Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Media Moncultures

Pew research has released a substantial study on how the left-vs-right consumes media. The findings were fairly stark--but not all that surprising. Conservatives cluster around Fox News--liberals choose between NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. The more conservative you are, the more you trust Rush Limbaugh. Nobody trusts Buzzfeed.

Conservatives have a tighter social-media bubble (the tendency of you to surround yourself with like-minded people sending like-minded messages)--but the more consistently liberal were more likely to de-friend someone over political posting.

You can look at the numbers and the graphs at the link above.

The Problem Isn't Ignorance--It's What So Many People Know That Ain't So

If you have been paying attention, you know that Fox News viewers consistently score as less well informed on tests made by people who probably don't like Fox's perspective. Certainly the Fox line-up is far more heavily weighted with editorial than actual reporting--but that's also truer to lesser-degrees with the other big-name outlets (save, perhaps, for NPR).

Still, even if you think Fox New's actual news is okay, the take-away isn't that "climate science isn't settled" but rather that as the wagons circle tighter and tighter the end game isn't pretty.

In agriculture the term 'monoculture' refers to the practice of growing the same crop over a huge area for many years. It yields big harvests--but with increased susceptibility to pathogens and parasites. This is the danger (or, if you are less conservative, "What has already happened") to conservatives--and could happen (but is showing fewer signs of it) to liberals.

In this analogy, bad ideas (that Ebola is a clear and present danger to American society, for example) get "loose" in the information system (Fox New's opinion shows) and can "spread unchecked" throughout the viewers (which include a large percentage of Republicans). This should be of concern to anyone--even if you think Fox mostly gets it right.

Exactly how this works isn't a mystery: you start hearing the same things over and over and no one is saying anything different ... you hear it from your like-minded friends--it seems legit.

The problem isn't with how it works--it's why--and while we're at it, why are liberals more diverse?

Why This Works
If the Media Bubble were dedicated to protecting specific beliefs (such as that Global Warming is a lie) that would be one thing--but it's not. The Media Bubble isn't protecting the idea that Benghazi was a cover-up--or that Obama's birth certificate might--hey--be fake (who knows? I'm Just Asking Questions!). No: the Media Bubble protects you.

Reading things (absorbing messages) that are contrary to significant parts of your self-image is painful. The Media Bubble helps ensure that this "damage" won't get in. It also acts as a counter-agent by giving you a story--an "antidote"--to ideas that you wouldn't like. These are the talking points that you use to dismiss uncomfortable information*.

Remember: if an idea you can't dismiss does penetrate then you start to wonder. If you are wondering about something that you hold as integral to your self-image, it is the unpleasant sensation of self-doubt. You don't want that. Nobody does.

So this brings us back to the question: if one team is building a stronger protective cocoon, then the other, why so?

Fundamentally the reason is that one team is being bombarded with more unpleasant messages than the other. Liberals can afford more news media because less of it is unpleasant (you can make the case that most media is liberal--but the primary news sources listed still differ in their degree of librality--not to mention things like The Economist). If you look at the two brackets (below) for which sides have more friends with differing views the difference is far more stark than if you just take the top slots:
For the conservative side it's 108 (66+42) that have a most-friends bubble. For the liberal side it's 78--a 30point difference. The more you need protecting, the more you're going to surround yourself with protective ideas. Let's keep this in perspective: geography and employment will do far more to segregate who you deal with than how much your self-image needs protecting--but the fact remains that this kind of protective person-based segregation mirrors the protective media-watching behavior.

The takeaway from this is that conservatives, in today's world, get more challenging messages than liberals--by a substantial margin. Some of this is changing cultural values (such as the dramatic rise in acceptance of same-sex-marriage). Some of it is strategically driven by monetization (doomsday conspiracy theory makes money so you'll see more of it**). Some of it is, that, yes, a lot of media is pretty liberal (but be careful if that's where you go first: Fox News isn't liberal--but there are substantial questions about its accuracy--especially if you include the majority of programming that surrounds the actual news segments).

These are all reasons that conservatives might find some messages unpleasant. None of these are exactly "their fault." But ... some of it is. Conservatives have, recently, believed something that was very much not true--and believed it pervasively. We can question what's really going on with climate change because (although the climatologists are overwhelmingly decisive) but we can't question the accuracy of 2012 polling aggregates--except we did--until Nov 6th ... around 10 PM.

Today, with polls pointing against Democrats, we do not see the same in-the-cross-tabs "poll unskewing" in the massive numbers that we did in 2012 with Republicans. We also see the major analysts hewing to the actual political science rather than making Karl Rove or Michael Barone-style (i.e. 'wild-ass') predictions designed to convince people that "everything is okay."

This is probably not because liberals are better people or necessarily even "more reality based" (although some readers will think that)--but may simply be because the preponderance of signals 'allows' for some bad news (if gay marriage is winning in the courts maybe you can handle some unpleasant polls?). On the other hand, it may well explain why liberals are more likely to drop a conservative friend: if your media bubble is so thick that reality--some realities, anyway--can't penetrate, a logical conclusion is that the dropper just decided you weren't worth talking to.

A Media Monoculture as a defensive strategy runs exactly this risk: it will keep you comfortable as long as it can--but when it starts screening out reality how will you know?

Who will be able to tell you?
The Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses have been designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. They work by turning completely dark at the first sign of danger, thus preventing you from seeing anything that might alarm you.

* We'll pause here to not that "uncomfortable information" could be that mankind is NOT behind Global Warming if you're a liberal ... or (apparently) a climate scientist (well, most climate scientists, anyway).

** While we're here, let's note that the protective aspects of media selection are only part (but a big one--a huge driver in our every-day behavior is protection) of the picture. Ideological entertainment is a big draw (John Stewart as a primary liberal example). So is Feeding-A-Sense-Of-Outrage. At the bottom of it, though, feeding that sense of outrage is also a protection (and so is the FEMA is coming for us stuff). When you are told you should be outraged ... and it justifies a sense of anger you already feel, once again the message protects you from self-doubt.

If you are already angry--even if not about the "same things." For example, if you hated Obama before Benghazi--but now, and constantly, you are 'reminded' of the outrage, the  'reminder' becomes the protection--a positive-feeling reinforcement that you are justified in your anger--emotional support for whatever was there previously.

The apocalyptic stuff justifies a sense of anxiety that is probably not originally related to the world's choice of American money for petrodollars or whatever they're presently trying to sell you. The upside for justifying your sense of anxiety is that it also allows them to sell you gold, freeze-dried food, and numerous, highly questionable books.

1 comment:

  1. As you've previously noted, there was and is a lot of beyond-dubious gold-buggery being hawked in and around conservative outlets - enough to disgust even Glenn Beck, apparently. What might have felt like "protection" to some - 40+ years ago - is now simple dishonesty and mercantile predation.

    Who benefits? Nobody I know, or want to. And that only reinforces your point.

    -- Ω