Apr 07 2017

$100 Million? It’s Going to Take More Than That

Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board of eBay, speaks at the eBay Developer's Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. (Photo by JB Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the world’s richest men. He recently announced that his philanthropic investment firm will dedicate $100 million to combat the “global trust deficit.” By this he means the current lack of trust in information and institutions born by the age of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts.

I agree that this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and tackled, but I hope that he is just getting started with the $100 million, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. I also don’t think we can rely on a few philanthropists to fix this problem.

As an aside I find it historically interesting that the internet boom lead to a crop of very young very rich people, not only Omidyar but also Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and others. Omidyar notes that:

“We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’,” he said of his overnight fortune.

“I had the notion that, okay, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realise that you could buy all of them, none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

So we have a crop of young bored billionaires looking to change the world. I think that’s cool.  I hope they succeed.

Omidyar specifically wants to restore trust in institutions of information:

“The $100 million will be dedicated to supporting independent media, tackling misinformation and hate speech, and looking at ways in which technology can help repair relationships between citizens and government.”

Many people credit the internet and social media with the collapse of traditional investigative journalism, the rising power of rumor, the death of respect for expertise, and overall misinformation. It would be ironic if the kings of this new media were also the source of a solution to these problems.

I agree with this overall assessment. I have maintained that social media is a double-edged sword. It has allowed for greater dissemination and consumption of information. It has allowed scientists to directly communicate with the public. It has also dramatically lowered barriers to communication, allowing many voices to be heard, including talented and valuable voices that otherwise would have been ignored.

Social media, to some extent, is an ideal of the free market of ideas, and to some extent the creme has risen to the top.

But like many free markets, perverse incentives usually emerge. There is selective pressure in favor of quality information and good communication. There is also selective pressure favoring click-bait, sensationalism, and telling people what they want to hear rather than what is true. These market forces have lead to fake news and echochambers catering to every ideology.

In this way social media has been truly disruptive. It has also forced traditional media, which found its revenue in free fall, so seek out other business models. So far those models provide less support for full-time investigative journalists and specialist journalists (like science journalists and editors). The net result of these factors is that the public is swimming in larger amounts of lower quality information.

Some people argue that this is infinitely better than having filtered information, and they have a point. Certainly information filtered by the government is incredibly bad, because it gives the government too much power. Information filtered by corporate media also has a downside. However, filters also allow for quality control, vetting of information, journalistic standards, and accountability.

So – how do we get back some semblance of those standards without government or corporate filtering? If we can find a path to that outcome, we can have the best of both worlds.

Omidyar’s approach is to simply subsidize good journalism. I think this is one valid approach, and we should all do this to an extent appropriate to our means.

I think the adage, “You get what you pay for,” is applicable here. The internet and social media has created the expectation that information is free. To some extent this is reasonable – if we had to pay for everything on the internet we would be nickled and dimed to death. But totally free does not work as a business model either. Right now we largely “pay” for our information by having click-bait ads thrown in our face. They have their downside too, and contribute to the perverse incentives we are trying to counter in the first place.

What this may mean is that we should all voluntarily invest at least a little in what we value. That is what it really means to value something. This model is growing, with sites like Patreon that allow individuals to do just that. But also, if you think a large media outlet has good journalistic standards, get a digital subscription. Budget a small amount that you can afford to support quality information online.

There are also non-profit outlets that have high standards. I happen to think that NPR and public television are worth supporting, for example.

Of course, people will also support the echochamber of their choice in this way. All the more reason why you should support quality journalism as a balance.

In such a free market the rich and super-rich have disproportionate power. They can put their large thumb on the scale and favor what they choose. Omidyar is putting his thumb down for quality journalism, and that’s a good thing.

For full disclosure, I am on the receiving as well as giving end of this model of voluntarily supporting online information. The SGU gives away its podcast for free, and is mostly supported by voluntary memberships. We do have some ads, but we also pledged to get rid of them if our membership hits 4% of our listeners.

I don’t think anyone knows exactly how this internet/social media experiment is going to work out. I do think the election of a president who sends out angry tweets every morning, embraces false information while dismissing inconvenient reality as “fake news,” and seems to have nothing but disdain for expertise was a bit of a cultural wake-up call.

People need to become collectively more savvy and critical thinking in their consumption of information. But it would also be nice if high quality investigative journalism can thrive in the new era.

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