Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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Bursting the information bubble: A philosophical take on media’s existential crisis

Today’s journalist battles not with rivals at crosstown newspapers, but with the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter and Google. With clickbait and disinformation crowding the limited information space, there is a new urgency in the effort to find sustainable avenues to reach audiences with real journalism.

What is this new information market? What does it take for a story to go “viral” and is that in itself a goal with pursuing? What are the new rules and are they the same for everybody?

Vincent F. Hendricks, a Danish philosopher and logician whose research focuses on how we produce and consume information online, is trying to find the answers to those and many other questions. He founded and is currently leading the Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) at the University of Copenhagen. 

“Everyone now has a voice to the public but not everyone gets heard the same,” says Hendricks, explaining how information flows function today. A mathematician by training, his latest work has focused on attention economics — the study of how to transform social interactions and information exchange into hard capital.

Hendricks, who wears leather pants and rested his legs on his desk during our interview, is as much “Attention Economics Rockstar” as researcher. His institute’s research is rather interdisciplinary — drawing data from economics, math, sociology, social psychology, philosophy and history. 

The Fix met him to discuss the insights of his study, the future of journalism and how it still has an important role to play in the world. 

This interview has been edited and condensed

Vincent F. Hendricks
Source: Photo by Ulrik Jantzen

AP: What are information bubbles?

VH: There is a deficit of attention and we have huge amounts of information. So basically you can speculate in what sort of information people are willing to spend their attention on. And you can spend time on stuff where there is either misinformation or hoaxes, conspiracy theories or what not. And that might indeed be a bubble, because the facts can’t follow, but you overheat the attention. 

Usually we consider bubbles to be situations in finance in which asset prices appear to be based on implausible or inconsistent views about the market and future dividends. The asset has usually been monetary (cash, money or stock, or real estate). And our insight is that you can also overheat a different kind of asset, it is not monetary directly, but you can convert it into such once you get people’s attention. So you can get people worried about all the different tweets that Donald Trump is sharing about this and that. There is little to it but it allocates scores attention. 

(…) That is why the Center where we sit is called the Center for Information and Bubble Studies. Information and bubbles are very closely tied together given the attention as the intermediary.

AP: What can your research tell us about beliefs, information distribution and our online behaviours?

VF: Here comes a challenge for journalism. If you want to get a story viral, follow the steps. You have to have social capital, public aspirations, easy storytelling and triggers – this is insight provided by Jonah Berger in his book “Contagious” from 2013. You need to feed into people’s emotions. If you can feed into anger, fear, indignation, those emotions are extremely contagious online. But happiness, for example, is not particularly contagious because that is not an activity mobilising sentiment whereas anger is. 

Another thing is that the information market is not an efficient market. People exchange their opinions, the market is liquid but it doesn’t entail that only the good and true information will survive and the rest will get weeded out. 

If you get to feed into activity mobilizing sentiments – positive or negative – you may just have got yourself a gameplay. If you have figured that out and also the fact that social media platforms are really like casinos, and the curated tricks from Vegas have been used extensively online, then you might just have yourself a lucrative attention economy going. Social media platforms are much akin skinner boxes in their business model.

AP: What role, would you say, has the media played in the so-called post-truth crisis? 

VF: Journalists gained competitors who don’t answer back to excellence in journalism principles, or media laws, or copyright laws. They don’t answer back to any ethics commission and don’t have to comply with any standards but their own. They can attract masses and masses of attention independently of whether what they are writing about is true. The initial reaction of the media was to some extent follow suit to get part of attention allocation in this new information environment.

Most established media know they can’t win that war. They decided to go in the opposite direction. They spend more and more time on long reads and slow journalism because there is a market for it, but it is a rather niche market because the market for news has been taken over by all sorts of these established and unestablished outlets that only comply with their own rules and don’t answer to anyone except to maybe their shareholders.

AP: There are also subscriptions. But people can only subscribe to as many things…

VF: Exactly. Attention is everything, and it is a limited resource. One of the things that you have is this argument out there that since everyone has a voice there is this sort of democratising effect of the web. That is wrong because it would presuppose that attention allocation online follows a normal distribution, but it doesn’t. It is a power lot distribution so it means that a few big actors are sitting on top and ruling everything.

The person in the Western World having the most followers on social media according to the last big count was Cristiano Ronaldo. And who owns traffic on the web? Facebook, Google, Instagram, Whatsapp, Youtube — all the tech giants have some 90% of traffic on the web and they tend to get bigger. Apple is getting itself a news channel, Facebook — a currency. Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. And that is all because of money. Because money can be made in the attention allocation outlets. It is like a big marketing machine. 

Attention is everything, and it is a limited resource

AP: How do you think the media business model needs  to change in order for it not to be so vulnerable to spreading false information?

VF: You would have to regulate tech giants — at least the part that has to do with peddling news. I have been discussing it with Facebook at large.

If it tastes like press, if it looks like press, if it sounds like press -—it is probably press. BBC, Le Monde, The Guardian, any established news outlet where all the journalists are regulated traders, have to answer back to journalism principles. I don’t understand why social media with their news feed don’t have to do any of that. 

AP: They don’t want to do it.

VF: Well hell no, they don’t want to. Because it will break a good part out of their business model. Instead, they say “we are a search engine”, “we are about infrastructure (or bandwidth),” “we are about connectivity.” But they are massively curating information, and they make editorial decisions every day just like any editor would do — but often on a much larger scale.

There is the regulation part relating to news and journalism and there also is antitrust. Is it reasonable that Jeff Bezos owns and The Washington Post? Are they really two different things? Recently Trump got very angry at The Washington Post over something they said about him. Of course he does that on a routine basis. But instead of attacking the WP directly, he did something else. On Friday he tweeted about skewing the competition when it comes to bringing out packages in the US and then on Monday Amazon lost 60 billion dollars in share value. 

This ecosystem of the information market is very complicated. Journalists have to put themselves somewhere in that. This is news to all of us.

AP: What should we do?

VF: You have to make sure you keep your autonomy.

We need to understand how the information market works: what is your role in it, what is their role in it. We are basically not customers, we are products.

And when it comes to infrastructure…

Public space in private hands is not a gift to democracy. If you’d ask all of the enlightenment people whether public space should be in private hands, they’d say: “No way, no!”. There is a reason why streets, bridges, and transportation infrastructure belong to the state. That is because everyone should have equal access.

AP: Is there any kind of going back though?

VF: These are still early days. People are becoming aware of these problems. You are discussing it with me and others. There is a general rise to understanding that these issues are to be discussed. I only got into this 10 years ago when surveillance capitalism and everything along those lines were just getting developed and refined. Now both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are going after Facebook and others with everything from antitrust laws to media regulatives…

And then of course there are little things being changed. So after Mark Zuckerberg admitted to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez that yes, you can buy a disinformation campaign from me, no problem, Jack Dorsey from Twitter came and said: look, we are going to ban all political advertising because it is skewing the competition and it is bad for public space. So some of the tech companies also start to understand that they might have to take a civil societal responsibility, they have to act as impromptu civil society agents, responsible agents. 

Why? Because they are basically running the information superhighway. And that’s where democracy is put on these days too. I had an interesting conversation with a Danish Executive from Facebook during the Danish Folkemødet (Denmark’s Democratic Festival on Bornholm). He was very happy there were not that many fake news and misinformation campaigns during the Danish election. And I congratulated him. And then he said, and I think it was a Freudian slip, “we are getting pretty good at running elections here at Facebook.” It tells you a lot about where the power is.

I guess it is fair to say that lawmakers, politicians and what not are waking up to smell the breeze. And science is getting into the issues, big NGOs are getting into it. The movement is coming. So there is no going back but there is definitely regulation and digital literacy in education. It is going to take many, many years. We are still at the beginning of it.

AP: I’d like to go back to your recommendations for the media industry.

VF: Established media took a hit from a lot less attention being paid to them, but now people are returning to them because of trust. After all people are all suckers for truth.

AP: And what could be the takeaways for smaller news organisations?

VF: There is no other way. They just need to define their new products in this day and age. Slow journalism can be a product, simply turning down the speed. Losing trust in the media is indirectly losing trust in democracy and so they shouldn’t want to risk it. Advertisers will not be convinced anyways and most of them will go to Facebook. But what they can win on, is CSR. 

More and more companies are becoming aware that Corporate Social Responsibility is not just a footnote in the annual report and so more companies know that they need to have something more reasonable to say. 

AP: So there is hope within capitalism?

VF: What surveillance capitalism is all about is to capitalise on the last item available. Us.

It is about capitalising on us, as humans. That is the business. It is like cannibalism. Give me a species that will go for that end. 

Once we really realise that this is what we are doing I think we will know that this is not really what we want. Of course we have put slaves in chains before and now we are going to do it while we are in the information age – 0’s and 1’s for everybody. Everybody. Even the ants would take better care of their offspring than we would. We have got to do better than that.

So there is hope. But it will require some serious changes and we’d better get started now.

Now is the time for established journalists to take the responsibility of being a bullhorn to the public very, very seriously, regardless of the possibility of making more money. 

After all…10% of internet bandwidth is reserved for porn anyways. If you want to make money, you can do that. But that has nothing to do with responsibility and that is not what journalism is about…

AP: My last question: so there are no magic tricks?

VF: No, there is no quick fix. We have to realise one thing. Misinformation and fake news, we have seen the rise of that for the last 10-15 years. Now, we have always had misinformation as long as we had a press, but we have never seen this magnitude at this reach and speed, and that is because of the information superhighways. And so, now it is a global challenge. And a global challenge will only be solved if people start cooperating. That is the only way we can solve these kinds of problems, otherwise you end up with a prisoner’s dilemma. 

We are looking at a long horizon here, like with the rising inequality, and the climate catastrophe. We can see it coming. We need to do due diligence now.

If you find this discussion fascinating and want to know more, you can download a book on Attention Economics, written by Vincent F. Hendricks and Mads Vestergaard for free using this link.

Alicja Peszkowska

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.