Andrew MacDougall: The online giants are the house, and they'll win if we keep playing
The politicians know the media is no longer trusted and so don’t fear the accountability function of the press that used to keep them honest.
By: Andrew MacDougall
The first rule of gambling is that the House always wins.
The casino doesn’t care about your hopes. It doesn’t care about your dreams. It doesn’t care if you’re rich or if you’re poor. It is built to separate you from your money — ruthlessly and systematically. The House always wins.
One day, the news media will recognize they’re living in an online information casino. And that the house built by the Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, Instagrams, and TikToks of this world will never let them win. The only question is whether they’ll realize it before they go broke.
So far, it’s not looking too good. The palpable sigh of relief from some of the media when Google stumped up another $100 million in support of Canadian journalism late last year is a sign that most aren’t ready to leave the casino anytime soon. The ones who weren’t relieved were the ones who felt the offer wasn’t enough. Most seem convinced the online information casino is the only game in town.
Well, it’s time to find another game, and it’s time to find another town.
Because the last thing that will help you survive in the casino is more money. Indeed, the casino will even front you more money so you can keep playing. You play; they win. Big fish or little fish. To the casino, you’re all the “mark,” i.e. the sucker targeted for a fleecing. The $100 million from Google is: 1) a pittance, a few hours of work for Google; and 2) A good return on investment for the content that keeps the online casino running and keeps the tech companies in ad dollars. Journalists report and write, the visitors to the online casino fight, the House sells ads, and we all go broke, whether that’s by buying more stuff or breaking our epistemological reality. Or both. Either way, the House always wins, even if that “win” comes at the loss of truth, trust, and democracy.
If the first step to curing an addiction is admitting that you have a problem, the first step to curing journalism’s addiction to the online casino is to properly define the problem. The problem isn’t that Big Tech isn’t giving journalism enough money. It’s that Big Tech — i.e. the House — lets counterfeit currency into their casino. More than that, the House lets anyone create their own currency for play in the casino. Expert or crank, it doesn’t matter. If you can create “content,” you can enter the online information casino to amass your currency of “likes,” “comments,” and “subscribes.”
Even worse, the House actually prefers and privileges the crank’s counterfeit currency. It’s cheaper to make, it goes viral more often, it keeps more people engaged for longer on their platforms. The House doesn't care if you’re into truth, conspiracy, or watching kids unbox their new toys. Whatever gets you to watch is a win. Quality doesn’t count in the online information casino. Who needs a deeply-reported Woodward & Bernstein when you can have a rant-merchant like Alex Jones? Why stay hemmed in by truth when you can invent a vastly more entertaining “Pope endorses Trump” fiction? Whatever keeps us stuck in the casino. We stay, they sell ads, we go broke. Say it with me: the House always wins.
As The Line’s Andrew Potter highlighted nearly seven years ago in an essay for Policy Options, information behaves similarly to currency. If you let a debased currency circulate freely amongst legitimate currency, the bad money will eventually drive the good out of circulation, as outlined by Gresham’s Law. And so it is for information.
If information that is fake and/or cheap to make is allowed to circulate on equal terms with information that is true and expensive to make — content like journalism — then cheap and fake will win the day. Cheap and fake will explode in volume because everyone has an opinion. Anyone can be outrageous for likes and retweets. Not everyone, on the other hand, has the time, ability, money, or inclination to crawl into the bowels of power to root around for scandal (or get it lawyered once that scandal is double-sourced).
And that’s if the House allows counterfeit and sound information to circulate on level terms. But they don’t. To repeat: they privilege the cheap and/or fake. Most of the algorithms powering social media don’t try to rate content for truth or accuracy, only engagement. If enough of us like a post the algorithms swing into action and show it to more of us. In the online casino it’s the derivatives on content — the retweets/reposts, likes and comments — that are the true currency, not the content on which they’re based. Our “engagement” is what tips the House off to our hand and lets them target us when and where we’re most ready for a sale.
Back to diagnosing problems. It doesn’t matter if the tech platforms shunt more people to journalism in the process of monetizing our attention. As long as we allow that journalism to circulate on platforms where it has to compete against debased currency it will lose out. It will lose out because it does not stand out in the blizzard of bullshit. It will lose out because journalism is the second draft of history on social media, not the first. It will lose out because trust is already eroded on these platforms through years of competing with the cranks. And, yes, it will lose out because the House will keep taking most, if not all, of the money.
But here’s the thing: we need people rooting around in the bowels of power if we want to have a democracy. We don’t need to buy more stuff. The online information casino is designed and run to give us bread and circuses. Accountability journalism keeps our Caesars honest. We can’t afford to let it die.
Returning to problems, the people who arguably benefit the most from the rise of the online information casino are the politicians, i.e. our Caesars. Technology now lets them go around the media and broadcast directly to their audiences using whatever currency they like. They can target their prospective voters with a specificity that defies belief. What’s more, they know the media is no longer trusted and so don’t fear the accountability function of the press that used to keep them honest. They know reporting that would have killed them stone dead in the past is now only one of many stories out there in the vast reaches of cyberspaces.
The only way out of this morass is to step out of the casino. It might be fun, but in the end we’ll all go broke. And if we’re not willing to step out of the casino, we’ll have to change the rules by which it operates. For good information to drive out the bad, we’ll have to find ways to attach markers to quality information so us gamblers in the online information casino can spot that quality and make more informed choices.
The House won’t like it. The House knows that when they privilege truth and quality the levels of engagement on their platforms drop, sometimes precipitously. More to the point, the volume of content on these platforms make discerning quality from fake a mammoth task, if not an impossibility, even with an army of engineers with PhDs in AI. This is the story of the whistleblowers like Tristan Harris (ex-Google), Frances Haugen (ex-Facebook), and others who have left their posts at the sides of the online pit bosses.
But we don’t owe the House a living. There’s no God-given right for technology to treat us as the product. We set the rules in the house of democracy. Or at least, we used to. We’d better reclaim that right before it’s lost for good.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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