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