Curiosity is our product

A few weeks ago I facilitated a discussion on ‘advocacy in a post-truth era’ at the European Digital Rights Initiative’s annual general assembly. And last night I was part of a discussion on fake news at a behaviour design meetup in Amsterdam. This was a good occasion to pull together some of my notes and figure out what I think is true about the ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

There is plenty of good writing out there exploring the history and current state of post-truth political culture.

Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and Michael Gove’s “I think people have had enough of experts” are just two examples of the right’s appropriation of what I would call epistemological relativism. Post-modernism was fun while it worked to advance our leftist agenda. But now that the tables are turned we’re not enjoying it quite as much anymore, are we?

Part of the fact-free politics playbook goes back at least as far as big tobacco’s efforts to discredit the anti-smoking lobby. “Doubt is our product” still applies to modern day reactionary movements such as climate change deniers and anti-vaxers.

The double whammy of news industry commercialisation and internet platform consolidation has created fertile ground for coordinated efforts by various groups to turn the sowing of doubt all the way up to eleven.

There is Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” which sends a high volume of messages across a wide range of channels with total disregard for truth or even consistency in a rapid, continuous and repetitive fashion. They seem to be having fun destabilising western democracies — including the Netherlands — without any apparent end-goal in mind.

And then there is the outrage marketing leveraged by trolls both minor and major. Pissing off mainstream media builds an audience on the fringes and in the underground. Journalists are held hostage by figures such as Milo because they depend on stories that trigger strong emotions for distribution, eyeballs, clicks and ultimately revenue.

So, given all of this, what is to be done? First some bad news. Facts, the weapon of choice for liberals, don’t appear to work. This is empirically evident from recent events, but it also appears to be borne out by psychology.

Facts are often more complicated than the untruths they are supposed to counter. It is also easier to remember a simple lie than a complicated truth. Complicating matters further, facts tend to be boring. Finally, and most interestingly, there is something called the ‘backfire effect’: we become more entrenched in our views when confronted with contradicting facts, because they are threatening to our group identities.

More bad news. Given the speed at which falsehoods spread through our networks, fact-checking is useless. Fact-checking is after-the-fact-checking. Worse, when media fact-check falsehoods on their front pages they are simply providing even more airtime to them. From a strategic perspective, when you debunk, you allow yourself to be captured by your opponent’s frame, and you’re also on the defensive. In Boydian terms you are caught in their OODA loop, when you should be working to take back the initiative, and you should be offering an alternative narrative.

I am not hopeful mainstream media will save us from these dynamics given the realities of the business models they operate inside of. Journalists inside of these organisations are typically overworked, just holding on for dear life and churning out stories at a rapid clip. In short, there is no time to orient and manoeuvre. For bad-faith actors, they are sitting ducks.

What about literacy? If only people knew about churnalism, the attention economy, and filter bubbles ‘they’ would become immune to the lies peddled by reactionaries and return to the liberal fold. Personally I find these claims highly unconvincing not to mention condescending.

My current working theory is that we, all of us, buy into the stories that activate one or more of our group identities, regardless of wether they are fact-based or outright lies. This is called ‘motivated reasoning’. Since this is a fact of psychology, we are all susceptible to it, including liberals who are supposedly defenders of fact-based reasoning.

Seriously though, what about literacy? I’m sorry, no. There is evidence that scientific literacy actually increases polarisation. Motivated reasoning trumps factual knowledge you may have. The same research shows however that curiosity in turn trumps motivated reasoning. The way I understand the distinction between literacy and curiosity is that the former is about knowledge while the latter is about attitude. Motivated reasoning isn’t counteracted by knowing stuff, but by wanting to know stuff.

This is a mixed bag. Offering facts is comparatively easy. Sparking curiosity requires storytelling which in turn requires imagination. If we’re presented with a fact we are not invited to ask questions. However, if we are presented with questions and those questions are wrapped up in stories that create emotional stakes, some of the views we hold might be destabilised.

In other words, if doubt is the product peddled by our opponents, then we should start trafficking in curiosity.

Further reading