Relevancy and Truth

One of the more non-consensus views I hold is that the most venerable institutions of journalism – eg. The New York Times and Washington Post – are more likely to exist in something approximating their existing form in 50 or 100 years than are the big eyeball platforms like Google and Facebook. The recent controversy over “fake news” on both platforms demonstrates why.

The big criticism of these platforms today boils down to their respective services being increasingly gamed to deliver inaccurate, misleading or offensive content. For Google’s part, fraudulent information will occasionally appear at the top of search results for certain queries, serving up content on how Donald Trump really won the popular vote, or Holocaust denial, or crystals that cure cancer or something. At Facebook, fake news spreads like kudzu among and between communities primed to click on the agitprop of the day. In short, the two companies that organized the world’s information and social graph are grappling with how to handle a fundamental dilemma between relevancy and truth, which strikes to the heart of the advertising model that underlies their respective empires.

The advertising machines that have made these two companies into pillars of modern society are built by offering relevancy, not truth. After all, selling ads against what people want to look at is a lot easier than selling against what they should. The kernel of the problem is this: if enough people link to or share an exposé about how Hillary Clinton is secretly a lizard person, should algorithms based on relevancy alone not boost its signal in search and trending graphs? If not, then where do these companies draw the line in adjudicating the “truthiness” of content their algorithms sort?

It’s obvious that the last thing either Google or Facebook want to do is be forced into the role of playing referee on the veracity of the content on their platforms. Not only would that be totally impractical, but it would interrupt the critical value proposition their products provide: offering the content most relevant to their interests, which keeps users using their products. This fundamental conflict is why calls for these companies to internally police fraudulent information are doomed to fail.

It’s hard to imagine any other effective mechanism to tamp down the scourge of “fake news,” which we’ve heretofore always just called rumor. Not only has it been with us since the invention of the printing press (pamphleteers spread outrageous rumors about the Founding Fathers in their day too), but the American legal system offers no remedy to combat it. If Google and Facebook do not particularly care to suppress information designed specifically to mislead and confuse, no one else probably can. After all, whether it arises from the tabloid press or state-sponsored culture jammers (not infrequently in coordination with each other), fake news thrives on relevancy.

The consequences of a society saturated in rumor and innuendo are not great. Where the truth is made all the more uncertain because of a lack of a tradition of independent journalism, democratic society becomes brittle. Eastern Europe and Ukraine in particular have long experience with this, precisely because of their proximity and historical enmity with Russia. (Check out this interview for some fascinating background on how.)

The only other option is cultural adaptation, which simply takes time. But it also requires the persistence of truth, which is where the value of journalistic institutions come in.

The difference between an organization and an institution is that the latter is inoculated with some set of values, not simply naked self-interest. Every society rests on certain institutions – political, economic, cultural – that define and perpetuate it. The independent judiciary, free enterprise, free expression, individualism – these are some of things that most Americans would identify as defining institutions. The free press, seeking truth and speaking it to power, would be another, probably just as fundamental. Institutions like the NYT and WaPo, among others, are “institutions” in part because of the long history, memory and values inculcated there over more than a century. This isn’t to overly romanticize for-profit newspapers, or to suggest that they are infallible. But as guardians of American democracy, they are at least as critical as those other institutions I listed above.

When the culture jamming of “fake news” makes the truth harder than ever to discern, it will increasingly be these institutions of journalism that will protect it. This is because the interests of the best news organizations are aligned not only to pursue relevancy, but also truth. The Washington Post doesn’t publish racist screeds, and the New York Times doesn’t recommend overthrowing liberal democracy, both because their readership would object and because it would offend the values of these century-old institutions, whose ownership hopefully sees themselves as stewards, and not just value-maximizers. Those values are what make them institutions, instead of just businesses, and distinguish them from tabloids like Fox News, Breitbart or The National Enquirer.

Google and Facebook, similarly, seem to hold no real values as such. They are both comparatively young organizations, whose owners seem to hold a very different set of concerns for how their companies will be understood in 25, 50 or 100 years. I’ve written before about how tech leaders need to accept greater social responsibility for how their products are used, but so far, we’ve seen little appetite to do so. I suspect this will change as the modern consumer web matures and these leaders personally experience the effects that abuse of their products wreak (like the election of 2016) – but time will tell.

Products that deliver relevancy, however, are likely to come and go more easily with technology cycles than brands whose central promise is the truth, which is why my long-term bets are on the nation’s great papers more than its tech platforms. “The truth” is always bound to be controversial, of course; but I suspect that even those who criticize these brands for bias often privately rely on them for reporting. Even the current POTUS, after all, who outrageously bashes both papers, begs them for favor behind the scenes.

Personally, I choose to pay for high-quality news. I peruse what’s on Twitter, of course, but the bulk of my news diet comes from the following sources, where I’m a paying subscriber:

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • The Atlantic
  • Mother Jones

I strongly recommend all of the above.

2 Replies

  • There are some really interesting points here. My instinct is to respond that the tech behind companies like facebook and google is immense and the amount of value created by that isn’t likely to go anywhere. Yet, even when I think about that, your point still holds… As hard as the problems of relevance, machine learning, and predicting what it is what people want to see are, the problem of creating institutions that retain the identity of truthful sources of information is harder. As you point out, there is no better proof of that then the current state of affairs. I love this point!

    minor thing — The sentence “The consequences of a society saturated in rumor and innuendo are not great” is a bit confusing, “great” suggests to me magnitude of consequence not the positive or negative quality of it! Maybe good is a better word choice?

    Overall great article, thanks!

  • Excellent post. One reason Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post four years was such a positive event is his convincingly expressed embrace of the values The Post embodies, truth over relevancy as you put it. Yes, he intends to experiment with technology in ways that increase the paper’s audience and, with a long runway, experiment its way toward a sustainable business model that takes advantage of the Internet. But all that is secondary to Democracy Dies in Darkness, the motto now emblazoned, with Bezos’s approval, on the masthead and everywhere else The Post displays real news.

    When Trump made threatening comments about Bezos and The Post, the new owner humorously by firmly promised to make his own sensitive body parts available to defend the paper, echoing John Mitchell’s infamous comment about what parts of Kay Graham were going to get caught in a wringer if The Post published a specific story related to Watergate.

    I heard Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, mock The Post’s new motto at South By Southwest this year, which appalled me. Of the two papers, I think The Times is more at risk of getting distracted by chasing clicks and relevancy instead of pursuing truth. Exhibit A: the paper’s deeply flawed over-coverage of Hillary’s email servers last year. At this point, the ownership of The Post appears more deeply aligned with the time-honored values of a free press than its main competitor. Thank God for them both, but I’m betting The Post in 50 or 100 years will be in a class by itself.

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