How Distracting “News” Works

As you may remember, Mike Pence went to the theatre a few weeks ago. Normally we wouldn’t care if a prominent politician went to see a Broadway play. However, Pence was booed when he walked in the theatre. Who would have thought that one of the most anti-gay politicians in America would be persona non grata on Broadway? It wasn’t “Chase Utley breaks Ruben Tejada’s leg then goes to Queens” booing. Nonetheless, news that Pence was booed on Broadway spread like wildfire. Then we got the seemingly inevitable backlash. Why were more people talking about Pence getting booed while watching Hamilton than Donald Trump settling the Trump University case by paying a $25 million judgment?

I’ll start with the most basic question: why were so many people talking about Pence getting booed? People can read the story and offer their snap judgment in under 30 seconds. There’s nothing more to the story than vice president-elect booed at theatre. People don’t need to know the plot of the play or Pence’s specific policies to ring in. The story encourages people to take clear sides: is booing the vice president-elect at the theatre a breach of decorum?

Because this is an entirely moral question, there isn’t a real risk of looking like a fool because we are poorly informed. I may not want to tweet about the Trump University case because I don’t know whether $25 million represents a large or small settlement compared to other cases like this. I don’t want to act like one of those PhDs who insists I know everything about everything! But you don’t need a PhD or even a high school degree to give an opinion on whether booing in the theatre is wrong. Middle schoolers could give a presentation to the class about it.

Debates over whether booing Pence or settling the Trump University case are more important say something more fundamental about news preferences. We normally think of news preferences as a list. So the list of things I thought were newsworthy that weekend went something like this:

  1. Trump settles Trump University case
  2. Trump nominates National Security Adviser whose rhetoric on Muslims fits ideally in to ISIS recruitment (they love the idea of an ideological holy war).
  3. UCLA is playing USC in the Crosstown Rivalry (* during the game this jumps to #1 through 100)
  4. It’s raining in LA and everyone forgot how to drive
  5. UCLA basketball looks good
  6. Trump’s other nominations
  7. I’m getting crushed in my NCAA confidence pool this week
  8. [Long list of stuff I don’t really care enough to offer in detail. I wrote the list down at the time, then wrote the rest of the post over a week later.]

Some of my list is pretty idiosyncratic. People who don’t care about college sports will cross off several items from this list. Since it’s a weekend with college football and basketball, both sports are well represented in 8-20 on my list. You probably have a different list of most newsworthy things from the weekend. That’s good! We are different people. We probably have different hobbies, different political priorities, and different emphasis on politics vs. other things in life. Maybe it’s a little frustrating that none of my Facebook friends enjoy the Piesman trophy. But life would be almost intolerably boring if we all agreed on everything.

Social Media Lists of Newsworthiness are Weird

You might assume that all of us have one internally consistent list of things we care about. In other words, the list of things we read, the list of things we share, and the list of things we comment on would all look the same. It turns out that may not be the case. How often have you liked or commented on someone’s post before actually reading the link? It turns out this happens a lot. People in new media production have realized there’s relatively little correlation between what people read and what people share or comment on. The list of things we find newsworthy enough to discuss on social media is not the same as the list of things we consume for our personal reading. A year ago, Atlantic writer Derek Thompson went through his top 100 tweets with links, trying to compare how often someone actually clicked on the link vs. other Twitter activity.

thompson-clickvengage

The scales on the graph are a bit wonky. I’m pretty sure the x-axis is a ran order from highest click through rate (a whopping 6 percent!) to his 100th best tweet (around 1% of readers clicking on the link). Thompson said his overall click-through rate was 1.7 percent. Now let’s focus on the big picture. If people had the same priorities for their personal reading and their social media discussions, these two lines would go in parallel. They don’t. This suggests there are some stories that people really enjoy talking about on social media, even if they wouldn’t dig deeper. Mike Pence getting booed during Hamilton is a perfect example. People can take sides without having to dig deeper.

Aggregating Individual News Preferences Makes Things Much Weirder

If we add all of our priorities together, you may expect another list: here’s what people think is the most important story, here’s number 2, and so on. That’s why we debate whether or not Hamilton is #1 as opposed to #2 or 5 or 25. If you look at how often people talk about each story, our group behavior is probably closer to a pyramid than a rank order list. A few events are near the top of enough individual lists so they shoot to the top of the news pyramid. Think of Super Bowls and presidential debates this year. It’s not just that the leader is #1 and the next most popular story is #2. The leader gets vastly more attention than #2, then the distance between 2 and 3 is smaller, and so on. Eventually we get to the point where the group is split. There may be a tie instead of a clear #5 story. The further down we go, the more we get to things that are on a bunch of lists but fairly low down, or things that are high on a few individual lists but don’t register on anyone else’s in the group.

If this seems a little abstract, let’s take a detour to the music industry. Every year, there is one artist who is the top seller. They usually have a crossover hit that fits in to some genre, pop, Top 40, and maybe some secondary genre. Then you have a few other hit albums that get crossover appeal. Then there is the larger group of albums that only sell in their genre, or maybe they have a few huge singles but can’t sell the album. At the bottom end, there are lots of people recording music at home who don’t earn any money.

News has the same unequal distribution, but the only way to notice is if we have a database of all the potential news stories that didn’t get in a news outlet. Most of us have never thought of news this way because journalists don’t exactly leave lists like this lying around. If you thought people second guess the media now, imagine what would happen if the New York Times published a list of “here are 50 stories we decided not to pursue further.” They’d never hear the end of it! We can come up with our own lists of stories we’d like to see and feel are left out just by using our imagination. That’s why we assume that no matter how many people we put together, we’d still get a rank order list. When I was a journalist, I assumed if I put every journalist together I’d get a clean rank order list, not a pyramid.

For my Master’s Thesis I wanted to look at whether politicians’ attempts to duck a question by talking about something else had any influence on what journalists wrote. I knew I couldn’t just look at news coverage to answer this question. I had to look at what a politician said and then what got published to make a before and after comparison. Because journalists won’t just hand over interview transcripts, I decided to use presidential press conferences as a dataset. The only way to make sure I separated the quotable statements from the unquotable statements, I had to analyze every single statement! Going through four conferences – a total of 1743 statements – took months. I wanted to code things like was the president criticizing someone, is he ducking a question, is he talking about the military vs. the economy, etc. Because any newspaper can be idiosyncratic, I used the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today. (Newspapers only is a bit old school, I know.) Out of those 1,743 statements, how many do you think were quoted in each newspaper?

 

{Here is some empty space so you can play the guessing game if you want to}

 

The correct answer is four! Leading newspapers tended to have some variety. Only 25 statements were quoted in three of the four newspapers. The full distribution looked like this:

quotefreq

I know, this may not be what you were expecting. When I presented my MA at the leading sociology conference, the veteran professor presiding over my panel didn’t understand this kind of statistical distribution. To be fair, I had to teach myself how to run statistical models with this kind of unequal distribution because it wasn’t covered in my grad level stats classes.

Here’s why it is so rare to have complete agreement on a quote. Part of it is New York Times and Washington Post allocated more space to presidential press conferences. The main explanation is that four writers covering the same story rarely choose the same quote if they have options to choose from. When George W. Bush spent five minutes criticizing Saddam Hussein, two reporters may choose criticism A and two may choose criticism B. This gets us to the upper-middle level of the pyramid. Presidents rarely say anything as direct as “We do not recognize the outcome of the election [in Zimbabwe] because we think it’s flawed.” When Bush said this in 2002, it was clearly a better quote than anything else he said about that election and each newspaper quoted it. Other scholars have seen similar unequal distributions with how often a particular person (van de Rijt et al 2013) or group (Amenta et al 2009) gets quoted in the news.

Mike Pence getting booed when he went to see Hamilton has a natural advantage for vaulting to the top of the pyramid. Pence didn’t say much of anything himself. Trump posted one tweet about how he was offended. The Hamilton cast read one reaction from the stage. Everyone talking about what happened will refer to the same very small set of information. I know, it seems like such a small thing that it’s not worth harping on. If you saw this story and thought “who cares if Pence got booed?” then me talking about a small set of shared information won’t make you care. It doesn’t make me have strong opinions on the morality of booing. The reason I’m talking about this small detail is because it has a surprisingly powerful effect in focusing aggregate behavior. When I looked at the most common phrases on the Internet in 2008, I had to control for the titles of songs, movies, TV shows and even video games. Since people repeated the title over and over, it biased my results for how often particular websites talked about politics compared to other topics.

Why Instigators Can Be So Much More Effective Today

If any simple story with a limited number of facts can rise to the top of our aggregated preferences, moral outrage is the rocket fuel. Stories like Pence getting booed encourage people to take sides. Any cultural instigator has a huge advantage in getting attention. They just need to make one offensive statement and it distracts people on both sides. Donald Trump used this strategy since the early days of his campaign. People were so busy talking about Trump and how offensive he was that they lost focus on how they would help voters’ lives. Republicans got caught in the web one by one. Hillary Clinton ran an almost entirely negative campaign about how Trump isn’t qualified instead of emphasizing how she would try to make people’s lives better.

It’s important to remember that Trump isn’t the first instigator to use these distraction tactics. The National Rifle Association has used them successfully for decades. NFL commissioner Roger Goddell deflects negative attention from team owners as they demand public resources for private stadiums.

It’s easy to blame Facebook, particularly with their fake news scandal. However, my press conference research largely predates Facebook. That being said, social media makes these problems worse because it aggregates individual decisions. Any story with least common denominator appeal will do better with the aggregate herd than with any individual. Stories that let people take sides on social media and advocate for their “team” have an even more powerful effect than what I saw from journalists. Individual journalists make relatively independent decisions. People on social media may get even more pleasure by talking about the thing that everyone else is talking about.

So How Can We Avoid Being Suckered in to These Stories?

It’s easy to point the finger at media organizations and say they should have better priorities, or point the finger at Facebook’s mysterious news algorithm. But that’s not really satisfying. I want to be able to take some control. Hopefully you do too. Well good news! One of the best ways to avoid being suckered in to low level scandals is to have strong independent judgment on what kinds of things matter. No one else is going to be the reliable voice saying “who cares about this nonsense?” The only people who bring up a story like Pence getting booed are going to be people who have strong opinions…or someone like me who really misses teaching from time to time.

The other key is to recognize that some people in your social media feeds will probably get suckered in to just about every minor story that lets them share their moral beliefs. No matter what happens, it just seems “too important” not to say how outraged they are. The people with the most influence over the process, starting the cascade of posts, are the people who tend to show the least restraint. Over the last few days I have talked to progressive, moderate, and conservative friends who have all said they are leaving social media. I didn’t even ask. They brought it up. Political posts keep rolling through their feed like crashing boulders, and they want to duck out of the way.

This is a good principle for self-preservation, but the only way to have meaningful change is to convince people to show some restraint before they push the petty outrage of the day on to the rest of us. I understand it’s hard to show restraint and let some things go. But I also know that if people can’t prioritize and let some stuff go, their social media feeds will turn in to a broken car alarm. It’s not a perfect metaphor. When it comes to politics some people actually love the sound of broken car alarms. They love outrage news and think every single action helps move a broader movement! But there are lots of people like me who don’t enjoy outrage news. Persuasion is about connecting with other people, not jumping up and down proclaiming how your morals are superior to everyone else. There’s little upside in going online to vent about every single petty grievance. If you voted against Trump because he can be taunted with a tweet, hold yourself to the same standard.

 

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About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

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