How the marketplace of ideas went rogue
Opinion ruined journalism and Facebook killed truth—but there's a way to make it right.
ELI PARISER: I've been thinking a lot recently about this idea of the marketplace of ideas. And in civics class we learned that this is the way that the truth kind of comes to the top, that the best ideas displace the worst ideas. But I think it's a better metaphor than it intends to be, in the sense that marketplaces, as any economist will tell you, are not necessarily the place where the best product comes to the top. There are all sorts of dynamics that determine who wins and, in fact, if you follow disruption theory, which is in vogue in Silicon Valley, it's all about how actually a worse product can beat a better product in the marketplace. We have a marketplace of ideas in the bad sense of that term, not the good sense of that term, where what wins in the marketplace may not be fair, it may not be right and certainly it may not be true, but it's based on this very reductive set of rules of supply and demand.
We're all trying to grapple right now with what that means when there are less kind of institutional gatekeepers who are holding in check which ideas are competing with which other ones. But it turns out there are ideas that are very appealing and very contagious that are either completely untrue or that are appealing to our worst instincts about each other.
Nobody wants some random person off the internet to do their brain surgery, right? Experts have a place in our society and journalism is a form of expertise. And I think that's gotten obscured by a couple of things. One is that journalism is often presented right alongside opinion content and that's actually really confusing to people. And so I think audiences have come to see that some of this content actually isn't expertly developed content or it isn't developed according to this specific expert process, and some of it is. And they think: 'I can't tell the difference so I'm going to downgrade my assessment of the whole profession.'
The trust that we've put in a lot of these institutions I think legitimately has been misplaced or it's been, you know, I think there are ways in which big media institutions have not truly had the interest of their readers or viewers at heart. You have to acknowledge that in order to get to winning back that trust — and I don't think there's any way to do that other than to actually root your concerns in the concerns of the people you're serving which is a challenging job to do, especially in a dwindling advertising market, but which I think is the only way back to making people feel like this person is actually serving me. And I think that's reinforced by the business model, you know, there's a reason that surgery isn't paid for by advertisements.
There's an article that's famous in startup circles that describes what really matters in a startup's culture. And the premise is: You can have whatever set of values on the wall, but at the end of the day it's who gets fired and who gets hired and who gets promoted, that's about 90 percent of what people observe to decide how actually to behave here. And so if I have a big poster that says 'We're going to act with integrity' — but people who don't act with integrity aren't getting fired. Then it doesn't matter, right? So I think this is actually a really good analogy for why these social spaces are so confusing because essentially what we have on Facebook and on Twitter is a system where the same things that get you promoted also get you fired. In other words, being sensational, being conflict-oriented, rallying a tribe to your side — all of these are the things that elevate you as someone who's on Facebook or someone who's on Twitter. It's a thing that drives engagement. It's a thing that rewards you up to a point and then all of a sudden you're banned from the platform if you're Alex Jones or if you're someone who's just a little bit too incendiary.
I think what these platforms need to do, because there's no such thing as neutral, and because the values that get you promoted are really out of sync with the values that get you fired or demoted, the only thing that these platforms can do is state their principles and be consistent about them, both in terms of who gets to be heard by lots of people and who doesn't get to be heard at all. And I think that's a challenging position for them because some people will disagree with whatever values they state. If Twitter decides that respectful conversation is one of their top values that's going to privilege some kinds of conversation over other kinds of conversation. It's going to be better for some users than others. But at least it's a transparent principle that we can all understand, that can be used to decide what the physics of this system are. And right now I think we have this very confusing set of conflicting signals where things are totally out of whack.
- The marketplace of ideas is a better metaphor than it's intended to be, notes Eli Pariser. As any good economist will tell you, the best product doesn't always rise to the top.
- The institutional gatekeepers and experts who once kept checks and balances on the marketplace of ideas have been replaced by social media algorithms that reward emotion and outrage over expertise and truth.
- How can media institutions like Facebook make this right? By reevaluating the business model that serves advertisers instead of readers, and by clearly stating their values—even if that means losing some of those 2 billion users.
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