Notes on attention, fake news and noise #2: On the non-linear value of speech and freedom of dialogue or attention

It has become more common to denounce the idea that more speech means better democracy. Commentators, technologists and others have come out to say that they were mistaken – that their belief that enabling more people to speak would improve democracy was wrong, or at the very least simplistic. It is worth analyzing what this really means, since it is a reversal of one of the fundamental hopes the information society vision promised.

The hope was this: that technology would democratize speech and that a multitude of voices would disrupt and displace existing, incumbent hierarchies of power. If the printing press meant that access to knowledge exploded in western society, the Internet meant that the production of knowledge, views and opinions now was almost free and frictionless: anyone could become a publisher, a writer, a speaker and an opinion maker.

To a large extent this is what has happened. Anyone who wants to express themselves today can fire up their computer, comment on a social network, write a blogpost or tweet and share their words with whoever is willing to listen – and therein lies the crux. We have, historically, always focused on speech because the scarcity we fought was one of voice: it was hard to speak, to publish, to share your opinion. But the reality is that free speech or free expression just form one point in a relationship – for free speech to be worth anything someone has to listen. Free speech alone is the freedom of monologue, perhaps of the lunatic raving to the wind or the sole voice crying out in the desert. Society is founded upon something more difficult: the right to free dialogue.

You may argue that this is a false and pernicious dichotomy: the dialogue occurs when someone chooses to listen, and no-one is, today, restricted from listening to anyone, so why should we care about the listening piece of dialogue? The only part that needs to be safe-guarded is, you may say, the right to speak. All else follows.

This is where we may want to dig deeper. If you speak, can everyone listen? Do they want to? Do you have a right to be listened to? Do you have a right to be heard that corresponds to your right to speak? Is there, in fact, a duty to listen that precedes the right to speak?

We enter difficult territory here, but with the increasing volume of noise in our societies this question becomes more salient than ever before. A fair bit of that noise is in fact speech, from parties that use speech to drown out other speech. Propaganda and censorship are difficult in a society characterized by information wealth and abundance, but noise that drowns out speech is readily available: not control, but excess, flooding and silence through shouting others down – those are the threats to our age.

When Zeynep Tufekci analyzes free speech in a recent Wired article, she notes that even if it is a democratic value, it is not the only one. There are other values as well. That is right, but we could also ask if we have understood the value at play here in the right way. Tufekci’s excellent article goes on to note that there is a valuable distinction between attention and speech, and that there is no right to attention. Attention is something that needs to be freely given, and much of her article asks the legitimate question of if current technologies, platforms and business models allow for us to allocate attention freely. We could ask here if what she is saying implies that we need to examine whether there is a freedom of attention right somewhere here as well.

When someone says that the relationship between free expression the quality and robustness of a democracy is non-linear, they can be saying many different things. There is a tendency to think that what we need to accept is a balancing of free speech and free expression, and that there are other values that we are neglecting. We could, however, equally say that we have misunderstood the fundamental nature and structure of the value we are trying to protect.

Just because (and Tufekci makes this point as well) the bottle-neck used to be speech we focused there. What we really wanted was perhaps free dialogue, built on free speech and the right to freely allocate one’s attention as one sees fit. Or maybe what we wanted was the freedom to participate in democratic discourse, something that is, again, different.

Why, then, is this distinction important? Perhaps because the assumption of the constancy of the underlying value we are trying to protect, the idea that free speech is well understood and that we should just “balance” it, leads us to solution spaces where we actually harm the values we would like to protect unduly. By examining alternative legal universes where a right to dialogue, the right to free attention, the right to democratic discourse et cetera could exist we examine and start from that value rather than give up on it and enter into the language of balancing and restricting.

There is something else here that worries me, and that is that sometimes there is almost a sense that we are but victims of speech, information overload and distraction. That we have no choice, and that this choice needs to be designed, architected and prescribed for us. In its worst forms this assumption derives the need to balance speech from democratic outcomes and people’s choices. It assumes that something must be wrong with free speech because people are making choices we do not agree with, so they must be victims. They do not know what they are doing. This assumption – admittedly exaggerated here – worries me greatly, and highlights another complexity in our set of problems.

How do we know when free speech is not working? What are the indications that the quality of democracy is not increasing with the amount of speech available in a community? It cannot just be that we disagree with the choices made in that democracy, so what could we be looking for? A lack of commitment to democracy itself? A lack of respect for its institutions?
As we explore this further, and examine other possible consistent sets of rights around opinion making, speech, attention, dialogue and democratic discourse we need to start sorting these things out too.

Just how do we know that free speech has become corrosive noise and is eroding our democracy? And how much of that is technology’s fault and how much is our responsibility as citizens? That is no easy question, but it is an important one.

(Picture credit: John W. Schulze CC-attrib)

Notes on attention, fake news and noise #1: scratching the surfaces

What is opinion made from? This seems a helpful question start off a discussion about disinformation, fake news and similar challenges that we face as a society. I think the answer is surprisingly simple: opinion is ultimately made from attention. In order to form an opinion we need to pay attention to issues, and to questions we are facing as a society. Opinion should not be equated with emotion, even if it certainly also draws on emotion (to which we also pay attention), but also needs reasoned view in order to become opinion. Our opinions change, also through the allocation of attention, when we decide to review the reasons underlying them and the emotions motivating us to hold them.

You could argue that this is a grossly naive and optimistic view of opinion, and that what forms opinion is fear, greed, ignorance and malice – and that opinions are just complex emotions, nothing more, and that they have become even more so in our modern society. That view, however, leads nowhere. The conclusion for someone believing that is to throw themselves exasperated into intellectual and physical exile. I prefer a view that is plausible and also allows for the strengthening of democracy.

A corollary of the abovementioned is that democracy is also made from attention – from the allocated time we set aside to form our opinions and contribute to democracy. I am, of course, referring to an idealized and ideal version of democracy in which citizenship is an accomplishment and a duty rather than a right, and where there is a distinct difference between ”nationality” and ”citizenship”. The great empires of the world seem to always have had a deep understanding of this – Rome safeguarded its citizens and citizenship was earned. In contrast, some observers note that the clearest sign of American decline is that US citizenship is devolving into US nationality. Be that as it may — I think that there is a great deal of truth in the conception of democracy as made of opinion formed by the paying of attention.

This leads to a series of interesting questions about how we pay attention today, and what challenges we face when we pay attention. Let me outline a few, and suggest a few problems that we need to study closer.

First, the attention we have is consumed by the information available. This is an old observation that Herbert Simon made in a 1969 talk that he wrote on information wealth and attention poverty. His answer, then, remarkably, was that we need to invest in artificial intelligence to augment attention and allow for faster learning (we should examine the relationship between learning and democracy as well at some point: one way to think about learning is that it is when we change our opinions) – but more importantly he noted that there is an acute need to allocate attention efficiently. We could build on that and note that at high degrees of efficiency of allocation of attention democratic discourse is impossible.

Second, we have learnt something very important about information in the last twenty years or so, and that is that the non-linear value of information presents some large challenges for us as a society. Information – at an abundance – collapses into noise, and the value then can quickly become negative; we need to sift through the noise to find meaning and that creates filter costs that we have to internalize. There is, almost, a pollution effect here. The production of information by each and everyone of us comes with a negative externality in the form of noise.

Third, the need for filters raises a lot of interesting questions about the design of such filters. The word ”filter” comes with a negative connotation, but here I only mean something that allows us to turn noise into information over which we can effectively allocate attention.

That attention plays a crucial role in the information society is nothing new, as we mentioned, and it has been helpfully emphasized by people like Tim Wu, Tristan Harris and others. There is often an edge in the commentary here that suggests that there is a harvesting of attention and monetization of it, and that this in some way is detrimental. This is worth a separate debate, but let it suffice for now that we acknowledge that this can certainly be the case, but also that the fact that attention can be monetized can be very helpful. In fact, good technology converts attention to money at a higher exchange rate and ensures that the individual reaps the benefits from that by finding what he or she is looking for faster, for example. But again: this is worth a separate discussion – and perhaps this is one where we need to dig deeper into the question of the social value of advertising as such – a much debated issue.

So, where does this land us? It seems that we need to combat distraction and allocate attention effectively. What, then, is distraction?

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Fake news and disinformation are one form of distraction, and certainly a nefarious one in the sense that such distractions detract from efforts to form opinions in a more serious way in many cases. But there are many other distractions as well. Television, games, gambling and everything else that exists in the leisurespace is in a way a distraction. When Justice Brandeis said that leisure time is the time we need to use to become citizens, he attacked the problem of distraction from a much broader perspective than we sometimes do today. His notion was that when we leave work, we have to devote time to our other roles, and one of the key roles we play is that of the citizen. How many of us devote time every day or week to our citizen role? Is there something we can do there?

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The tension between distraction and attention forces us to ask a more fundamental question, and that is if the distraction we are consumed by is forced or voluntary. Put in a different way: assume that we are interested in forming an opinion on some matter, can we do so with reasonable effort or are the distractions so detrimental that the formation of informed and reasoned opinion has become impossible?

At some level this is an empirical question. We can try: assume that you are making your mind up on climate change. Can you use the Internet, use search and social networks in order to form a reasoned opinion on whether climate change is anthropogenic? Or are the distractions and the disinformation out there so heavy that it is impossible to form that opinion?

Well, you will rightly note, that will differ from person to person. This is fair, but let’s play with averages: the average citizen who honestly seeks to make up his or her mind – can they on a controversial issue?

A quick search, a look at Wikipedia, a discussions with friends on a social network — could this result in a reasoned opinion? Quite possibly! It seems that anyone who argues that this is impossible today also needs to carry the burden of evidence for that statement. Indeed, it would be extraordinary if we argued that someone who wants to inform themselves no longer can, in the information society.

There are a few caveats to that statement, however. One is about the will itself. How much do we want to form reasoned opinions? This is a question that risks veering into elitism and von oben perspectives (I can already hear the answers along the lines of ”I obviously do, but others…”) so we need to tread carefully. I do think that there are competing scenarios here. Opinions have many uses. We can use them to advance our public debate, but if we are honest a large use case for opinions is the creation of a group and the cohesion of that group. How many of our opinions do we arrive at ourselves, and how many are we accepting as a part of our belonging to a particular group?

Rare is the individual who says that she has arrived, alone, at all of her opinions. Indeed, that would make no sense, as it would violate Simon’s dictum: we need to allocate attention efficiently and we rely on others in a division of attention that is just a mental version of Adam Smith’s division of labor. We should! To arrive at all your own opinions would be so costly that you would have little time to do anything else, especially in a society that is increasingly complex and full of issues. The alternative would be to have very few opinions, and that seems curiously difficult. Not a lot of people offer that they have no opinion on a subject that is brought up in conversation, and indeed it would almost feel asocial to do that!

So group opinions are rational consequences of the allocation of attention, but how do we know if the group arrives at their opinion in a collectively rational way? It depends on the group, and how it operates, obviously, but at the heart of the challenge her is a sense of trust in the judgments of others.

The opinions we hold that are not ours are opinions we hold because we trust the group that arrived at them. Trust matters much more than we may think in the formation of opinion.

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If distraction is one challenge for democratic societies, misallocation of attention is another. The difference is clear: distraction is when we try to but cannot form an opinion. Misallocation is when we do not want to form a reasoned opinion but are more interested in the construction of an identity or a sense of belonging, and hence want to confirm an opinion that we have adopted for some reason.

The forming and confirming of opinion are very different things. In the first case we shape and form our opinion and it may change over time, in the second we simply confirm an opinion that we hold without examining it at all. It is well known that we are prone to confirmation bias and that we seek information that confirms what we believe to be true, and this tendency is one that sometimes wins over our willingness to explore alternative views. Especially in controversial and emotional issues. That is unfortunate, but the question is what the relationship is there with disinformation?

One answer could be this: the cost of confirmation bias falls when there is a ready provision of counter facts to all facts. Weinberger notes that the old dictum that you are entitled to your opinions, but not your facts, has become unfashionable in the information society since there is no single truth anymore. For every fact there is a counter-fact.

Can we combat this state of affairs? How do we do that? Can we create a respository and a source of facts and truths? How do you construct such an institution?

Most of us naturally think of the Wikipedia when we think of something like that – but there is naturally much in the Wikipedia that is faulty or incorrect, and this is not a dig against the Wikipedia, but simply a consequence of its fantastic inclusion and collaborative nature. Also – we know that facts have a half-life in science, and the idea of uncontrovertible fact is in fact very unhelpful and has historically been used rather by theologians than by democrats. But yet, still, we need some institutional response to the flattening of the truth.

It is not obvious what that would be, but worth thinking about and certainly worth debating.

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So individual will and institutional truth, ways of spending attention wisely and the sense of citizenship. That is a lot of rather vague hand-waving and sketching, but it is a start. We will return to this question in the course of the year, I am sure. For now, this just serves as a few initial thoughts.