Here's why your brain’s biases are a win for fake news, and a pay day for Facebook.
Even if you think of yourself as a human lie detector, there are some untruths that will sneak under the hood. For that, you can thank your brain, and it's absolute adoration for all things familiar, says Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic. One of the oldest findings in psychology history is the 'mere exposure effect', in which merely being exposed to something makes you biased toward it—parents influence their children by playing certain music around the house that they will love their whole lives, or they instill a political preference in them from an early age. You are drawn to what you know, and that bias really matters when it comes to digital media and the fake news phenomenon. Once something becomes memorable, we tend to conflate familiarity with fact. "This is one of the big reasons why it’s difficult to myth-bust on television or myth-bust in journalism, because sometimes the mere repetition of that myth biases audiences toward thinking that it’s true..." says Thompson. "The mere exposure of news to us biases us toward thinking that that news item is true." Facebook has an enormous ethical responsibility in this, he says, because it is the world's largest and most influential news outlet—whether it intended to be or not. Thompson believes there is no algorithmic fix for fake news that spreads via Facebook, only a human one: "The answer to a problem of a lack of human ethics in information markets is the introduction of more humans and more ethics," he says. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.
The causes of hit products are themselves uncausable. 'Hit Makers' by Derek Thompson explains why we know how to make songs, but not hits.
1. The causes of hits are themselves uncausable. Derek Thompson’s lesson-packed tour of the “science of popularity,” Hit Makers, shows why. Seems our nerd tools struggle with social dynamics.
2. Timing is one key uncausable. The second-best-selling song ever flopped until being revived by a movie.
3. Thompson says “No... formul for... a popular product" exists. But why do causal formulas work for stars in space, while pop stars frustrate formula hunters?
4. Physics handles objective, measurable intrinsic traits and forces that compete in rigidly formula-friendly ways. But hit products involve competing fickle social forces, subjective tastes, and non-intrinsic, relational, social-systemic, hard-to-measure traits.
6. It’s not that lipstick on a pig works (marketing often fails). Talent and execution matter, but many non-pigs could “win". For instance, faking popularity rankings can transform also-rans into hits.
7. Belief that a song is popular can make it seem the “best.” Traits like best-ness or beauty often aren’t intrinsic and absolute, they’re relative, social, and extrinsically context-dependent.
8. Though “Nobody knows anything” is a popular motto, Thompson reveals rule-of-thumb patterns, like Raymond Loewy’s MAYA = most advanced yet acceptable. Make it new, but not too new. That hit-the-spot new-ness is often spruced-up, remixed, reliable oldness.
9. Despite much innovation-worshiping talk, we’re mostly both neophobes and neophiles (disliking and seeking novelty).
11. We’re shifting patchworks of contradictory-seeming opposites: "At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others."— Montaigne.
12. Aristotle’s unpopular (because ultimate-purpose-laden) four-cause model (material, formal, proximate, ultimate) could be usefully refashioned for social causation. Much is caused by social purposes and social cartesian factors. (Social beliefs about the unreal Santa Claus move unreal amounts of real merchandise).
13. Much uncausablility is itself caused by gameness, where what to do depends on what others do, and good strategies can become self-defeating formulas when deployed against you (see Game Theory).
15. Each pattern type has unpredictability—we can’t precisely predict climate or evolution or sports. The entirely Newtonian weather isn’t calculable, but deeper issues animate unpredictability in the other pattern types. Traits like evolutionary or sporting or economic fitness aren’t intrinsic. They’re relative and systemic (having a “social cartesian” existence).
16. So the science of popularity turns out to an art, requiring skill and luck.
17. The “wheel of fortune” is an ancient symbol of luck. Fortune’s fickleness ensures those on top are easily toppled (by fortune turning). For ancient Greeks, whatever couldn’t be caused by will was in the gift of the gods (winning battles, hit contests, sleep etc): You can’t make your fortune, fortune makes you.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions