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

Week 169

Fiona Raby once told me that the majority of her work with students at the RCA was about psychology. After a week like this, I can see where she’s coming from. Without going into too much detail, I had my work cut out for me with a new group of students who I will be working with on a design research project at the HKU. After a first meeting with the team and a kick-off with the client the next day, it became clear I was dealing with a group with some serious motivational issues. The trick was to figure out where it all was coming from. To do this it was vital to try and see things as they really are in stead of as they were presented to me by the group. After several additional sessions (messing with my schedule but that comes with the territory) I had it figured out more or less and have formulated a plan to deal with it. Psychology.

In between all that craziness my week consisted of:

  • Working with my two new interns at Hubbub. We reflected on their experiences at the Natural Networking Festival and presented a post-mortem of the first game to Thieu after attending one of the Learning Lab meetups.
  • Sketching out additions to the PLAY Pilots website necessary to support the Zesbaans installation for the Netherlands Film Festival. These will launch next week in time for the installation’s unveiling on Thursday.
  • Presenting my preliminary list of interactive works suitable for next year’s Tweetakt festival. This is my first time curating an event other than This happened. I am keen to mash up playful interaction design with the fringes of game design and it seems Tweetakt are up for it too. Happy days.
  • Another full day of work on Maguro. Best part of which was a few quiet hours to bang out a first playable paper prototype of the game. Convergence is a bitch but always rewarding when it happens.
  • Today, I hung out at BUROPONY and took care of a few odds and ends for their website. In return work has started on a last bit of Hubbub corporate identity: a design for the box to hold our business-slash-collectible playing cards.

And with that I am signing off. A train is taking me from Rotterdam to Utrecht, perhaps I will be in time to catch the tail end of friday drinks at the Dutch Game Garden. Never a dull moment there.