The Marketplace of Ideas Optimizes Towards Virality, Not Truth
“The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” So wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, predicting an ideology which would burrow itself deep into the culture of Silicon Valley a century later.
That the best ideas naturally rise to the top, and therefore the spread of ideas is an unfettered good, justifies Twitter’s mission―”to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers” and YouTube’s core value―”We believe everyone should have a chance to be discovered… and that people — not gatekeepers — decide what’s popular”. It’s reflected in Google’s value that “democracy on the web works”―and in Facebook’s mission―“to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”.
But these companies reach billions and build empires by selling ads, and advertising is not an exercise in deference to the crowd’s impartial judgment of an idea’s value. Tech giants will run a million tests on wording, on timing, on audience for an idea, but the answer to what to change is never the idea itself, which I witnessed each day of my four years at Google. When a psychic hotline in my portfolio began to underperform, we did not rejoice that the better idea―spending your money anywhere else―won out, that the truth prevailed and had left the charlatans bankrupt. Nor did we go to the client, cap in hand, bearing the awful news that the marketplace of ideas had rendered soothsaying and fortune telling unworthy of serious consideration in the modern world.
No, we instead added code to the client’s checkout page to tell us what users were about to pay before their better sense won out, then instructed the client to spend tens of thousands bombarding those users with ads for the psychic from whom they turned away. And what idea won out for the man or woman who had made it all the way to checkout for a psychic hotline? That the parameters in the url they visited had been passed, along with a unique cookie id, to a Google database, which a bot detected and in turn bid against a thousand other bots in a three millisecond long auction for the right to deliver that ad with the same psychic on Google-held ad space? Or that the psychic they had doubted had summoned the supernatural to reappear? Revenue grew by 20%, and then we rejoiced.
Bad ideas need not rely on technical wizardry to bury good ones. From the beginning of Life to the very near present day, our ancestors lived and died at the whims of nature. Floods, hurricanes, wildfire, and blizzards would arise with little warning and claim hundreds. Meteorology allowed us to peer into the future, to tell us to act when disasters near, and in doing so saved countless lives. But when the same science applied to a scale of decades tells us that human activity is warming the earth, creating irreparable harm, and leading to unfathomable disaster, 40% of Americans reject the meteorologists outright.
When the Spaniards first arrived in Tenochtitlan, they found a city of “such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real”. When they returned only two years later, the dead lay in the streets, boils defacing their corpses―the bed-stricken survivors left to starve. The doomed denizens of the Aztec capital were among the first of perhaps twenty million to succumb to smallpox in the Americas. The conquerors’ immunity had not come cheaply: in parts of Europe, smallpox gruesomely ended the life of every seventh child. From 1900 to 1979, some five hundred million more perished from the disease. Its eradication has few equals among human achievement. Yet, only 53% of Americans are confident in the effectiveness of vaccines.
The list goes on and on: Evolution by natural selection, 31% acceptance; the Big Bang, 21%; that GMOs are safe to eat, 37%. Rather than rising, the most thoroughly proven ideas lag far behind the most outlandish (hauntings, 52%) and find themselves stuck in the doldrums with the truly bizarre (ancient aliens, 35%; witchcraft, 21%).
If only old superstition alone stood in the way, for plain ignorance regularly bests the best evidenced ideas. No one disputes the location of the Pacific Ocean, but 21% of Americans cannot find it on a map. There is no angle in denying the chemical most abundant in the atmosphere, but 78% are unaware it’s Nitrogen. No core conviction is upheld by rejecting the math of compound interest, but 35% of Americans don’t know a 2% annual return on $100 over five years yields more than $2.
The marketplace of ideas gives little heed to scientific rigor or truth in deciding victors. Google, Facebook, and Twitter do not approach their clients with suggestions for greater transparency and more peer reviewed citations on ads. They apply the best minds in the world to the task of finding how everything but the idea itself can change an idea’s success. That’s a fine way to disrupt then dominate an industry but renders a damning verdict on the wisdom of the marketplace of ideas.
Unfathomably Powerful Communication Tools Are Not Public Squares
The world’s best minds were more than up to that task. More than one billion use YouTube daily. They watch ten times as long as only five years earlier. And fifty million have uploaded a video of their own―actually a hundred on average, for a total of five billion videos on the service.
And why wouldn’t you flock to the tool? YouTube will host your gigabytes worth of data for free. They’ll let anyone in the world find and access your videos in an instant, tell you who watched the video, for how long, and how they found it. You need only title and categorize your video, and YouTube will turn the world’s best AI on its audience, composed of every seventh member of humanity, to find who’s most receptive to your message and deliver them to your channel. In a matter of minutes, you are more powerful than the most advanced advertiser of a decade ago.
If that power’s not enough, head over to Twitter where attaching your message to the right hashtag can suddenly put your words in front of millions. Or Facebook, which will ensure those of your friends likeliest to share your message share it, that their friends likeliest to share do the same, and then the friends of their friends, and of their friends.
If you doubt that power, ask Hosni Mubarak. For three decades, he ruled Egypt with unflinching severity. Until late 2010, analysts bickered over which son would take the reigns, and only the truly daring would venture the intelligence chief was next in line. Then Twitter connected activists, emboldened fence sitters, and summoned for users the courage to pour onto the streets by the hundreds of thousands. Facebook showed the activists they were surrounded by the likeminded. They skirted beneath the lethal gaze of the police state and brought it tumbling down.
Regime change had been the reserve of generals and spymasters. Now Twitter and Facebook were bringing that power to the masses.
This telling of Mubarak’s fall, however facile and incomplete, caught fire and dominated headlines. But where were the headlines on how Tahrir Square’s airy layout had awoken the common man? How the wide promenades of the Alexandria Corniche brought a strongman to heel? How the leafy shade of Suez’s Martyrs’ Garden united those who demanded freedom?
Public squares do not upend worldviews. A kit of immensely powerful communication tools is another story entirely. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are exactly as they sell themselves: they find the right (most susceptible) person, and deliver them the right message (the one they’re most susceptible to) at the right time (in their most susceptible state).
In the early days of my intelligence career, I was made to watch the then obscure Alex Jones, as he leveled veiled threats against our customers who, in his mush of a mind, sprayed mind control gas across the sky, dissected aliens, and pledged loyalty to cabals from Dan Brown novels. While all I could do was throw my hands up and wonder who could believe that seatbelt laws foretold a totalitarian takeover, the tech giants’ algorithms were busy finding exactly who would and bringing them back to Jones’ channel, account, and page again and again. With their help, his lies, slander, and vitriol reached and convinced millions, even at the highest levels of power.
In the words of each tech giant, their products do better by their creators with each weekly release. So as Jones convinced acolytes to accost parents who saw their five-year-olds gunned down at Sandy Hook, YouTube gave him new tools to “increase [his] reach” with “improved discoverability”. As Jones helped to detach a follower so fully from reality that he shot up a pizzeria, Facebook gave the conspiracy theorist the chance to “Connect with Over 1 Billion People” and Twitter let him “get in front of [his] audience during the moments that matter”.
What sort of moral code allows for that response? The same that would meet with a collective shrug its inextricable connection to the rise of the alt-right, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, holocaust-deniers, rabid Islamophobes, and a dozen other despicable groups formerly on the fringe.
YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are not governments deciding who can say what and when. They are advertising companies who make, sell, and profit from incredible tools for advertising. They must judge who they give that power to accordingly.