Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In which Vox discovers that it has not solved the information selection problem

Vox's Zack Beauchamp presents an interesting -- for what it reveals about the underlying thinking -- piece of media criticism. His thesis is that (1) the Russians and Wikileaks have come up with the dastardly tactic of dumping huge amounts of hacked searchable potentially embarrassing Clinton-connected e-mails into the public domain through which journalists get rat-raced into cherry-picking the most embarrassing ones and (2) once this channel is established, the Russians will dump false information into the now legitimized information pool and embarrass Clinton -- and the media -- even more:

The press, by signal-boosting these disclosures, makes these accusations more credible to voters who don’t really understand that these disclosures, however problematic, don’t bear on the fundamental fairness of the November election. They just see plotting and conspiracy ... Russia’s strategy is even more dangerous that it appears. Not only does it undermine democracy using the press but it actually gets the press to undermine itself. And there’s not much we can reasonably do about it, either ... The press may end up unintentionally propagating false information, even if it reports denials by the targets alongside the fake revelations. That undermines its role as societal truth teller and thus the public’s already damaged faith in the press’s honesty.

When Ezra Klein was making the original pitch for Vox, it was that conventional media consisted of a bunch of easily distracted prehistoric hacks who had only one criterion for determining what to publish: whether information was "new" --

But you can print a newspaper telling them what they need to know about what happened on Monday. The constraint of newness was crucial. The web has no such limits. There's space to tell people both what happened today and what happened that led to today. But the software newsrooms have adopted in the digital age has too often reinforced a workflow built around the old medium. We've made the news faster, more beautiful, and more accessible. But in doing we've carried the constraints of an old technology over to a new one. Today, we are better than ever at telling people what's happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what's happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.

And so Vox would be about context -- ideally backed up by data -- and not just about newness of information.

Now we learn that the media can't be trusted with all that limitless Web of information, because they'll pluck out the most awkward parts and undermine their long-standing role as truth-tellers, who managed to do all that truth-telling despite the False God of newness!

The deeper problem for the New Pundits at Vox, as any sociologist could have told them long ago, is that with information overload, everyone, individuals and institutions, has filters for determining what is "news." Data-informed context was supposed to be a superior filter, but that only moved the problem up one layer, and did nothing to end the circularity of which political news is relevant. And in that void, political preferences, still, come to the fore.

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