Jul 27, 2020

What Will Be the Next Information Filter?

Contemporary media must better respond to consumer needs and preferences
Vaughn Bryan Baltzly

The creation and dissemination of information has always been controlled by filters—that is, various cultural, institutional, and technological forces that determine who creates information, who receives it, and the means by which it is transmitted. Until roughly 500 years ago, at least in the West, the information ecosystem was dominated by what might be called the literacy filter. In other words, the “filter” determining which ideas governed our minds and mores was based on the ability to read and write. During the Middle Ages, for instance, priests could read the Bible and you couldn’t, so you had to listen to what they told you. They told you what to believe and how to live and worship, and you had to comply; nothing less than the eternal fate of your soul was at stake.

But in the 15th century, we experienced an information revolution with the invention of the movable-type printing press. The availability of affordable, reliable printed texts, and the ability to disseminate them broadly, created stronger incentives for literacy. With more widespread literacy, “the masses” were no longer beholden to the small slice of society that was formerly regarded as expert and authoritative—the (priestly) “literate elite”—to tell them what the Bible said. People could read the Scriptures for themselves. And, plausibly, as a result we got inter alia, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, liberalism, democracy, popular sovereignty, capitalism and (what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls) “the Great Enrichment,” and so forth.

Printing also led to a new filter—call it the publication filter. Many could read but few could publish, so the filter determining which ideas governed our minds and mores was the ability to get one’s ideas into print. Various institutions began to take on the role of publication filters and to determine who did (and did not) get to use the printed word as a platform. The church continued to play this role, but so too did other institutions like the academy, the government, and, beginning in the 17th century, mass media. Our minds and mores were largely governed by the ideas that these publication filters deemed (to co-opt the Gray Lady’s slogan) “fit to print.”

It is plain to see, however, that we are currently in the midst of a new revolution in our information ecosystem, one that might prove just as radical and disruptive as Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The internet—and particularly social media—has overthrown the age of the publication filter: now anyone can “publish” anything. The old filters—partly owing to this very fact, and partly owing to failed responses to this fact—are proving to be ineffective in their former role. And so we stand at the dawn of a new era: one in which the governance of our information ecosystem comes down, not to which ideas get published, but to which ideas get spread.

The natural or default equilibrium in this new information ecosystem is that ideas spread according to their virality. Ideas and intellectual fashions (what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first coined in his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene as “memes”) will spread to the extent that their published versions are simple, catchy, robust, and, well, welcome: the extent to which they flatter us, tell us what we already want to hear, give us permission to believe what we already wish to believe, or excuse us from believing what we already want to disbelieve, and so forth. This is not a desirable long-term equilibrium, to say the least.

But if virality-as-predictor-of-widespread-uptake is not a desirable info-ecological principle, what might supplant it as the principal determinant of an idea’s evolutionary fitness? It’s tempting at this point to long for the emergence of a new class of “gatekeepers”—individuals or institutions of good conscience and goodwill who can stamp their seal of approval on the “good” ideas and consign all the “bad” ideas to the wasteland outside the garden of acceptable discourse. And this is a natural impulse since the past millennium’s different epochs all saw the filtering role played by just such actors—parties that had decision-making power over which ideas were permitted to circulate and who leveraged that power to the fullest (whether for good or for ill).

However, we may have to adjust ourselves to the notion that our next great information filter will be . . . us. We, collectively, may have to take on the role of the next millennium’s filter, the Internet Age’s gatekeepers. Now this might sound an awful lot like a disguised version of “There won’t any longer be a filter” or “Virality actually will be the only feature influencing an idea’s spread.” But allow me to explain a vision of tomorrow’s information ecosystem in which we might have genuine “collective gatekeeping” or “crowdsourced filtering.”

I believe that our filtering process can and must become democratized. And here I use “democratic” in the broadest possible sense of the term, a sense in which the marketplace is as much (perhaps even more) an expression of the demos as are the governance institutions of a large republic. So let me sketch for you a way that market forces—which is to say, in an important respect, democratic forces—might shape a more responsible information ecosystem. I focus my discussion specifically on media institutions. This is partly owing to space constraints—speculation about, for example, the academy’s path forward would require a separate essay. But mostly it’s because the failings of the media in recent years would seemingly pose the most compelling argument against my thesis.

For isn’t mass media’s recent abdication of its gatekeeper role a glaring example of the incompatibility of, on the one hand, responsible stewardship of the information ecosystem and, on the other hand, the “commercial imperative” on which I’m pinning my hopes in this essay? Surprisingly, the answer here I believe is “no”: if the profit motive were tied more directly to supplying customers with high-quality journalism, then we would likely observe greater adherence to the standards of journalistic integrity than we see today. However, as matters have recently evolved, there is a disconnect (at least for many of our larger, national organs) between media organizations’ primary products and their profits.

It’s important to recognize one reason why major media organizations have (as more and more people—even some “on the inside”—seemingly believe) sacrificed journalistic ethics and integrity as a consequence of their for-profit, commercial nature: it’s that, increasingly, they seem to be selling, not reporting or journalism, but rather advertising. True, journalism has always been supported by advertising, and newspapers and magazines (unless state-controlled) have always been businesses. But what seems to have changed in recent years is the advent of a symbiotic relationship between mainstream media and social media—a relationship that has increased mainstream media’s pursuit of advertising dollars in ways that are not wholly salutary.

Social media users’ shares, posts and tweets of mainstream outlets’ pieces generate page views, and page views generate advertising revenue. Here I’m not simply making the familiar charge regarding so-called clickbait (though in truth, it does seem that the major media outlets’ digital headlines have grown far more “clickbaity” in recent years). Rather, I’m alleging that the content is often crafted with an eye toward its potential virality. Notice that your garden-variety clickbait never gets shared. When was the last time you saw a friend or colleague post or retweet something like “30 celebrities who have regular 9-to-5 jobs”?

It’s not that mainstream media outlets are in the clickbait business. Rather, major media players have (and seem to be responding to) incentives to generate content that will maximize shares on social media. When was the last time you saw a friend or colleague endorse or otherwise commend to your attention, via social media, a major media outlet’s reporting or opinion piece? In all likelihood, was it not just a few moments ago?

Facebook, Twitter, and the like supply the media with a massive distribution channel for their content. The esteem in which you regard the other members of your social network, and reciprocally their esteem for you, is a small portion of an enormous “web of credibility” that these media outlets have been able to hack. The more their content plays to your partisan and tribal loyalties, and the more it satisfies and stokes your thirst for righteous indignation—in short, the more “optimized for virality” it is—the more likely you are to spend some small measure of your own personal credibility in an effort to get your Facebook friends and Twitter followers to read it.

Social media, in other words, has become the greatest shortcut to maximizing legacy media’s monetized clicks that's ever been invented. None of this is to ascribe deliberate or nefarious intent to those positioned to influence news content, of course. But if the incentives are there (and they sure seem to be), then it’s a safe bet that the actions and decisions of reporters and editors will eventually respond to those incentives, one way or the other.

However, if media outlets were to stake their commercial success more directly on the quality of their journalistic output rather than on their ability to generate (social-media-enabled) page views, then the incentive structures would change, and behaviors would likely modify accordingly. Insofar as there is robust public demand for responsible, accurate reporting—which is to say, responsible filtering and gatekeeping—then news organizations would profit and flourish roughly in proportion to their ability to deliver the desired product. True, the resulting media ecosystem would surely remain far from perfect—there would still be some residual incentive to sell news by subtly flattering readers’ and viewers’ vanities—but it’s likely the best we can expect, and it would certainly seem to be an improvement over today’s status quo.

At this point, some might object that this model renders the quality of journalism too dependent on the public’s own appetite and standards for journalistic quality and integrity. Maybe so—but it’s worth noting that that same dependence characterizes the provision of literally everything provided in our market economy. We get quality engineering and craftsmanship in our automobiles only to the extent consumers demand it. We get quality and variety in our food only to the extent people want culinary quality and variety.

And indeed, the marketplace indulges a variety of tastes: we have fast food, but we also have haute cuisine and everything in between. Similar market dynamics, were they to truly govern the marketplace for news (and not by merely indirectly governing it, which is what happens when media outlets seek to maximize advertising revenue by monetizing page views) would likely yield a media ecosystem featuring a variety of outlets with varying levels of quality. But discerning customers would know, at least, that there’s something on offer for them.

Additionally, market dynamics might eventually generate a more robust “certification market” than the one we see currently. That is, we might see a greater prominence afforded to those organizations (whether nonprofit or for-profit) whose mission is to serve as “media watchdogs” and to grade various major media outlets in terms of their adherence to best practices and relevant standards. (Think of a Consumer Reports or a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for newspapers and cable channels.) While such entities are not unknown today, we might expect that—as the crisis of media credibility becomes increasingly a matter of public consternation, and the need for new filters and gatekeepers comes increasingly to be recognized—competitive forces might elevate this service to a refined and reliable art form.

Here are some practical tips for the more enterprising among you—initiatives you might start that could hasten the arrival of more democratic and more reliable filters.

  • Create media organizations whose business models encourage higher quality and greater integrity by abjuring overreliance on advertising revenue and building a stronger reliance on subscription revenue. There’s likely a market opportunity for any new national news organization that credibly commits to not exceeding certain limits on advertising revenue and announces instead that it will rely much more heavily on subscriber fees. It may not be possible, at least in the present media environment, to dispense entirely with advertising dollars. But the notion of wholly-subscriber-supported journalism might at least serve as a sort of regulative ideal here, and perhaps market forces might be harnessed to reward those organizations that, in addition to supplying high-quality journalism, come closest to achieving this ideal.

    Furthermore, it might not be feasible to perform this feat on a local or regional scale; it may be only national news sources that could command the number of subscribers required to make this business model viable. There may be (or may once have been) a nascent trend in this direction on the part of the legacy institutions, but it could certainly stand to have more momentum behind it. And a fresh entrant to the field—especially one that had substantial investment behind it—would have the twin advantages of (1) not being hampered by previous overreliance on an ad-revenue-generating business model and (2) being able to poach top talent from a diverse variety of extant news organizations.
  • Create a Consumer Reports–style organization dedicated to developing novel and innovative ways of evaluating and validating the trustworthiness of news sources. Again, there is an existing infrastructure in place here—but perhaps a new, fresh entrant to the field might inject some fresh energy into the enterprise. Clearly, tomorrow’s “credibility-scorers” and “bias-exposers” will need to do more than simply avow their own impartiality.

    But just as clearly, there are a number of underexplored resources that may be worth investigating in this space. Perhaps clever entrepreneurs might identify good ways of using the powers of prediction markets in the service of holding news organizations accountable. Or, as Eric Weinstein has argued, even simply documenting a news outlet’s use of various “Russell conjugations” would go a long way toward exposing its editorial stance.

In sketching these ideas, my hope is that even for those of us who aren’t likely to run out and start the sorts of organizations I describe here, their possibility offers some hope that the present Dark Ages will not last forever.

In sum, no one will emerge as the next great information filter; no new class of gatekeepers will heroically present themselves. It’ll be up to us, ourselves, to collectively filter out the wheat from the chaff. This will transpire through processes of spontaneous human action and interaction, yielding up equilibrium outcomes: news organizations who carefully build and jealously guard well-earned reputations for fairness and accuracy, and credibility-scoring organizations who themselves trade on their (hopefully) well-deserved reputations for judiciously monitoring and reviewing news organizations.

Just as there’s no great filter determining which new businesses get created or which new products and services are offered, and just as there are no official gatekeepers deciding which new artworks are created or which directions existing genres of art shall take (and for that matter, just as natural ecosystems maintain something approaching equilibrium even in the absence of any centralized steward), so also will the governance of our new information ecosystem be an emergent, bottom-up affair.

Vaughn Bryan Baltzly is an assistant professor of philosophy at Texas State University. He can be reached at vbb9@txstate.edu. His recent contributions for The Bridge include a piece on the future debate over the role of experts in society.

Photo Credit: diyun Zhu/Getty Images

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