Freedom of Information

This week’s post is inspired by a tweet from Matthew Ingram’s and Jeff Borek’s perfect reaction to it:

What happens when all the trustful information is restricted?

It was Jarrod Dicker’s original tweet which lead to the twitter discussion on the topic:

The tweets and the discussion are thought-provoking. On the one hand, it’s clearly an enormous problem if trustworthy information is accessible only to part of the population. On the other hand, one could argue that this has always been the case. Newspapers cost money, TV licenses had a cost and so on. At an even deeper level, market analysis for financial transactions, due diligence for mergers and so on, was often even more costly and private (but worth it to a small number of specialist investors).

There has always been an information cost hierarchy. The pinnacle of this hierarchy i individuals or groups with private teams of researchers who can investigate the truth of market, political or natural phenomena in a completely proprietary way. So there is nothing really new here.

Why then does it feel different when we’re talking about mainstream news outlets?

It does feel different. To see why it’s different though, it’s important to unpack the words “information”, “truth”, “good”, “bad” and the word “trusted” I added. It feels different for two reasons.

The first is that, in the past, one could point to a (relatively) established baseline of facts that were generally believed and shared in the press: for the most part, irrespective of political spin. Debate then focused on how to act in the face of these facts, rather than what the facts were. Obviously, at certain times, there was plenty of spin/information hiding and partisan decision making about what was made public. This was true even in western liberal democracies. From the public point of view (and crucially the voting public’s) though there was a relatively coherent set of public facts.

So while there was a cost for information, there was a generally accepted public record of the facts. This mean that a factual baseline had to be acknowledged by anyone wishing to debate what to do next.

The second big reason things feel different now is a shift from no-alternatives to persuasive bad alternatives. The absence of access to paid media used to basically mean access to no media (or if not “no-media”, then sources with obviously low levels of trust standing). This has changed radically now, with the counterpart to factual news now being heavily manipulated, downright false information that is widely distributed. By increasing the barrier to access to reputable news sources, unfortunately, there is no longer just a void, but a tide of misinformation.

Who do you Trust?

The question of who to trust for a version of the facts is not straightforward by any means. Is a paid source necessarily better than a non-paid source? What does reputable really mean? Is an organization reputable if it is big? Is there such a thing as truly unbiased reporting?

There are clearly some feedback loops which paywalls create:

  • Paid content creates a barrier to information browsing which reduces the overall sharing potential of particular voices and views on the facts. If audiences decrease prices may need to rise, reducing audiences further and so on.
  • Paid content and free content both rely on their audience to stay afloat: the former with direct payments, the later via eyeballs for advertising. In both cases, publications need to adapt to fit audience tastes. This relationship is likely to be more direct for paid publications with a stronger feedback loop.
  • The specialization driven by audience fitting contributes to strong market segmentation (e.g. CNN v’s FoxNews) which feeds increasing polarity in content and opinion.

There is nothing particularly special about this. News organizations need to make money to survive. Paid information is simply another business model alongside advertising or sponsorship. What is new though is the polarity market segmentation and, arguably, deliberate editorial choices have created. The polarity is now so pervasive it may have fractured all common bases of trust across the political spectrum. This might actually be the tipping point.

The Tipping Point

The hyper polarization of information and opinion in the mainstream media (and often the lack of distinction between fact and opinion), means there is no longer a shared factual basis for political debate. This, in turn, undermines the trust in all mainstream news providers and leaves the way open for misinformation to look at least “equally plausible” alongside facts.

Rather than starting public discourse with a shared set of facts and debating what to do about them, increasingly there is no agreement on the facts themselves. This already happens in many key areas such as climate change. There are many stories of significant importance which are simply ignored outright or downplayed by the partisan mainstream media. It is now already difficult to imagine even a single news source, government agency or third party that would seem like a credible provider of facts to a broad cross-section of the population of the United States.

How to roll back from this situation is equally hard. It is hard to know what to do since the problem of free shared information is not really about paywalls themselves, but about having a core of news/data/information sharing systems in which the majority of the population trusts at least to a reasonable degree.

At least, maybe it’s time to donate to NPR or the Guardian:

In addition, grab your pen and desk to start your own Ministry of Information!

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

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