Meredith L. Patterson (maradydd) wrote,
Meredith L. Patterson

Self-serving bias much, Jessica Valenti? Also some game theory.

I need to start keeping a timeline or something (UPDATE, 19/12/2014: Slate did it for me! Thank you, Slate), because I figured at some point the cogs in the 24-hour outrage cycle would notice that some of us have cottoned on to their business model, and now Jessica Valenti has. Obviously the Grauniad, bastion of even-temperedness that it has ever been, is the perfect pulpit from which to reassure the masses that these horrid aspersions on the character of Feminism™ are but spittle flung from the maw of Patriarchy™ as it writhes in its death throes. Important Things are happening in Feminism®! Feminism™ is the hip, happening place to be! Don't you all want to come hang out with the cool kids in Feminism™ and not those squares at the Washington Post?

Let me back up a step.

Clickbait, in Annalee Newitz's analogy, is to social media journalism as the pun is to humour: a low form, made lower still by the deceptiveness often attached to it. Sure, those may in fact be 15 cat videos behind that link, but you won't know if they really are the 15 Funniest Cat Moments Ever, or even cat videos at all, unless you click through. As soon as the site loads, the site owner has racked up a few more ad impressions at the expense of a small fraction of your time, attention, and bandwidth cap if you have one. They are no longer on the hook to deliver anything ("We never said the videos had to load"), and any further time and attention you spend on the content presented is your lookout. Newitz's historical analogy to yellow journalism is incredibly apt, and applies financially as well: once you handed over one red cent for that issue of The World, it was yours to read, yell at, or line your birdcage with as you pleased, but that penny was never coming back.

Both the analog and digital forms of yellow journalism require some amount of repeat business, which according to this NPR interview takes the form of running some yellow content and some "strong" content (that's the word the interviewee chose) so that readers don't feel deceived or ripped off, or at least that they feel sufficiently less deceived/ripped off that they'll continue visiting the site instead of blocking it on Facebook. (I noted with some amusement that NPR noticed Mr. Hind from a piece he wrote entitled "In Defence of Clickbait," in — three guesses and the first two don't count — the Guardian.) If transactional analysis had been a bit more rigorous about the game theory that Eric Berne based it on, we might call this a mixed strategy, where the player (the publisher) chooses option C ("strong content") some percentage of the time and option D (clickbait) the other percentage of the time, and the player's strategic question becomes where to set that point.

The Guardian has a lot of strong content, much of it having to do with surveillance and geopolitics. Unfortunately, there's yellow journalism to be found in that domain on their pages as well, and distinguishing one from the other is still an exercise for the reader. I named the options above C and D not because A and B were already taken, but for Cooperate and Defect. And yes, I am explicitly making a normative assumption here; that said, the Guardian's own editorial code states up-front that
A newspaper's primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted.
so at the very least, the Guardian at least claims to hold that same assumption itself: that a newspaper is cooperating with its readers if it provides them with accurate news, and defecting against them if it lies to them.

Okay, now back to Valenti.

I have argued for a while that activism in general is being strangled by an epidemic of self-righteous tourists, to the point where I consider the term "activist" an insult; I build things, fuck you very much. Take the case of Nick Kristof, whose ham-handed foray into anti-sex-trafficking activism gave a megaphone to the Somaly Mam Foundation as it inflated itself with fabricated horror stories until finally the tower of lies became too precarious to stand up anymore. Or, remember #KONY2012? Of course you don't, that was two years ago and that's forever in Internet time, plus nobody likes embarrassing memories. Joseph Kony is still tooling around the remoter parts of central Africa, though, and Jason Russell doesn't seem to have done much since his documentary got that SxSW award. Though I suppose that's rather the point, isn't it? Crucially, nothing has actually happened. Why would it, when the gravy train provides such "strong content", so many awards, and so very much attention and praise?

Valenti is not a tourist; she came by her credentials honestly. But she is a travel agent, and a very busy one at that.

A travel agent's job is to sell you the promise of an experience and the tokens you exchange for that experience: plane tickets, hotel stays, car rentals. The agent cannot sell you the experience itself, and you can only guess what the experience will be like until you arrive in booming metropolitan Norilsk and wonder what the hell you're doing there.

Jessica Valenti sells moral panics. If you're the sort of person who thrives on group approval, a moral panic can be a rousing good time, at least if you identify strongly with the side doing the panicking or the side being panicked against. If that's not your idea of a good time, though, too bad; the side effect of a moral panic, after temporarily transforming a community into its own version of 17th-century Salem, is to leave it much like Norilsk, chilly and polluted with ill will, and whether you wanted to end up there has nothing to do with the fact that you're there.

What I find interesting about the Guardian article is the indicators that Valenti sees a moral panic rising against feminism. She dubs George Will, Conor Friedersdorf et al the "backlash machine" (a portmanteau of Faludi and Will, I guess?), accusing them of "court[ing] and revel[ing] in such controversy."

*ring ring* Hello, Pot? This is Kettle. Guess what? You're black! *click*

She accuses the "backlash machine" of gaslighting women who are angry about rape by telling them that they're overreacting, mere moments after implicitly telling David Bernstein that he was overreacting to Michelle Dean's hit piece on him by swallowing Dean's "Bernstein said only prostitutes explicitly consent to sex!" line hook and sinker. Bernstein's rebuttal came out the day before Valenti's piece, but apparently as far as she's concerned, it doesn't exist.

This is blatant dishonesty not just to David Bernstein, but to all of the Guardian's readers. Valenti put words in Bernstein's mouth and is trading on an out-and-out falsehood, all in the name of rallying more banners around her flag. I'm not sure which has gone on longer, gaslighting women or gaslighting people unwilling to participate in a moral panic, but neither of them are right or good and I am appalled at Valenti's brazen condemnation of the one while committing the other. Though I suppose that's rather the point, isn't it? After all, I'm sure LiveJournal appreciates my pixel-spilling far more than my employer does, since LiveJournal can put ads on it.

"But, Meredith," I hear you say, "isn't it true that Feministing, Jessica Valenti's most successful venture to date, doesn't even make enough ad revenue to pay its own writers? Considering the scope, aren't you overreacting?"

I would be, if this were just about money. But it's not just about money. It's about attention, but probably not in the way you think it is. It's about bias, but probably not in the way you think it is.

Most of the valuable things you interact with every day are not money. Time is one of them, but the other one I mentioned way up top — attention — is more interesting, because you can't control the passage of time, but you have some amount of control over where your attention goes. Do you remember how much of your attention went to #KONY2012? I know you don't want to, but screw your courage to the sticking-place, download your Twitter archive and scroll back through your Facebook history, and confront exactly how much time you wasted. Soak in it until your fingers go pruny. That was you, two years ago. If you didn't actually scroll back, then you're cheating, because your memory hyperbolically discounts and you're not getting the full effect. Scroll back, look hard at who you were two years ago, and ask yourself: is this how I really want to be spending my attention?

Your present self excusing your past self for wasting its resources isn't the only bias at work here, either. There's also confirmation bias, in particular a really nasty manifestation of it called the backfire effect. When you "learn" something false, then encounter new information that contradicts your previous model of the world, your brain doubles down on rejecting that new information — particularly if the false thing you "learned" in some way confirmed your existing model of the world. There is indeed a wedge between the two sides of a culture war, it is called group polarisation, and giving a rabble-rouser a platform from which to lie unrestrainedly is one of the best ways to drive it in deeper, because first there's the initial strike and then there are the depth charges of the backfire effect going off when the inevitable contradictory information surfaces. Nice job breaking it, Grauniad.

What annoys me the most is that there was plenty to respond to in Bernstein's original article without libeling him as a hooker-hater. The law has been the law for quite some time now, and anyone who is serious enough about writing explicit consent into the criminal code to voice the thought needs to also give some serious thought to how that amendment might be worded and how the wording will interact with the rest of the body of law, because guess what, that shit matters. Both of Bernstein's articles read to me like he's totally open not just to having that discussion, but moving it forward as well; he's a law professor, so this is the sort of conversation that he has the body of knowledge to make really useful. (If you're reading this, Dave — is it cool if I call you Dave or do you prefer David? — I am totally down to have that conversation, whenever it's convenient for you.) We could have had a thoughtful discussion about how to revise the motherfucking law in the direction Valenti claims to want it to go, but no, lying about him is just way too much fun.

Get an editor, Jessica Valenti, and get a sense of responsibility. And get off my goddamn lawn, it's getting like Norilsk around here.

Edited to add: lilmissnever points out that there is now a correction at the bottom of the article. That's all well and good in the abstract, but my point about the backfire effect still stands; see also docstrange's remarks. Bernstein's rebuttal came out a full day before Valenti's article. Some editor should have caught this, or at least compared Valenti's characterisation of his original article with the actual text and realised just how far off base it was. The time pressure that the 24-hour outrage cycle demands leaves little or no time for fact-checking, and that's why crap like this makes it to press.
Tags: attention economics, bad actors, but meredith i hear you say, cut that shit out, game theory, get off my lawn, journalism, media, someone is wrong on the internet, this is why we can't have nice things

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