A 24-carrot solution

1 May, 2018

One of the best lectures in my undergrad course was on the history of financial regulation (and its circumvention) in the US banking sector. This might seem like a dry topic but seen through the lens of human history regulation becomes a fascinating game of cat and mouse. One that the mouse always wins. I raise this because online news (after largely being left to its own disrupted misery for the last 20 years) is facing the spectre of regulatory “help”.

The good news is that there’s no longer a debate about whether the ad-funded model is broken. Of course it is. And hopefully there’s no longer a need to point out the lunacy of the misquotation that “information wants to be free”.

The bad news is that the problems in news are going to get worse. And 2 out of the 3 options for the future of this industry will only lead to more hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, mouse-chasing frustration.

Option 1: Regulation

If you’ve been following the news on the news (and how can you not because the news loves to talk about itself), you’ll know that politicians around the world are making throaty noises about stamping out fake news. This is obviously and largely because of their terrified self-interest (ref. my 2016 post about how Trump disrupted the democratic playbook). As worrying as fake news is for you and me it’s a thousand times worse for career politicians. Of course they want to stamp out fake news.

Unfortunately (as Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony proved), the political fat cats are entering this chase unprepared, unarmed, and utterly unaware. Which is why (per my earlier post on the coming mis-regulation of data) they’re not going to catch any mice. All they’ll do is further concentrate power among the big tech incumbents.

Trying to stop fake news through regulations and penalties is absurd in the extreme. You’d have better luck closing Pandora’s box or stopping video piracy. In fact, what people don’t seem to realise is that we’re teetering on the precipice of a fake news deluge unlike anything we can even imagine today. If you think people are gullible to fakery in written form just wait till it hits mainstream videovoice, and VR.

Option 2: Self-regulation

Yes, Big Tech probably should probably try to solve the fake news problem themselves. Just as Big Tobacco should have dissuaded smoking. And Big Oil should have tried to prevent climate change. And Big Fin should have prevented undocumented loans. And Big Pharma should have stopped opioid abuse.

The world we SHOULD have is not the world we DO have. And as stock trading cycles get shorter and shorter, so do the financial horizons for most traded corporations. Asking Big Tech (or any publicly listed company) to act against the interests of its shareholders is no less naive than King Canute commanding the waves to stop.

Option 3: Incentives

So Option 1 is the ‘stick’. And Option 2 is, well… just wishful thinking. Which brings us to Option 3 — the only real, workable option for fixing news — the ‘carrot’ (i.e., incentives).

Incentives make the world go around. It’s why we get out of bed in the morning, make the choices we do, and spend the vast majority of our waking hours as we do. And good incentives are what’s missing from news right now.

Consider this: There are huge incentives right now for us to share entertaining, viral and potentially fake stories. These stories are abundant. They either induce pleasure or provoke outrage (both are potent online currencies). And social media is expressly designed to reward us for sharing them (with little pats on the head in the form of Likes and Retweets).

Now consider this: There are equally big disincentives for us to share quality news stories. They are harder to find amid the content tsunami. They require more effort and attention to comprehend in the first place. They are more likely to be contentious, critical, or upsetting if we do share them. They are certainly far more revealing about who we really are and what we really think. And they almost always garner far fewer pats on the head via likes and retweets. In fact, they may even frustrate our friends if the story is behind a paywall.

It’s little wonder then that what most of us see most of the time is mostly low-rent content engineered to titillate, provoke and amuse — rather than to inform and educate. THIS is the problem that we need to solve in news. It’s not the Facebook algorithm. It’s not the YouTube censors. And it’s most definitely not the specifics of regulation. It’s our very own self-interest.

Policing the news is going to become impossibly difficult in a vanishingly short space of time. In fact, companies like Facebook contend that it already is. Our best hope for retaining our sanity is to build an incentive structure that promotes the creation, distribution and consumption of quality news.

We’re never going to stamp out the fakers. But the best inoculation against ignorance is knowledge. Which is why we must build a solution that makes fake news less effective by accelerating the spread of real news.

And we must do it now.