The Media and Moloch

crazycattime - [original thread]

From the NY Post, and you can tell its slant from the URL:

There's a lot more to this article than simply running the decades old script of "the narrative would be different if the parties were reversed":

I know it’s a heavy news environment. Who can keep up? But try to remember this one, because it’s instructive. People think news organizations flat-out fabricate stories. That isn’t often the case. Fake news is a problem that pops up here and there, but the much more systematic and deeply entrenched attack on truth is the casual, everyday bias of reporters.

AFP and Reuters deleted a story that was, in a narrow sense, true — that a UN study claimed the United States had some 100,000 children in migrant-related detention. The United Nations is horribly biased against America and the West. Still, on the level of lazy, news-release-driven journalism, the locked-up-kids story was minimally valid.

At any rate, what the agencies didn’t seem to like was the story’s changed implication: That Obama, rather than Trump, locked up a lot of children. This is what’s important: Not that AFP and Reuters deleted a story, but that the implication of the story meant everything to them.

Every time you read something from AFP and Reuters (and CNN and the Washington Post), you should be thinking not “This is fake news” but: “What’s the agenda?” To paraphrase Chuck Schumer’s infamous, and instructive, comment on the CIA, news outlets have six ways from Sunday of getting you to think what they want you to think, none of which involve making up stuff.

There are plenty of casual boo-outgroup swipes in here and I'm not presenting this as a neutral source. Instead, I think it's worth noting for two reasons. First, this is a relatively nuanced article for the NY Post. While it's obviously not written for people on the left, it's also not obviously aimed at extreme partisans on the right. It's a political topic that is covered in a way that looks (to me) like it's aimed at people who don't really bother much with politics. It's one example of how the topic of "thinking about we consume the news in the new digital age" is seeping in to more mainstream channels. Nothing in this article will be mindblowing revelation to any of us in this sub, but there's a much higher probability that it will turns some heads among people who aren't Extremely Online. Making more people aware that there is a problem brewing in how we share information/news seems to me like the beginning of getting more people on board with finding solutions. I'd love to see something like this re-written for a left-leaning equivalent of the NY Post.

Second, while the article does provide a series of vignettes that illustrate new media failure modes, it does not mention how those failure modes are costing Society missed opportunities and lowered willingness to cooperate. For example, when the "kids in cages" narrative broke, there were plenty of people pointing out the suspicious lack of outrage about these "exact same" policies and situations happening under Obama. The point being that the people making noise about this now weren't complaining about it under Obama, therefore the complaints about Trump are purely partisan posturing. However, there were also replies to that line of argument that boiled down to "no, some of us have been complaining about this the whole time!" Both sides were correct and illustrate one of the biggest costs of the Culture War.

More concretely, there exists a subset of people for whom immigrant's rights (and/or human rights more generally) are something they care about and spend a lot of time thinking about, perhaps to the exclusion of other kinds of activism or political involvement. They may sympathize with other groups, like trans rights or 2nd amendment rights, but immigration is their thing and that's where they spend their time and energy. Those people have been complaining about "kids in cages" consistently since the issue arose, as well as arguing/debating about a host of other issues in this field (e.g., H1B abuse, programs for migrant workers, family visas, etc.). The "kids in cages" stuff was in their wheelhouse and they handled it exactly as they handle any other immigration issue. To an outside observer, the "kids in cages" stuff was one of a list of things this group cared about. Most of the time, these groups don't have much presence in the general public consciousness.

At the same time, there are other organizations whose primary function is to whip up partisan fervor in support of whatever the current legislative/cultural objective happens to be. When it's time to talk about health care, they focus on health care. When it's time to focus on gun control/rights, they focus on that. And when it's time to focus on immigration, they focus on that. At that point, the partisan fervor organization pushes into the spotlight the issues the small, dedicated group really cares about. Add a splash of outgroup homogeneity bias and voila, we have both "we've always been complaining about this!" and "you're only bothering with this because of Trump!" Everyone is right, everyone is frustrated, and Moloch is content.

Here's how this ties in to the missed opportunity I mentioned above. The AFP/Reuters is much more of a partisan fervor kind of organization in the sense that it doesn't have a narrow set of interests. It's not openly a political organization yet it tends to operate functionally as one, at least to the extent that they pretty clearly have their thumb on the scale. That leads them to pulling the "kids in cages" story when they think it damages their partisan ingroup, without seeming to think much about whether it helps or hurts the object level issue. I'd bet that the small, dedicated group would happily trade "massive improvement in detention centers" for "Trump gets a W in this news cycle."

Now imagine the alternate universe where the media environment is less broken. The AFP/Reuters publishes this same story, notes that it's from 2015, and decides to ping the small group for their thoughts instead of pulling the story. The small group gets the opportunity to say "This is a bipartisan issue and, as the UN report shows, was even going on under Obama. We think it's a systemic problem because [reasons], and here's how we can fix the system." In this scenario, the focus is much more on the object level, even though the partisans are still going to try to sling whatever mud they can find.

I recognize that this doesn't guarantee we'll actually end up with better results at the object level. My point is that AFP/Reuters unskillful handling of the story took better options off the table. It may even be that this move was the optimal game-theory decision. What I wanted to highlight is one way these kinds of actions create largely unseen opportunity cost in the Culture War. Is there any reasonable path out of this trap?