Mar 09 2018

Fiction Spreads Farther than Truth

The battle between truth and fiction is asymmetrical. While that seems to be the case, now we have some empirical evidence to back up this conclusion. In a recent study researchers report:

To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.

This reflects the inherent asymmetry. Factual information is constrained by reality. You can also look at it as factual information is optimized to be true and accurate. While false information is not constrained by reality and can be optimized to evoke an emotional reaction, to be good storytelling, and for drama.

We see this in many contexts. In medicine, the rise of so-called alternative medicine has been greatly aided by the fact that alternative practitioners can tell patients what they want to hear. They can craft their diagnoses and treatments for optimal marketing, rather than optimal outcomes.

I do think, however, that the advantages of false information are largely (not entirely) short term. Factual information does have a long term advantage of being true. False information can be debunked, and if it is amenable to research can be demonstrated to be false. This is why science is so important – it is a process that gives a long term advantage to facts. Without it or a similar process, the short term advantages of fiction would prevail indefinitely.

We can also look at this from the perspective of the free marketplace of ideas. Now, I am a fan of the free market and recognize its power. But it has limitations that need to be understood. The best analogy, in my opinion, is evolution.

Evolutionary forces only respond to immediate survival advantage. They cannot look deep into the future, but only adapt populations to their immediate environment. For these reasons populations can evolve themselves into a corner – develop features that provide a short term advantage but doom them to long term extinction. The peacock is an excellent example – the highly specific adaptation of its beautiful plumage may have given males a reproductive advantage, but is not a good strategy for long-term adaptability.

Market forces are similar, they tend to be short term. Of course, humans can think about the future and can plan long term, so they do not have to be as “blind” as evolution. But collective market forces acting in congregate without any coordinated planning lead to boom and bust cycles, exploitation, and unsustainable disparity.

The free market of ideas is similar – mass media tends to favor the short term advantages of sensationalism, click-bait, fake news, curated news, and viral content.

I am not advocating for any kind of “central planning.” That throws the baby out with the bathwater, goes to the other extreme and brings its own set of (arguably far worse) problems. Aggregate market forces can also be powerful and useful. Millions of individual decisions are an efficient way of generating information, about the value of goods and services, or about the usefulness of information. Crowdsourcing can be a useful way to generate ideas and root out misinformation.

Different societies strike a different balance between central control and the free market. I think history shows that the type of society that works best are ones with a light but thoughtful and effective hand on the free market (but that is admittedly my bias).

I do think there is a win-win in all of this too, however, and that is human institutions. We have developed many institutions, some good some bad, but the best can serve to add a layer of quality control and legitimacy to the free market. Science, of course, is one such institution, but so is academia, various professions, and journalism.

What functional institutions do is formalize a process by which quality is prioritized and optimized. Journalists have standards of information. Doctors have a standard of care. Scientists have standards of evidence. It is these institutions who are the guardians of reality, and provide the long term advantage to truthful information.

Quality control often goes directly against market forces. Medical interventions can be scary, expensive, and painful. Outcomes are also often not easy to judge. The perception of medical outcomes may be overwhelmed by placebo effects, and may require statistical analysis to see. Since there is no way to know what would have happened with or without any particular treatment, it is essentially impossible for an individual to judge how a treatment worked.

I have also written extensively about the power of a good narrative. A good story, powerful ideology, or emotional narrative can overwhelm facts and reason. People are only semi-rational. We have the capacity for logic, but we all operate with a large number of cognitive biases and flawed heuristics. These biases can be exploited to sell a narrative that meshes with our biases, rather than pushing against them. This is often called marketing.

Social media has clearly shifted the balance toward the free market, eroding institutions of quality control. Twitter is just one example, and it is entirely no surprise that fake news spread farther and faster than true news on such a medium.

This has caused us collectively to rethink our current balance between the free market and mechanisms of quality control. As always, the ultimate quality control is ourselves. There is no substitute for an informed individual capable of evaluating claims and information critically. As a society we should put an extremely high priority on education, emphasizing critical thinking skills.

But the world is far too complex for every individual to be responsible for every piece of information that affects their lives. We can’t all be our own experts in every sphere,  it’s just not possible, let alone practical. We all want a minimum baseline of quality control and assurance.

We’d like to know that the cars we drive are safe, even without being our own mechanics. So then we need an institution whose job it is to be an expert in auto engineering, and to assure a minimum safety and quality of cars on the market.

Likewise, licensed professionals should have standards of education, competence, and ethics.

It gets trickier when we deal with information, because the ability to filter or curate information is so powerful we should think carefully before entrusting it to any institution. Certainly the government should not have such power, and the First Amendment guarantees that they don’t. But people who loudly proclaim their freedom to access information, often let other institutions curate their information for them, institutions that care only about making money, or promoting an agenda or ideology. This is the echochamber trap we need to avoid as individuals.

We also depend to some extent on information providing institutions to self-regulate, to impose quality standards on themselves. This means forgoing short term gain in order to build and then protect their reputation for the long term. But in order for this strategy to work, the public has to reward it. That is why it is important not to reward click-bait, and to reward quality journalism.

So again it gets back to having an educated population with critical thinking skills. Our founders were correct, it seems, in realizing that democracy depends on an educated electorate. Democratic societies also tend to get more democratic over time, and social media has just accelerated this trend. This, in turn, means that education and critical thinking is getting more and more important.

No responses yet