Harvard Professor Says America’s Political System is Doomed.

In a deeply intriguing and rather depressing article, Bharat Anand describes how fundamental forces are working together to encourage a dysfunctional political process. And he doesn’t see any way out.

Anand ends with this:

Three forces combine to create the media coverage of political campaigns we observe today: connected media, which spreads messages faster than traditional media; fixed costs and advertising-reliant business models in traditional media, which amplify sensational messages; and viewers’ news consumption patterns, which leads to people sorting across media outlets based on their beliefs and makes messages they already agree with far more effective. Each reinforces the others. Without these enabling factors, even the best marketing campaign would go nowhere, and fake news or leaked information from cyberattacks would have little effect.

Fair questions have been raised about the lack of investigative journalism early in the campaign, false equivalencies in reporting, and the use of paid campaign operatives as experts on television news. But digital technology and business incentives exerted more influence over the media coverage than editorial decisions and missing voices did. The ratings bubble had as much impact as filter bubbles did. The forces at work here — the search for profitability, competition, and self-interest — are things we embrace as profoundly American.

Competition in the media leads to efficiency as well as to checks and balances — all good things. But it fails to internalize the externalities from profitable but sensational coverage. It leads to differentiation and more voices (also good, and what’s been the focus of regulatory efforts) but also to fragmentation, polarization, and less-penetrable filter bubbles (dangerous).

I’m not as pessimistic as Anand is. First of all, people can change their minds — so they can correct their falsely held beliefs. Second, there have been cycles of media truthiness in the past, for example in the early 1900’s American newspaper readers got fed up with “tabloid” misinformation and some newspapers used truth-telling to begin out-competing the dirty rags. Third, science has not yet begun to unwind the debunking backfire effect. Science and experience have taught us that trying to persuade a try believer can make them even more of a true believer — but too few alternative debunking strategies have been tested.

3 replies
  1. Dean A Pomerleau
    Dean A Pomerleau says:


    I appreciate your optimism, but you don’t give us much to go on.

    The sensationalist “Yellow Journalism” of the early 1900s was overcome when newspapers shifted to subscription model – so they didn’t have to use “clickbait” headlines, shouted by kids on every street corner, to sell today’s paper for a penny. We are suffering the exact same problem now – with news orgs competing for clicks, Likes, Shares & eyeballs with increasingly sensational headlines. But people seem unwilling to pay for news, and often see it as *entertainment* rather than a source of *information* – so they don’t relish, rather than shun, crazy headlines.

    What we don’t have is a model that will encourage quality journalism that can outcompete the sensation crap and outright lies we’re getting now.

    Regarding the “debunking backfire effect” – it is a real effect, but here again I’ve seen no good suggestions from how to overcome it, from you or anyone. Similar for the even more pervasive and pernicious psychological trap of “confirmation bias”.

    It seems our brains are just wired wrong. We may be incapable of overcoming our cognitive limitations, just like cats can do calculus, more humans can’t grok arbitrarily deep embedded clauses. For example, I challenge you or anyone to fully grasp this relative short, simple, grammatically correct sentence:

    “Of course I care about how you imagined I thought you perceived I wanted you to feel.”

    My brain at least can’t quite capture the true meaning of that sentence. Maybe our minds are simply not up to the challenge of making rational sense of the firehose of online media we are bombarded with, all of which is designed to push our emotional buttons and prey on our cognitive limitations & biases.


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  1. […] Many smart people are throwing up their hands and have given up, believing that our current political-information system is doomed to failure. For example, see Harvard professor Bhirat Anand’s thoughtful article. […]

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