How junk food information starves democracy

We gobble up 'delicious' messages whether they are true or not, writes Professor Dan Maffei, one of the international experts taking part in Victoria University of Wellington's 'Open knowledge versus fake news' event.

If you want to understand what is happening to politics around the world, you could do worse than a recent blog by US patent attorney Vanessa Otero, who wrote that "our American habits around food consumption are highly analogous to the habits we have around news and information consumption".

We all know too much junk food is bad for us and yet we still want it, because evolution prepared humans to live in a world where salty and sweet foods were rare. Today, it's easy to get these foods from companies eager to sell them and so we overeat junk food.

Similarly, for aeons, survival dictated our brains give certain kinds of information priority. Information connected to intense negative emotions such as fear and rage elicited a compulsion to pay attention. As Professor of Psychology Joel Weinberger once put it, "If you miss a leopard, it's over for you. If you miss a deer, oh well, you're hungry. People are more focused on negative information."

Of course, humans also evolved a capacity to seek and understand more complex ideas, just as we developed a taste for foods rich in complex nutrients, like green vegetables. Nonetheless, our bias for emotion makes us more vulnerable to opting for the more immediate satisfaction emotion-laden messages contain.

The information we crave the most involves stereotypes, scapegoating, conspiracy theories and confirmation bias. Neuroscientists have found that these sort of messages in our brains correspond to increased levels of dopamine. It actually feels better to consume this information, even if it isn't true.

The internet has changed the availability of certain kinds of information. In the past, BuzzFeed's Craig Silverman has pointed out, "sure, you might consume media that aligned with your views, but the universe of the stuff you could pull from was relatively limited. Now it's unlimited. So we have a lot more extreme stuff".

We have become the kids in the candy store when it comes to getting information – and not just in the US, but in New Zealand and any democracy with free access to the Internet. We gobble up "delicious" messages whether they are true or not.

Commercial incentives prompt information sources to do whatever attracts the most views, clicks, likes, retweets and other marketable metrics. Unfortunately, highly biased, opinionated, low-quality and "clickbait" headlines and content drive revenue more easily than high-quality, less-biased headlines and content.

Paradoxically, while media outlets proliferate, it becomes difficult to find reliable fact-based information – like trying to find a farmers' market at night in a shopping mall food court. To survive an ultra-competitive media environment, even mainstream media cynically treats politics as a horserace and a contact sport.

Most people consume news that, at best, reflects the political system as a fun-house mirror would, showing some parts exaggerated (polarisation, corruption, rancour) and others minimised. The result, as evidenced by long-term public opinion survey trends, is a dominance of cynicism and deepening mistrust of our governing institutions.

Ramped cynicism reduces participation. The ability to channel the anger and fear of voters becomes a far bigger factor in political success than policy ideas, issue positions or organisation building. And the process becomes self-fulfilling. As more voters perceive such a terribly polarised and corrupt system, they too drop out and cede the collective decision making to the extremes.

United States Founding Father and fourth President James Madison understood that good information was a democratic necessity when he wrote in 1822, "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both … a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

In the internet age, mass media and the profit motive have made it extremely challenging for millions of voters to be well-informed decision makers. Democracy cannot survive forever in such circumstances.

Former Congressman Dan Maffei is Professor of Practice in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University in the US. He and other international experts will be discussing 'Open knowledge vs fake news' in a free public event at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington on 6 November as part of Victoria University of Wellington's Capital City Universities Initiative.

Read the original article on Stuff.