don’t trust traditional news sources, companies or governments, then it’s hardly surprising that alternatives sources will gain more attention. Perhaps I’m just an actor in this general trend, but I don’t think any of these institutions deserve anyone’s trust, at least not trust that they are working in our best interests. I’ve never understood why anyone would trust a president’s administration or a newspaper except out of willful ignorance (life’s easier when you just trust ’em). Zuckerman also notes that trust in institutions does not correlate to interpersonal trust; Sweden is an example of a country with high levels of interpersonal trust and low trust in institutions. Sweden generally seems like a pretty healthy democracy. I can’t prove that that not trusting institutions strengthens democracy, but trusting them seems awfully ignorant. Every administration has told its lies and every newspaper has at some point lost touch with its mission (remember that time the New York Times waited until after the election and then some to say that Bush was tapping our phones without warrants?). Wikileaks, the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and Snowden have shown how governments, companies, business people and leaders all over have skirted their duties, hidden their crimes and lied under oath.

These may not be the reasons why the average person distrusts institutions, but I bet everyone has their own reasons, and just like mine, they will be largely correct if somewhat opportunistic and politically motivated. I have not suggested a single solution or remedy. I’m not sure what could be done and what would work. The one thing I’m fairly certain about is that the big tech monopolies must be broken up or regulated as common carriers. Zuckerman says Facebook should allow users control the filters that dictate the content they see. Facebook will not want to do this because too many users will filter out the ads (although they could still appear on the side). The wonderful thing about government is that it can force companies to comply. Strict regulation may be the only option.


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