In recent years, much scrutiny has been paid to the workings of social media algorithms. Driven by escalating competition for human attention, social media sites became filled with negative or controversial posts, because these attract more protracted engagement than anything else. Since reader attention attracts revenues, any profit-seeking algorithm will learn to highlight divisive content at the expense of more important topics. So a story about Hawaiian pizza might be more lucrative than one about human trafficking, since the idea of pineapple on pizzas polarises opinion more than a story about something universally agreed to be bad.
But this problem is not confined to digital media. What sells newspapers, or elevates the status of journalists, is scarcely matched to the importance of a story. (One reason there are few bankers in jail is that they commit crimes which, in journalistic terms, are boring.)
The relative prominence given to news stories matters a lot. Contrary to what we think, media bias mostly works not by changing people’s opinions, but by giving greater prominence to one topic at the expense of another. Although we think we pay attention to what’s important, the process works largely in reverse: we think things important because we pay attention to them. To quote Charles Foster Kane: ‘If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.’ Certain issues dominate our thoughts more through the prominence given to them by editors (or algorithms) than from any real significance.
While our broadcast media are supposedly regulated for political bias in content, they are not regulated in the relative emphasis devoted to different topics. It’s why Donald Trump may be partly right in calling out ‘fake news’. What he may mean by fake news is not news that is untrue, but news which has been artificially manufactured or inflated: ‘synthetic news’ might be a better phrase.
A perfect example of synthetic news was the scandal engineered in response to the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton as chair of a government commission on new-build architecture. The single crappiest phrase in fake journalism is always ‘X is facing calls for his resignation, following revelations that…’ This sounds momentous, but in fact means three-fifths of sod all. It simply means that a journalist has found two or three batshit employees of the outrage industry who can be relied on to demand that Scruton should step down.
And this is so easy to do. For some reason, if you work for a professional outrage organisation, or the Faculty of Hand-Wringing at the University of Wank, you are allowed to express your opinions in the media without accusations of self-interest. If I were to appear on Newsnight as an advertising executive and imply that Unilever does a pretty nifty job of making household cleaning products and that people wise to the ways of the world carry an American Express card, I would be derided as a shill. But if you are paid by the taxpayer to be horrified by things, somehow you are treated as the impartial voice of wisdom.
Interestingly, there is a way to solve this problem of synthetic outrage. I call it the ‘No, I’m Spartacus’ solution. For this to work, everyone who believes in free speech must post or publish a scandalous opinion every month. The resulting solidarity-in-collective-guilt would stop the outraged minority from destroying free speech one victim at a time.
I must go now, as I need to write my Christmas column — in which I explain why so-called cake-expert Mary Berry deserves to be hunted to death by wild dogs.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.