Forget fake news. The real problem is balance.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, you know there’s a big conversation happening on the internet right now about filter bubbles. In a nutshell, we’re all worried that instead of improving the world by making information more accessible, the internet has done the opposite by creating echo chambers that further entrench our prejudices.
Most of the discussion in this area tends to revolve around political views. Thanks to the decline of traditional media and the proliferation of new online media outlets, people are less exposed to ideas that contradict their beliefs. If you think the Democrats conspired to create millions of illegal votes, or that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to fix the election you’ll find plenty of content out there to back you up. That’s a problem because it means politicians are given less wriggle room by their constituents when it comes to negotiating with the other side.
However there’s a bigger, far more damaging filter bubble out there. And because its existence is at the commercial core of the modern day media machine, almost nobody is willing to admit its existence.
Welcome to the bad news bubble
Nuclear sabre rattling in North Korea, South Sea games of chicken with China, chemical attacks on children in Syria, the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan. Terrorist attacks in Instanbul, London, Damascus and Stockholm, shootings in Quebec and Cleveland and bombings in St Petersburg, Alexandria and Kabul. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, runaway temperatures in the Arctic, economic collapse in Venezuela, dictators in Turkey and Australia’s shocking cruelty to refugees on Manus and Nauru. The rollback of civil rights in the US, the rise of the far right in Europe, the slow motion disaster of Brexit in the UK and of course, overshadowing it all the ridiculous yet terrifying circus of a Trump presidency.
But what about these stories, which have also happened this year?
The discovery of potential cures for Parkinson’s, AIDS and sepsis, the roll out of a cheap vaccine for cholera and dramatic declines in malaria death rates. Big wins for LGBT activists in Japan, Finland and Slovenia, victories for women’s rights in India and Iceland, global declines in executions, improvements for global malnourishment, decreases in prison rates in the US and the defeat of the far right in Holland and Austria. Drops in income inequality in the US and China, increases in German employment (despite huge refugee intakes), and progress for animal welfare in Asia. Big conservation wins for tigers in China, elephants in Chad, bees in Europe, forests in Cameroon and oceans in Indonesia. And perhaps most importantly, the accelerating death of the fossil fuels industry and the incredible explosion of renewable energy around the world.*
Forget fake news. Our real problem is balance. Respectable news outlets say they’re giving us an objective view of the world, yet drown us in a daily deluge of conflict and negative headlines. It’s manufactured drama and we can’t tear our eyes away (if you want to understand this better check out Carlos Maza’s excellent new takedown of CNN). Bad news is great for business. According to a report released by Neilsen earlier this month, news consumption across all media in the US, including cable TV, radio, traditional broadcast TV and smartphones, has risen by 18% in the last year. Other English speaking countries like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom will have experienced similar increases.
There’s no incentive to report good news in the modern day attention economy because it doesn’t get traction. Sure, democracy dies in darkness. But you know what else dies in darkness? Optimism. Every headline, every news report, every viral video tells us that things are falling apart. No wonder we’re all in despair. Starving children, angry analysts and dying polar bears make for easy availability heuristics: we tend to judge the frequency and probability of something happening based on how easily we can bring it to mind, and these things are memorable and iconic. And every time we discuss the lying politicians at a dinner party, or see someone complaining about them on Facebook, we retrieve those memories and make them even stickier.
Bad news is the only news because it’s an addictive product. That’s why it’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter that we’re living in the wealthiest, healthiest, most peaceful and most democratic time in human history. It doesn’t matter that poverty is decreasing, that fewer people are dying from war or that more mothers survive childbirth. It doesn’t matter that human rights are improving or that more kids are learning to read and write than ever before. These stories are invisible because they don’t shock us or make us angry. And that means they don’t sell.
It’s not clear whether more visibility would make a difference either. Thanks to something known as the kickback effect, evidence that contradicts our worldview only further entrenches it. It makes us feel good to stick to our guns, and we’re great at rationalisation. Research shows that we experience a genuine rush of dopamine when processing information that supports our beliefs. That means that no amount of statistical evidence will convince progressives that they’re not morally superior, conservatives that immigration is good for the economy, or environmentalists that GMOs are safe. Similarly, evidence cannot compete with most people’s belief that poverty is rampant and that war and terrorism have never been worse.
So how do we break out of the bad news bubble?
We have no idea. But we do have a newsletter that we send it out every fortnight with good news stories from around the world. It’s our small attempt at bringing back a bit of balance. And you can SUBSCRIBE right now by clicking on the button in the toolbar above this blog post.
*For a full list, with references, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org