The Hardest Problem
Why information flows in society present the most difficult conundrum
Note: 95% of this article was written in the days prior to the events of 6th January 2021.
We live in a world of information. We live in a world in which technology permits information to flow around the globe in seconds. We live in a world in which cheap electrons mean the cost of creating and viewing information is nearly zero and thus anyone and everyone can create and consume.
In theory this should be a tremendous boon. In theory we should all be far better informed than ever before in human history. We should all have access to information that enables us to make better decisions than were formerly feasible.
In reality, as we all know, the opposite has happened.
Everywhere we look, civic norms are being dissolved by the corrosive acid of infantile lies and blatant misinformation. Millions now imagine the Earth to be flat, the NASA moon landings to have been fabricated, and vaccines to cause autism. Tens of millions believe gluten makes them fat and that genetically modified foods will turn people into zombies.
These mistaken beliefs are trivial, however, compared to the political consequences.
We humans are hardwired by evolution to do as little thinking as possible, because thinking burns precious calories that used to be needed to power muscles for foraging or fleeing from predators. Our brains are eager for simplicity, which is a problem because reality is always complex. For 98% of our evolutionary history the mismatch between our brains and the world around us didn’t matter because the most complex problems we faced were how to nap a flint and remembering not to eat the poisonous berries. Today, however, the mismatch is disastrous.
As populist politicians around the globe have learned, simple-minded lies and impossible promises will reliably appeal to a vast number of intellectually sub-par voters, whereas attempting to discuss complex reality will reliably turn people away in droves. Brexit, Trump, Modi, Duterte, Erdogan, Babiş, Putin, and dozens of other cynical incompetents know that the easiest way to seize and retain power is to tell absurd lies to the legion of simple-minded voters who will eagerly embrace sound-bites and trite memes because that’s all their tiny brains are capable of.
Until recently it would have been difficult for such people to have succeeded in capturing vast numbers of votes. Today our wonderful information technologies make it the simplest thing in the world. And the mass media is at the very center of the problem, because the mass media relies entirely on sensationalism in order to grab eyeballs. As eyeballs equals revenue, and revenue equals comfortable salaries and perks for journalists, it’s evident that there’s a systemic and irresistible impetus towards ever-greater sensationalism in order to stay competitive with all the other media elements that are likewise presenting ever-greater sensationalism to their audiences.
When we look at recent events in the USA we see the problem clearly: Trump’s infantile lies were reliably repeated and amplified on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for years, simply because they drove “customer engagement.” In other words, Trump’s lies were great for pulling in eyeballs. Who cares about the inevitable social consequences when there’s revenue to be made?
We’ve always had this problem, of course; now it is overwhelming us.
We used to see highly misleading sensationalism mainly via exaggeration and selection. Exaggeration would work as follows: a small research team would find a compound that slightly inhibited the growth of a particular type of tumorigenic cell in a petri dish and the national press would announce Scientists Cure Cancer! Selection would work as follows: although 100,000 commercial airline flights would take off and land safely every single day without incident, news organizations would relentlessly cover the very rare crash and for weeks afterward would assiduously report even the most minor incident so long as it was somehow related to civil aviation: Passenger Discovers Prawn Fragment In Vegetarian Inflight Meal And Suffers Irreparable Emotional Trauma! Terrified Public Calls For All Flights To Be Grounded Until Vegetarian Meal Safety Can Be Assured!
For the last few years, however, the game has become far easier for media organizations. The lies and blusterings of populist politicians provide a ready-made diet of pure sensationalism that is a never-ending gift. The more vile, repellent, stupid, ludicrous, and impossible the lies such people tell, the more marvelous they are for media organizations. Media organizations large and small play a vital role in promoting the grotesque distortions spouted by cynical politicians and their enablers. The media amplifies these lies far beyond anything that could be achieved otherwise and repeats the lies endlessly precisely because they are so grotesque.
People adore freak shows, and populist politicians are eyeball-grabbing freaks who perform 7/24.
Focusing reportage almost exclusively on the lies and blusterings of the freaks guarantees juicy revenues for media organizations large and small. Nobody cares about the obvious problems this causes because everyone is focused on their career advancement, their paycheck, their bonus.
Because most people believe what they hear and read without ever once thinking of fact-checking anything, this means the media creates alternate realities inside the heads of ordinary people. And those alternate realities are deeply toxic.
The mass media delivered Brexit because the infantile antics of Boris Johnson and the lies of the Brexiteers were far more entertaining (and thus eyeball-grabbing) than the narrative of those who relied on boring facts and reason. The mass media delivered Donald Trump into the White House because his revolting claims were so much more entertaining (and thus eyeball-grabbing) than the quasi-serious posturings of his opponents. The same dynamic played out around the world, thrusting into power such creatures as Modi, Duterte, Bolsonaro, and far too many others to enumerate here.
The malign effects of media-driven information flows don’t stop there. Since March 2020 most of the world has been gripped by a mindless panic entirely generated by irresponsible and highly misleading media reportage of SARS-COV2. Instead of pointing out that more than 90% of people will forever be asymptomatic and that per capita mortality rates in even the worst-hit nations are well under two-tenths of one percent of the population, the media presents data in the most sensationalist possibly manner. Raw numbers, which to ordinary people seem immense, give a totally misleading impression. Ordinary people think covid-19 is an existential threat whereas in reality it’s trivial when seen in context. But politicians know that once the media has whipped citizens into a frenzy they must be appeased, not reasoned with. And so politicians the world over have plunged us into a catastrophic second Great Depression in order to present the illusion of “saving” people. Many politicians even believe the narrative themselves — after all, they aren’t particularly intelligent (if they were, they’d have real jobs) and they read and watch the same nonsense that is avidly consumed by ordinary citizens.
The hard fact is that our information flows now serve to induce us to make appallingly dysfunctional decisions because we live in mental worlds that are almost completely at variance with reality.
And this, in turn, is because simple things are preferred by our brains to complex things. As reality is always complex, reality always loses out. The media doesn’t make us simple-minded; it capitalizes on our simple-mindedness and reinforces it constantly. We therefore make sub-optimal decisions every time because we’re reacting to misleading or entirely false information.
There is no way out of the trap. We yearn for the very thing that poisons us. We are addicted to junk messages in the same way we’re addicted to junk food.
In consequence, more than sixty million US citizens genuinely believe that Trump won the 2020 election and that the illegitimate Biden administration will “bring socialism” to the USA (the fact not a single Republican voter has the slightest idea of what socialism actually is, doesn’t alter their anger, resentment, and fear). Most people around the world genuinely believe SARS-COV2 is an existential threat and that irreparably destroying the lives of hundreds of millions of people is a reasonable course of action when faced with a virus that kills almost nobody.
And the distortions continue on both a trivial scale and a global scale.
On the trivial side of things, British TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson recently tested positive for covid-19. Naturally the British press exploded with headlines such as Top TV Star Clarkson Fights For Life! and Clarkson Battles Coronavirus! The fact Clarkson appeared on Youtube, feeding the trout in his stream, and said, “I had what felt like a very mild cold so I spent a day in bed. I’m fine now” was irrelevant. No one will remember Clarkson’s statement but everyone will remember the hysterical reportage. Additionally the media adores stories about “long covid” but no story points out that in any sufficiently large dataset you’ll get people with symptoms that appear to be connected to the initial infection but which in reality have no connection at all, or which are statistically meaningless. Thus for every million people who experience no symptoms and who are therefore totally ignored by the media because reality is too boring, the media will resolutely focus on the extreme edge-cases and make it seem as if they are in fact typical. The media will also resolutely ignore contributing factors such as obesity (“she had no underlying conditions” — provided we ignore her pre-existing obesity, emphysema, and chronic inflammation) in order likewise to make it seem that covid-19 is far, far more serious than it really is.
On the global side of things, virologists have for months been trying to explain that viruses tend to mutate and that the mutations almost always ensure (i) greater transmissibility, and (ii) lower lethality. This is because viruses, like all other living and semi-living things on Earth, are subject to selection pressures. SARS-COV2 isn’t actually very infectious (contrary to the generic media narrative), which is why 14 months into the pandemic fewer than 200 million cases have been recorded worldwide whereas in a typical 4–6 month flu season between 1.6 billion and 2.4 billion people will contract flu. So it was always obvious that the coronavirus would mutate in order to become more infectious. Likewise it was always obvious that a more infectious virus would actually be a good thing because it would almost certainly have fewer and less serious symptoms. A successful virus spreads readily and does as little damage as possible to the host: this maximizes its ability to reproduce itself. Any virus that causes fever (or even worse, death) automatically limits its reproductive potential.
Our bodies are full of viruses all the time. We don’t notice them because they’ve mutated to the point where they can be maximally successful. Indeed, many viruses have managed to incorporate some of their genomes into our DNA, thus guaranteeing gene transfer through the ages. This is the Holy Grail of virus particles.
We only imagine viruses to be deadly and rare because the mass media doesn’t present any context. The mass media doesn’t provide the well-established facts that would enable us to assess the real threat more accurately. A responsible media would point out that mutated versions of SARS-COV2 are a very good thing indeed because they will help spread immunity far faster than any government program of vaccinations, and at much lower risk and cost. But that wouldn’t be sensational and so no mass media organization will ever publish this information.
And of course the media also promotes sensationalism from those “experts” who have the most to gain personally from appearing on TV and on government advisory boards, while resolutely ignoring contrary and more sober narratives from other experts who attempt to point out the folly of current strategies. It’s notable that the fact-based Great Barrington Declaration, written by the world’s leading virologists and epidemiologists, was entirely ignored by the mass media while even the most fringe “expert” gets their views repeated and amplified ceaselessly provided those views confirm the generic narrative that we’re all going to die from covid-19 unless we lock ourselves in our bathrooms and superglue facemasks to our genitals while we wait for a miracle vaccine (or perhaps a holy relic) to save us.
And as we have just seen, lies amplified by media organizations can lead to violence and insurrection. But again, this is marvelous for media organizations because (you guessed it) it’s sensational and grabs eyeballs and so is great for business.
There are endless examples of the toxic effects of misleading information. The question is: what can we do about it?
This is where we run into problems. Whereas it’s relatively trivial to diagnose the problems inherent in representative democracy and propose feasible solutions that would provide more adequate approaches to the problems of governance, it’s extremely difficult to propose solutions to the problem of unrestricted and highly misleading information flows.
Governments clearly cannot be trusted with the task, because governments will always seek to manipulate information flows to their advantage by suppressing embarrassing information and promoting narratives that make them look good.
Commercial media organizations clearly cannot be trusted with the task, because media organizations depend on manufacturing endless sensationalism in order to grab eyeballs and thereby secure revenues.
Independent panels cannot be trusted with the task, because the people serving on such panels would be obvious targets for suborning to the desires of powerful special interests.
Furthermore, who would decide what is true and what is false?
We discover the world through empiricism, and empiricism is the backbone of science. But science isn’t a one-time-for-ever event; it’s a process. Scientists are human and thus make mistakes, misrepresent results for personal gain, and fail to design experiments adequately. Science is known to have “the reproducibility problem” wherein perhaps three-quarters of all results published in reputable journals are in fact junk and fail to be reproduced by other independent teams. So we can’t presume that reality is subject to a one-time audit. New discoveries will tend to change our perspective. That’s good for progress but bad for the tiny human brain that hates ambiguity and craves certainty.
The problem of information flow is therefore non-trivial. In addition, we humans are evolved to look for ways to manipulate and take advantage of each other, so any approaches we attempt will certainly be undermined over time by people cunning (or lucky) enough to discover loopholes and weaknesses.
We thus need to look for guidelines regarding the regulation of information flows that are inherently evolvable so that they can react to attempts to undermine them. This “evolving systems” approach mimics the immune systems of plants and animals: as new threats emerge, they evolve novel ways to counter the threats, which in turn forces the evolution of new threats and thus the evolution of new counter-strategies, and so on ad infinitum.
Clearly this type of approach will require a great deal of intellectual effort, not least because it’s never before been attempted. We humans always look for one-time solutions, which is why we usually get the opposite of what we were hoping for.
Yet there is hope. We humans have not evolved any meaningful capacity for consistency-checking, because there was never any evolutionary pressure to do so. We therefore have no problem at all believing mutually-contradictory ideas. That’s why religionists can imagine their magic pixie has a Master Plan for the entire universe that is explicitly designed to promote the best-possible outcomes yet also believe that their self-centered prayers can induce their magic pixie to alter its plans in order to accommodate their desires. It’s why Trump supporters can imagine a four-time bankrupt (and the only person on Earth stupid enough to lose money owning a casino) is “really” a smart businessman. It’s why people who voted for Brexit can imagine that becoming an isolated third-rank nation is “really” the way to Make Britain Great Again.
Fortunately we don’t need to rely on highly fallible human brains any more. We can utilize computer technologies to perform consistency-checking for us.
By way of example, let’s suppose Brexiteers claim that leaving the European Union will enable the UK to make “great” trade deals that would have been impossible inside the EU. We can check this claim against uncontroversial facts and reams of hard data. Germany is one of the world’s leading exporters and is also at the heart of the EU. Thus the Brexit claim is very unlikely to be true. Next, we can note that 47% of UK GDP is dependent on friction-free trade within the EU and that 80% of the UK economy is services-based. Leaving the EU instantly destroys all friction-free services-based trade with the EU and jeopardizes the $50 billion in tax revenues the UK generates from providing financial services to European partners. As one of the primary claims of Brexiteers was that the UK would be able to devote more cash post-Brexit to the much-promoted National Health Service, it’s instantly obvious that Brexit will in fact do the precise opposite and result in further cuts to the NHS.
In fact all the Brexiteer claims turn out to be strongly inconsistent with every piece of available evidence. Only very foolish and very ignorant people would have swallowed Brexit lies — and, as we all know, this is precisely what occurred. It is regrettable that around half of all people in every nation are incapable of even the most rudimentary reasoning, but it is a fact we must acknowledge rather than wish away.
Unfortunately information flows are not monolithic. There is no Central News Organization of the sort that totalitarian regimes routinely impose. In our modern world there are millions of individual flows, most of which are entirely unreliable yet highly pervasive. China makes every attempt to block all flows that are not favorable to the Chinese Communist Party but this effort consumes significant resources, requires eternal vigilance, and is doomed forever to be only partially effective. Ultimately such censorship will lead to significant inefficiencies in all areas of society and tend to inhibit social progress. It’s not a desirable model.
The Western model of “anything goes provided we can make money” is however utterly inadequate. Facebook and Twitter enabled the disgraceful violence seen on 6th January 2021 in Washington DC and they gained substantial economic rewards from doing so. No society aspiring to even the most rudimentary civilized values can tolerate such a hugely harmful approach to information flows.
It’s easy to imagine a very different outcome to the events of 6th January had Trump been less of a craven feeble blustering incompetent and instead more resolutely determined to cling to power regardless of the cost. The next Republican tyrant will not only be more intelligent and ruthless than Trump (an easy thing to achieve) but will also prepare his followers more carefully. Next time we won’t be witnessing a band of brainless clueless lowlife; we’ll be watching a well-rehearsed group pursuing clearly defined objectives with extreme violence.
And they will succeed where today’s mindless rabble failed.
We need to accept that we must make changes to the way we deal with information flows, yet these changes will be at best partial and only semi-effective. But even semi-effective is better than sitting back and watching ourselves descend deeper and deeper into the mire.
We can begin by changing regulations to make content providers and their executives and Board members legally responsible for the content they promulgate. This will make such content providers far less profitable, but that’s actually highly desirable. Ending slavery made several industries less profitable but was extremely good for society as a whole. Restricting tobacco sales made tobacco companies less profitable but was extremely good for society as a whole. It is insane to place corporate profitability above what is beneficial for society as a whole. The fact that this insane model sits at the very heart of the USA must be no deterrent. Indeed, the US political pay-to-play system is the fundamental reason why the USA is such a deeply dysfunctional nation.
Governments can and should block or shut down organizations and websites that promulgate lies. There is no philosophical or social justification for permitting cynical people to exploit the simple-mindedness of the ignorant masses.
Of course organizations will sometimes move beyond the jurisdiction of their home country, and of course websites can pop up on servers elsewhere; but these are nuisances rather than fundamental problems and providing we remain vigilant the few that escape through the cracks will do little harm. By the time most of their audience learn about their new outlet, we’ll have shut it down and so it will have to begin all over again. After a while, such organizations will find that endlessly being shut down and having to restart elsewhere is a non-viable business model.
Likewise the output of troll factories in Russia, Bulgaria, China, North Korea et al can be identified and suppressed provided we’re willing to make sufficient effort. Without Russian troll factories churning out “amusing” pro-Brexit memes, fewer gullible Brits would have imagined that crippling their country was a “smart and stable genius” idea. Without Russian troll factories churning out MAGA memes and slogans, fewer gullible US voters would have imagined that supporting an infantile orange halfwit was their road to salvation.
Ultimately all societies must continuously struggle with the ordinary human impulse to self-harm. We are hardwired by evolution to crave things that, in our modern inter-connected technological world, no longer serve us well. We will always want to stuff ourselves with junk food, scramble our brains with psychoactive compounds, and gawp at empty sensationalism. But all these things are deeply harmful for us as individuals and catastrophic for our societies.
How, then, do we create the “adult in the room” to protect ourselves from our own impulses to self-harm? Because without such an adult, we will continue to act like spoiled irresponsible children.
For the answer to that question we must return to the central problem of governance, which will be the topic of my next article.