Morning Ed: Media {2018.03.04.Su}


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    [Me2] This link appears to be broken.

    [Me1] Pretty much what I’ve been saying. Hate clicking is a thing. I’ve realized this since Allysa Bereznak wrote a hate piece about her date with Jon Finkel, slamming him and every other man who’s ever played Magic: The Gathering as unfit for a relationship with, apparently, all women. That thing got an overwhelming amount of hate clicks, which put some money in Bereznak’s pocket.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      People who are denouncing fake news tend to provide links to fake news as examples. That doesn’t help prevent the spread of fake news but not providing examples doesn’t work either.Report

      • Avatar InMD says:

        It’s a hard problem to solve when the only viable solution is to create smarter consumers of information. Social media makes it easier for people who know better to send something out to thousands of others before reflecting.

        Granted I maintain that the Glenn Greenwalds of the world are fundamentally right about this being a problem of the media’s own creation.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Incentives are a straight forward concept, but remarkably difficult for people to think carefully about.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Maybe it’s hard to think carefully about them because they’re not actually a straightforward concept.Report

            • Avatar KenB says:

              I’ve never seen anyone struggle with the concept itself. I’ve seen lots of people (including myself) struggle with applying it to real-world decisions and analyses.

              E.g., leaving aside politics and society, a good chunk of the parenting books we had were dedicated to getting us to spend less time reacting based on our sense of fair/unfair, right/wrong, etc., and more time thinking through how our kids would likely behave in the future in response to the decisions we made in the present; but we failed in that more often than we succeeded.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Exactly. The idea isn’t hard to grasp. If you offer or demand X, rational (i.e. not insane) people will, on average, respond with Y. It’s a bit trickier to put into practice because A) the people setting up the incentives have priors which interfere with their expectations, and B) there are other incentives at play that screw with things.

                There are probably a C & a D as well, or more, but those are the two I got.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                So, not straightforward at all, then, right?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Yes, very straightforward concept. About as basic a concept as it gets. No one has hard time grasping the idea.

                But understanding and implementing are different things.

                Now stop being obtuse.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I’m not being obtuse. I don’t think any of this – from the definition of the term to their use as a means of social engineering – is easy to understand.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                As an example of what I mean, the classic definition of Christian God is easy to understand – it’s a list of properties with the word “all” in front of each – but that doesn’t mean the *concept* is easy to understand or that understanding the world in terms of God is straightforward.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                @road-scholar get’s it, I’m not sure why you are trying to make the basic idea more difficult than it is.

                If you can understand pain, or pleasure, or hunger, you can understand how incentives work.

                It’s like this; integrals are essentially addition. Understanding that they are addition doesn’t mean you understand how to solve an integral.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I agree with Road’s comment: Public Choice Theory and a libertarianist harping about the role incentives play leads to all sorts of ass-backwards causally-confused analyses of social and economic dynamics.

                But look at it this way: you yourself used the term “rational” in a comment up there – “If you offer or demand X, rational (i.e. not insane) people will, on average, respond with Y.” Seems to me the only way for that sentence to make sense is by circularly defining the word “rational” in terms of the likelihood of people doing/not doing Y in the presence of X.

                People are incentivized by all sorts of things, some opaque to external observation, some opaque to even internal, subjective observation. On a broad enough definition, everything we do as humans is the result of responding to incentives, and that point a theory of incentives is useless. Narrower more useful theoretical definitions, where the meaning is restricted to topic-relevant behavior and cashed out in technical terms, are useful for that area of inquiry, but are intentionally and artificially incomplete.

                That isn’t to say interesting insights can’t emerge from looking at, say, changes in crime statistics before and after a deterrent is imposed on individual behavior, of course. Or the role the FHA played in the financial collapse of 2008.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                Indeed. Even vociferous advocates of incentives-based reasoning– i.e., libertarians with their constant harping on Public Choice* theory — seem flummoxed at times.

                Take the 2008 financial meltdown for example. I read more than one argument along the lines that the banks and Wall Street couldn’t possibly be at fault because Why would a bank do something injurious to its own interests? Totally ignoring that the bank per se is a non-sentient corporate entity and eliding the fact of many actual human beings working within those structures with financial incentives at odds with the purported interests of their company. Some banks took losses or even collapsed. The people running them? Not so much. And many times those people were the ones responsible for engineering those incentive structures in the first place.

                * Public Choice is a fine analytical framework but it’s generally deployed as a ready-made argument for why liberals are silly to want nice things rather than a guide to institutional design. Including corporations.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                This is where Quine can help us. It’s not enough to understand something as an isolated concept. Instead, we have to understand that concept as it fits within our entire system of belief. For example, one might say, “General relativity is simple. It’s just the idea that mass/energy bends time/space and that’s what makes gravity.”

                Which sure, but tensor field theory and differential geometry are legit complicated, and if you don’t understand those, then you don’t understand general relativity.

                Yeah maybe “the idea” of incentives is simple, but it’s only simple when we ignore how incentives fit into our actual social systems, which in turn means we don’t really understand.

                The illusion of simplicity is actually a big part of the problem.

                Proposal: a thing is “simple” when you can write an algorithm that works.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


                A person can understand a concept and yet not know how to put the concept into practice. Especially as applied to a complex system.

                I understand voltage, and current and resistance and induction. I can even design and build a simple circuit. Doesn’t mean I can design an IC. I’ve got the basic pieces, but I have no idea how to put them together into something complex*.

                As to the OP, the MSM should grok incentives, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to be thinking about them deeply enough to get from the first time a “Clueless fool thinks an online Onion article is news” to clickbait and fake news.

                IMHO, part of our problem isn’t the illusion of simplicity, it’s the belief of competence. The belief a person holds that because they understand the basic idea of incentives, they are competent to structure them.

                *When I took Control Theory, one of the first things I had to get through my head was that I was designing the system, not the components. I was a bit panicked at the start when I thought I’d have to be doing some Electrical Engineering, rather than just treating the components as black boxes whose inputs and outputs were all I cared about.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                A person can understand a concept and yet not know how to put the concept into practice.

                Right! We agree on that. And in the extreme case, if a person doesn’t know how to put a concept into practice at all, that concept has zero explanatory or analytical utility.

                {{I also think the concept of incentives, like the concept of God, isn’t very clearly understood.}}Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                if a person doesn’t know how to put a concept into practice at all, that concept has zero explanatory or analytical utility.

                I disagree with this. If this was true, Carl Sagan would have never become a household name. Science, mathematics, philosophy – none as we know it would be able to advance.

                Understanding a concept is not a binary, it’s a gradient. A person can not understand something at all, or have a very shallow understanding, or a well grounded understanding, or a deep understanding, or a fully functional understanding.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Einstein is famous because the concept of gravity he invented/discovered is *really fucking hard to understand*. The concept of an incentive, as you wrote upthread, is really easy to understand. If the analogy holds, the concept of an incentive which will allow a theory of incentives to have the desired explanatory power hasn’t been invented/discovered yet and will be *really fucking hard to understand*.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                No, it was really hard to understand at the time, because it was new, and counter-intuitive to everything we knew at the time.

                Then someone figured out how to explain it with a tightly stretched rubber sheet, a bowling ball, and some marbles, and the concept became easy to understand.

                The math behind the concept, and the physics, and how to actually use that concept to do things is still really fucking hard to work, but the basic idea is easy to grok.

                Likewise, incentives are easy to understand. Behavioral Economics is much more difficult.

                And I am still not understanding why you seem to be treating this as a binary (not understanding/ understanding completely).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                No, it was really hard to understand at the time, because it was new, and counter-intuitive to everything we knew at the time.

                See Veronica’s comment above. To understand special and general relativity you need to understand all the underlying math, and I’ve never heard anyone who claims to understand those theories ever say otherwise.

                {{I don’t understand them. 🙂 }}Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Your definition of ‘understanding’ is too specific. It allows for only a single definition when the idea encompasses a range of values.

                Do you understand how airplanes fly? How lift works? The general concept (high pressure under the wing, low pressure above)?

                You know that you need to have a wing and that you have to get air moving around the wing, right?

                You understand the general concept of how a wing works, correct?

                Maybe you even understand Bernoulli and how that plays into it with regard to airfoil shape?

                Doesn’t mean you can build an aircraft, but the general concept is understandable by people who do not have the math or the detailed understanding of aerodynamic lift. I know this because people build paper airplanes every fecking day, and they don’t have engineering degrees.

                Understanding is a gradient. If you are unwilling to accept this, then there is no point in continuing this conversation.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Whether individual understanding is a gradient or binary isn’t relevant to this discussion, Oscar. We’re talking about the explanatory power of a specific theory – the theory of incentives – and discussing whether that theory straightforwardly follows from a simple concept or not. My argument is that nothing about incentives is straightforward, which you’ve seemed to agree with (except the part about the definition being easy to understand). If your argument is that in the future a mature Theory of Incentives might explain all of human behavior, or all of human economic behavior, or something even less, then I concede it’s possible. But not without a radical revision of the common-sense concept from which those explanations currently don’t flow, and a revision which is hard to see taking place given the behavior an incentive-theorist is attempting to explain.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                We’re talking about the explanatory power of a specific theory – the theory of incentives – and discussing whether that theory straightforwardly follows from a simple concept or not.

                Why exactly are you and I doing such a fantastic job of talking past each other lately?

                My Point: Laypeople largely understand concept X through common explanations. Be it incentives, gravity, or lift, there exists easy to understand explanations of the general concept such that most everyone ‘gets it’ at some level. I.E. The straightforward concept. Understanding the straightforward concept DOES NOT allow a person to think carefully about how that concept functions within a complex system.

                The concept is straightforward, the careful application is not, even though the theory DOES follow from the simple concept, once you strip away the multitude of assumptions that were made in the development of the straightforward explanation. Everyone can understand the spherical horse, and the theory does follow from the spherical horse, it’s just that once you stop assuming you have a spherical horse, the application of the theory is much more involved.

                I do this all the time. Start with Navier-Stokes and start piling on assumptions until I have a nice, easy explanation (or 1D or 2D algebraic equation that can be applied to a specific class of problems). It works in reverse as well, just peel away the assumptions.

                My initial comment was more of a dig at Dunning-Kruger than anything.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


          We need better media hygiene for sure but even very smart people can respond more emotionally than logically to things.

          But right-wing clickbait and left-wing clickbait tends to be very different. Right-leaning types seem to go more for conspiracy* and “pwning”. Liberals as far as I can tell from a highly unscientific study known as my friends feed tend to go for uplift and smarm. I’m sad to report that Upworthy is still around.

          *Louise Mensch was around last year and she luckily seems to have gone away or most people on the left are ignoring her but damn is the Russia thing looking bad.Report

  2. Avatar Aaron David says:

    Me6- Is that a Kate Middleton knockoff?Report

  3. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Me5: One reason they probably don’t want to explore this too deeply is that many of the most virulent anti-Communists of the Cold War era, began as actual Communists of the pre-Cold War era.Report

  4. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar,
    You’re gonna go far,
    You’re gonna fly high,
    You’re never gonna die,
    You’re gonna make it if you try,
    They’re gonna love you.
    I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere;
    The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think,
    Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    [Me2] Got a good link on the Politico piece. One remark in response to this:

    And it means that advertisers know precisely—with a high degree of efficiency—who they are reaching on our site. If you want to reach sports fans, talk to If you want to reach an educated and affluent demographic that cares intensely about national and civic affairs, talk to Politico.

    This was written in 2014, best I can tell.

    And the problem facing them, and similar business plans, today in 2018, is that because Google owns so much of the web advertising business, they track the customers and thus inject themselves as the intermediary who sells a demographic. This in turn devalues the actual sites such as Politico and TPM and so on who generate that demographic in the first place, since they have a weaker bargaining position.Report