The Signal In The NoiseFake News, Communication, Technology, and Advertisement.
Although the term fake news has been around for a while, it’s now ubiquitous. It falls under the umbrella of a larger malady society seems to be facing: misinformation and disinformation. Misleading headlines, stories that never happened, and extreme caricatures of real events. They all seem to have the same root cause, and both sides of the aisle think they’re a huge problem. Politics, at least in the United States, has never been more partisan; it’s getting more hateful, and it’s getting less honest.
Events like Zuckerberg’s congressional scolding, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Twitter’s ban on political advertisements consistently make headlines. The public is starting to call for action: government regulation and #deletefacebook. That misses the signal for the noise. Breaking up large tech companies or avoiding a specific platform won’t return discourse to a healthier state. They aren’t what caused this.
Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene," and it’s an excellent way to look at fake news. We’re not talking about the modern usage relating to the internet; we’re talking about a more general concept: a meme is an idea or behavior that spreads among people. Dawkins argues that memes evolve in a nearly identical fashion to biological evolution.
An idea must reproduce to be successful. On the internet, this means a share, but more generally, it means the idea gets communicated to another human being. Each time it does, the idea inherits most aspects of the original but can also mutate. If the idea isn’t that effective, it can go extinct. On the flipside, mutations can change it over time to become more virulent.
Unfortunately, the most extreme versions of content get shared the most. People don’t see something milquetoast and have an overwhelming urge to share or retweet with their comments. They only do so when it incites an emotion, be it anger or happiness. CGPGrey has a great video explaining this effect. As such, viral content is rarely the whole truth.
Technology & Bandwidth
The rate at which society communicates today is unlike anything ever seen in history. The most disruptive event in the history of communication (at least prior to the internet) was the printing press in the 15th century. Even hundreds of years after, the number of books printed in the 1700s was only around 600,000,000 in an entire century. It’s so little information when juxtaposed with the internet that it’s hardly comparable.
Consider a moderately lengthy book. For the sake of argument, we’ll use a bible: a book which is less than half a megabyte of ASCII text. Based on that, in the 1700s the world was printing about 300,000 terabytes of data a year. The monthly total internet traffic was 122 exabytes per month in 2017, according to Cisco. Some rough math gives us 170,000 terabytes per hour. More data than all 18th century books is being transmitted in 2 hours. People are communicating more than they ever have.
Turns out ads are pretty lucrative. Most of the profit Google, Facebook, and Twitter generate is from advertisement. Digital ad revenue hit $100 billion in 2018. And what does a company need to sell ads? Your attention.
How do these companies get that attention? By optimizing to keep you on their platform. This isn’t inherently evil; it’s no different than a car company trying to sell more cars, but it means people are spending a lot of time on these platforms. On average, people spend over 2 hours a day on social media. That’s a lot of time to evolve virulent memes.
Why It’s Here to Stay
Given the facts about bandwidth, advertisement, and the theory about memes, where does that leave us? We’ve got a system that couldn’t possibly be better set up for incubating, optimizing, and spreading misinformation to human eyeballs. No one knows what’s true anymore, and even the more prudent inevitably form some opinions based on nonsense.
The technology isn’t going anywhere; it acts like a ratchet. It’s too useful. Once it exists, it doesn’t matter if we stop using Facebook. Another platform will take its place because it's so lucrative and entertaining.
High-throughput communication is like a brick on the gas pedal for idea evolution. Memes mutate and spread so fast that the most extreme version is almost inevitably created and shared in short order, and ends up trending on a platform, spreading to millions.
The platforms that let us share this content are completely built on the huge sums of money made from advertising, and if they try to stop tailoring content to what people like, users won’t spend as much time on their services, so they’ll lose money.
Our situation isn’t because Facebook is evil or a certain grey mammal lies and yours doesn’t. This is an emergent property of human psychology and high-bandwidth, low-latency global communication, and we’ve never seen anything like it. We don’t yet know how to handle it as a species.
What can we do about it?
I don’t know of a clear solution to this problem. The internet isn’t going away, nor is online advertising; they’ve become cornerstones of modern life. Human psychology likely won’t help either; this problem comes from low-level evolutionary psychology and takes thousands of years to change.
The answer may lie in what science communicators like Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson have been saying for years: education.
As citizens, we need a deep understanding of research. We need to know that a news report on a study doesn’t mean much. We need a clear understanding of the scientific method, logical fallacies, and all the ways our brain can trick us. It may be the only way humanity gets out of this mess, and with apocalyptic threats on the horizon our future may depend on it.