By now, you must have noticed that some of your friends on Twitter and Facebook end up circulating the same types of articles that end up advancing their own arguments and points of view. This behavior is not that different from two battling lawyers citing evidence in court proceedings. Whether you notice it or not, subconsciously your eyes and brain are already trained to expect this. While this is the world we live in today, I believe this world is changing; in the future, I believe that new generations of readers won’t be seduced into believing a columnist for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal is an authority or expert. In the future, opinion-leaders will have carve out their own audiences and distribution channels, and in the long-run, media consumers will be better off.
The behavioral economics behind this phenomena are well-documented in “The Market For News” (link to download) by two of Harvard’s star economists, Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer: “We investigate the market for news under two assumptions: that readers hold beliefs which they like to see confirmed, and that newspapers can slant stories toward these beliefs. We show that, on the topics where readers share common beliefs, one should not expect accuracy even from competitive media: competition results in lower prices, but common slanting toward reader biases. On topics where reader beliefs diverge (such as politically divisive issues), however, newspapers segment the market and slant toward extreme positions. Yet in the aggregate, a reader with access to all news sources could get an unbiased perspective. Generally speaking, reader heterogeneity is more important for accuracy in media than competition per se.”
In real life, this is one way it plays out. To illustrate the point, I’ll pick on two commentators I believe are very sharp writers but unfortunately end up beating the same drum with every argument, column, and tweet. On the left, you have Tom Friedman (@tomfriedman) from the New York Times, who has one of the most influential writing platforms in the world. On the left, you have a writer like Tunku Varadarajan (@tunkuv) from the Wall Street Journal, also extremely influential. Friedman uses his pulpit to drive left-of-center arguments about immigration, clean energy, and calling out Republicans’ penchant for saying “no.” He pushes arguments liberals gel with. Varadarajan uses his platform to drive right-of-center viewpoints on topics such as the economy, statewide elections, and neo-conservative theories (he’s a fellow at Hoover @ Stanford).
I wonder how many people on Twitter follow both Friedman and Tunku. Probably not many. Neither of them really follow anyone. They don’t write @replies. Twitter is just another distribution platform for them to push their views and brands out. We then end up consuming news information and opinion of subjective thought-leaders based on our own existing biases. It’s hard work and time-consuming to dig deeper into the arguments on the other side, and even more so to go beyond identifying a problem to actually proposing solutions that would be practically feasible.
Update Nov 4, 2010: Tunku just wrote a column trying to convince his readers that India is “George Bush Country,” which couldn’t be further from the truth — link here.
This is the world today, but it is changing. The next Tom Friedman and the next Tunku Varadarajan will not have the luxury of being selected by the NYT or the WSJ to drive opinion and chattering class conversations in the future. The next class of opinion leader won’t waste their time trying to get a blog on the Huffington Post or get picked up by Matt Drudge. Instead, they will need to build their views and audiences without a larger brand above them carving out a biased audience. In the long run, with better filters and mechanisms online to discover and vet new information, readers will be better off and, potentially, more informed. For real.