Category Archives: Media

Fighting Bias and Misinformation, from Pierre Bayle’s 17th Century to the Social Media Age

Many people insist that media bias and misinformation are getting worse in the social media age, and we need to do something about it. Depending on whether one leans Democratic or Republican, tech companies are either not doing enough to stop right-wing misinformation from spreading, or are censoring legitimate conservative content. Some conservatives feel so aggrieved they are even pushing to revive the fairness doctrine, which they used to oppose.

Bias and misinformation are impossible to measure, which puts a rather obvious damper on peoples’ certainty about them. Ironically, this is at least partially because of the human brain’s built-in biases, such as recency bias, availability bias, and pessimistic bias. In fact, media bias and misinformation are nothing new, and have likely gotten neither better nor worse over time.

These problems have been around so long that the 17th century philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote in an issue of his 1680s periodical Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters):

“History is dished up very much like meat. Each nation and religion takes the same raw facts and dresses them in a sauce of its own taste, and each reader finds them true or false according to whether they agree or disagree with his prejudices.”

More than 300 years later, this holds up well. And it’s not just with history. People also put their own tastes on current events. Different people take identical facts and prepare them differently, usually in line with whatever their ideological priors are.

Just being aware that everyone does this can go a long way toward minimizing the harmful effects of bias and misinformation. Beyond awareness, there are also many simple, low-effort actions one can take, some of which Bayle might endorse if he were alive today:

  • Avoid cable news channels. They do not inform people, so much as get them riled up. People who feel outraged click on more articles, keep the TV on, and generate more ad revenue. Outlets encourage this by framing news stories as us-vs.-them struggles first, and only secondarily by presenting information. These are two very different things! Learn to tell them apart. If you find yourself getting outraged over something a personality figure from the other political party said, or about the culture war story of the day, that’s usually a good sign that you’re getting riled up rather than informed. There are better uses for your time, and for your blood pressure.
  • Purge low-quality sources from your social media feeds (or abstain entirely). Use those mute and block buttons on people who post low-quality content that does not add value to your feed. That’s your space, and you can curate it however you want. If someone’s posts are mostly outrage stories, your social media feed will likely be both more enjoyable and more informative if they are not part of it. Spend some real-life time with that person instead, which will likely elicit better social etiquette. People are more considerate of others when they are face to face rather than venting their spleen, alone, into a keyboard.
  • Put a little effort into statistical literacy, and be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true stories that appeal to your ideological priors. Arming yourself with the right tools is as easy as picking up a layman-friendly book or two. Financial Times columnist and BBC presenter (and friend of CEI) Tim Harford’s latest book, The Data Detective, is an excellent guide that is also a delight to read. I also recommend Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed earlier on this blog. Jonathan Rauch’s new book The Constitution of Knowledge has a lot wisdom, which he also shared earlier this year at a CEI online event. My colleague Iain Murray strongly recommends his old boss’ book, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality. Reading a chapter a day from any of these books is a far better use of 30 minutes than getting outraged over Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow’s latest rant.
  • Keep an eye on the longer arcs of history, not just today’s ephemeraElizabeth Nolan Brown’s recent Reason article “40 Ways Things Are Getting Better” is one example of journalism that gets this. There are plenty of reasons for short-term pessimism; that keep groups like CEI busy. But there is also a strong case for long-run optimism. Both can simultaneously be true, as CEI founder Fred Smith captured in his “Despairing Optimist” letters. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and his new book How Innovation Works, for which he also did a CEI event, are immensely helpful for seeing the big picture.

Notice that none of these strategies involve government regulating political speech. They are all ideas that you and I can implement right now; change begins at home. Ultimately, individuals hold power over bias and misinformation, not the other way around. We should learn to use that power wisely, and not delegate it away to Washington, where it will get politicized and misused. It takes some effort, which is why many people don’t bother. But the payoff is worth it.

Pierre Bayle had a good sense of this dynamic. He was an important bridge figure between the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—which means he helped to inspire modernity as we know it. He emphasized the virtues of tolerance and skepticism by individuals, in part because he was forced into exile from his native France over his religious beliefs. He settled in the more tolerant Netherlands, where he produced works in astronomy, philosophy, religion, literature, and even produced the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), an early encyclopedia that predated Denis Diderot’s more famous 1751 Encyclopédie by 60 years. France’s outrage-induced loss was the Netherlands’ gain, and ours.

We live in better times. But the lessons Bayle took from his day’s outrage culture are still useful in dealing with today’s excesses. Times change, but people are people, wherever you go. That is mostly to the good—though as we see in the news and on social media, not entirely. There is always reason for optimism, if we know how to look for and act on it.

Facebook’s Content Moderation Decisions Preferable to One-Size-Fits-All Government Regulation

This news release was originally posted on cei.org.

Facebook announced today it suspended former President Donald Trump from the platform for two years retroactive to January 7, 2021. Responding to a ruling against the former president’s indefinite suspension from its own Oversight Board, the social network also laid out policies for how it would treat content moderation of posts by public officials.

Director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin said:

“People who value freedom of speech should be encouraged a private entity like Facebook is attempting to deal with thorny issues about what is and is not permissible speech on their own, without heavy-handed and rigid government regulation. Facebook is under pressure from both sides of the ideological spectrum to enact very different policies toward content moderation and are faced with novel challenges presented by the billions of user-generated post shared on their platform daily. No decision will make everyone happy.

“While it is curious Facebook chose to respond to the Oversight Board’s decision five months early, dealing with these issues without government coercion will allow Facebook to institute policies in line with its own values while not imposing their own content moderation standards on other platforms, as would happen with a one-size-fits-all federal regulatory approach.

“The former president might be suspended from Facebook for two years, but that is not the same as being ‘censored’ or ‘silenced.’ He is still free to make public statements, appear on television and radio, hold rallies, or join other social networks. The government compelling Facebook to carry speech with which it disagrees would be the real threat to free speech.

“Facebook has every right to curate their product as they choose, just as consumers have every right to use a different social media platform with content moderation and community standards more in line with their own.”

CEI senior fellow Ryan Young said:

“What is the right way to deal with malicious, incendiary, or fake content? Nobody knows—and that’s the point. Facebook doesn’t know. President Trump doesn’t know. Nor do Republicans and Democrats in Congress. We are in the middle of a discovery process right now. Maybe Facebook made the right call to ban President Trump from its platforms for two years after his remarks about the January 6 Capitol riots. Maybe they didn’t. Not only does nobody have the correct answer, there likely isn’t a single correct answer.

“What we need is an ongoing process of trial and error, where individuals and companies discover which norms, institutions, and policies will help to slow the spread of misinformation on social media while giving people space to express themselves. Washington is not the place to look to for leadership here. People are already coming up with multiple competing approaches to content moderation. As people try them out, tinker with them, discard them, or improve them, the results will be far better than whatever uniform, politically motivated policy Congress would write down in stone.”

Next week, CEI is holding a book forum for Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” Join us on Wednesday, June 9 at 12:00pm ET. RSVP here.

Economics Can Help Explain Conspiracy Theorists

There is a lot of conspiracy theory garbage floating around. On January 6, it took a violent turn. Five people died in a coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol, over obviously false claims of a stolen election. It is important to understand what causes this behavior in order to prevent future violence, and to prevent a future breakdown of liberal institutions. Over at Fortune, I explain that a little bit of basic price theory can improve our understanding:

If you think of irrationality as a consumer good, much like a car or a television, you can better understand why people sometimes say and do crazy things. Think of it like this: People buy more cars and televisions when they are cheap, and fewer when they are expensive. 

This logic applies to conspiracy theories.

Read the whole thing here. For readers interested in further exploring the economics and evolutionary psychology of conspiracy theories, I recommend Bryan Caplan’s book Myth of the Rational Voter and Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain.

Politics by Meme

Here is a political meme that has been making the rounds on social media:

No photo description available.

I agree with this one of this meme’s main points–the federal government spends too much on corporate welfare. But its numbers are way off.

  • The biggest tax most $50,000 earners pay is the 15.3 percent FICA tax, which pays for Social Security and Medicare. That’s $7,650 on a $50,000 income, and it isn’t in the meme’s list.
  • Medicare, at 2.9 percentage points of the 15.3% FICA tax, costs $1,450 on a $50,000 income, not $235.81–plus premiums, if applicable. The meme is wrong here by more than six-fold. Not six percent, six-fold.
  • Spending $4,000 on corporate welfare implies that about 8 percent of national income goes to corporate welfare, or about $1.7 trillion. The actual figure is likely between $100 and $200 billion–a precise figure is impossible due to a lack of government transparency, and disagreements over definitions. Even allowing for substantial wiggle room, here the meme is off by as much as 10-fold. That is an entire order of magnitude.
  • A $50,000 earner spending $247.75 on military spending implies a military that spends more than $1 trillion. That is about $300 billion higher than the actual figure. The meme is wrong here by almost half. Though to be fair, much military spending is corporate welfare, and is unnecessary for national security besides.

Again, this meme makes a point I agree with about corporate welfare. It confirms my priors. But it does so dishonestly. Its numbers are wrong, often by multiples. And its errors all favor the point it tries to make. That one-sided tilt means its mistakes are probably not just random error. Whoever made it is hurting a good cause.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Politics-by-meme is harmful. Do not engage in it. Political memes are as bad as cable news. Their numbers are often dodgy. Their primary accomplishments are feeding confirmation bias while intensifying people’s unhealthy tribal tendencies to affirm one’s in-group affiliation while vilifying out-groups. Political memes add heat without light at a time when the opposite approach is badly needed.

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

Grant finally settles the question of how to pronounce Walter Bagehot’s name (BADGE-it). Maddeningly, he does not do this until the end of the book, leaving the reader unsure to pronounce it in their head for more than 300 pages. Even so, he has written an excellent biography of Bagehot, a prominent 19th-century English banker and economist who favored free trade. He was not the founder of The Economist, though he became its longtime editor and made the newspaper (actually a magazine) into the prominent, and generally classically liberal publication it remains today.

At times Grant seems more interested in the history of English banking than in his ostensible subject, and at times the text bogs down because of it. But he still finds the time to give a good sense of what Bagehot was like as a person. His family life was mostly happy, though not entirely so. He also worked long hours at a frenetic pace, often writing 5,000 words or more per week, every week, on a wide variety of topics. This was in addition to editing and managing a newspaper, commissioning articles, and trying to have some semblance of a home life.

Unlike some of the grandiose, difficult personalities whose biographies I’ve been reading lately (Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, Jay Gould, et al), Bagehot seems to have been a good person. He was overworked and often frazzled, but he was a decent family man and didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, outsize ego, or a need to create drama.

Grant also puts Bagehot in his place as an important figure in the birth of modern finance, journalism, and economics; Bagehot had a place in all three. Only with the beginnings of the industrial revolution did the population become wealthy enough to support full-time journalists. Before, say, Samuel Johnson, writers typically required aristocratic support. They also wrote for a mainly aristocratic audience, spoke to their concerns, and often echoed their points of view. They also did not produce fresh product every week.

Johnson was one of the first to write for a lay audience, and one of the first to make a living from them. This meant smaller per-copy revenues, made up for by selling more copies. This required the ability to print at an industrial scale, and a large middle class that can afford pamphlets and newspapers. This stage of economic development also required modern finance to capitalize. Bagehot began as just such a banker, became a journalist struggling to generate enough copy to print The Economist regularly enough to pay the bills, and to sell it to as many subscribers as possible. Even in London, the financial capital of the world, Bagehot could only wrangle a few thousand subscribers.

Bagehot was also one of the most prolific and eloquent voices in the era’s defining economic debate—free trade vs. protectionism. Bagehot took the free-trade side alongside Richard Cobden and John Bright, and it is for this that Bagehot is chiefly remembered today. The Economist, which more than a century later flourishes on a global scale, still retains Bagehot’s mostly market-liberal editorial voice, and even has a weekly column named after him. In today’s tide of rising tide of protectionism, nationalism, and populism, the world could use more Bagehots advocating for free trade in both quality and quantity.

Don’t Trust Political Memes, and Don’t Share Them

Think of this post as a public service message.

In some ways, memes are the 21st century version of the comic strip or the political cartoon. They can be quite funny, and they make their point in just a second or two. Memes have been a boon for comic-strip-style humor. Someone needs to fill the void left by Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and a lot of people have ably volunteered. Anyone with a joke and basic computer skills can make a funny meme, and millions of people can share the fun. National distributors no longer serve as gatekeepers and censors, allowing some unique talents to shine that would have remained dark just a decade or two ago. This has been a wonderful development.

But for many reasons, political memes are typically riddled with factual errors and offer little more than confirmation bias. They should be shunned, not shared.

Here is a quick statistics lesson from one political meme I saw making the rounds recently. That’s not to pick on this meme specifically. There are millions like it, just as bad, floating around the Internet. This is just one I happened to see, though I should note that Turning Point USA has a poor reputation, even by its genre’s low standards.

Also keep in mind that this meme is on the correct side of its issue. Imagine how wrong the wrong ones can be! As Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Here is the meme:

turning point meme

Here is a list of things it gets wrong.

1: This meme is undated and cites no sources.

2: There is no publication titled “World Economic Freedom Index.”

3: For indexes that do exist, their data do not go back 60 years. They go back to 1970 for the Fraser/Cato index, and 1995 for the Heritage/WSJ index.

4: Venezuela does rank 179th in the 2018 Heritage/WSJ index. But it gives no rankings from roughly 60 years ago. If the 4th place figure comes from a different index, that is not a valid apples-to-apples comparison. But we don’t know where that figure comes from. None is cited. Google doesn’t turn one up, either. For all we know, some intern could have just made it up, and now people are sharing it.

5: Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998. His brand of socialism was 14 years old when Turning Point USA was founded in 2012, not 10 years before this undated meme was created.

That’s five errors in one meme that took less than ten minutes to dig up. That says more about Turning Point USA and political memes in general than it does about Venezuela’s ongoing tragedy.

Don’t trust unsourced political memes, don’t share them, and take people who heavily rely on them as seriously as they deserve–even, or especially, if they share your ideological priors.

Breaking News

The Hill: John Bolton: ‘I will not be shaving my mustache’

Breaking News

Politico: Trump says he will hold press conference soon

A Really Slow News Day

Headlines from some of today’s most-read stories at Politico:

Bo Obama turns 7! A look inside the first dog’s fetching life

The GOP Is Throwing Away Millions of Dollars
(trillions is more accurate – ed.)

And one story that would make for a rather speedier news day if the headline was literally true:

Chris Christie returns from the dead

The Politics of SpongeBob

Spongebob-squarepants
Two unrelated news stories caught my eye this morning that capture the depth of today’s political discourse. The first is a Politico story explaining, apparently in all seriousness, why SpongeBob Squarepants is becoming a Republican icon. In the name of balance, the story even includes a negative quote from Al Sharpton, presented without irony.

In the second story, a wit presented HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius with a copy of Websites for Dummies at an event, as a tactful reminder of the difficulties her department has had getting various insurance exchange websites to work properly.

This is why I work in policy, and not politics.