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The load-bearing myths of democracy
Reasonable People #14: Market mavens, a great essay by David Karpf and other recommended reading on reason, rationality and persuasion
Malcolm calls them Mavens. Also known as Price Vigilantes. They are the information brokers of the marketplace. These are the people who notice when the supermarket sticks a “new low price” on something without changing the actual price. They complain.
They also compare, they hunt out bargains. They tell their friends. The theory is that you don’t need many of these Maven to keep a marketplace honest. Sure, most people won’t notice that “3 for £2” is a con when a single is 65p, but the Mavens will. And they’ll make sure everyone else hears about it.
Malcolm reports a conversation one researcher had with a Maven, who’d once spotted an opportunity to stockpile coffee while it was cheap, buying up 40 cans, some at $2.79, which were later $6. “Do you see the level of obsession here?”, comments Malcolm, “He can remember the prices, to the cents, of cans of coffee he bought ten years ago”
Malcolm is, of course, Malcolm Gladwell, and he writes about Mavens in his book The Tipping Point. I bought my copy in 2000, the year it came out, for £2.99 from the Oxfam second-hand bookshop in Camden. I remember thinking at the time that £2.99 was a steep price for a second hand book, but something about the blurb drew me in.
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Gladwell and the idea of Maverns came back to me when I was reading David Karpf’s excellent essay On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths (10 December 2019)
I should have caught this when I wrote my newsletter on strategic disinformation (RP#12). Karpf’s focus is on the indirect effects of online propaganda:
Much of the attention paid by researchers, journalists, and elected officials to online disinformation and propaganda has assumed that these disinformation campaigns are both large in scale and directly effective. This is a bad assumption, and it is an unnecessary assumption. We need not believe digital propaganda can “hack” the minds of a fickle electorate to conclude that digital propaganda is a substantial threat to the stability of American democracy. And in promoting the narrative of IRA’s direct effectiveness, we run the risk of further exacerbating this threat. The danger of online disinformation isn’t how it changes public knowledge; it’s what it does to our democratic norms.
The essay has a useful discussion of the likelihood that microtargeted advertising and persuasion directly influenced votes. This likelihood is small, but - says Karpf - that’s not the danger:
Disinformation and propaganda are not dangerous because they effectively trick or misinform otherwise-attentive voters; they are dangerous because they disabuse political elites of some crucial assumptions about the consequences of violating the public trust.
A well informed, or at least attentive, citizenry is a “load bearing myth” of democracy. - a shared social expectation around which we organise our collective lives. Honoring the myth of a public which both knows and cares keeps politicians honest. Partly they don’t lie and cheat because they worry they will be caught, but partly they don’t because they believe they need to uphold the trust of voters. This trust separates voting as a signal of public trust from voting as a mere decision activity. The norm plays a coordinating role for political actors, who have a reason to care about inconsistency (broken campaign promises, etc) because of it.
For a democracy to remain functional, political elites—elected officials, judges, political appointees, and bureaucrats—must behave as though (a) they are being watched and (b) if they betray the public trust, they will face negative consequences.
The indirect effect of rampant online disinformation and propaganda, then, is that it undermines the myth of the attentive public. If the news is all “fake,” then there is no need to answer reporters’ questions honestly. If the public is made up of easily-duped partisans, then there is no need to take difficult votes. If the public simply doesn’t pay attention to policymaking, then there is no reason to sacrifice short-term partisan gains for the public good.
And while opinions within the research community are starkly divided over the direct effect of disinformation and propaganda, there is essentially unanimous agreement that these indirect trends are toxic and abundant.
I wanted to say a little more about how these indirect effects of disinformation can harmful to democracy.
First, it is intrinsic to personalisation that it creates content which is different for different people. That’s great for seeing adverts for clothes you like, but when the content is news or political information, this erodes the common ground (RP#3) which supports democratic dialogue. (In extremis, if I believe that coronavirus doesn’t exist, and you do, we’re going to have a hard time agreeing on the right response to it).
Democracy is best when voting is preceded by deliberation, so you can see that a political science which focuses on the (negligible) effects of political advertising on voting alone is - as per Karpf’s argument - somewhat missing the point. Political advertising could be utterly destructive of democratic deliberation - perhaps by eroding common ground - and the effects on how people vote still very hard to detect.
Second, I think Karpf could make an additional distinction about the degrading effect of targeted political advertising on political actors. He discussing the corrupting effect, via norm erosion, where politicians feel less obligation to honesty and consistency. There is also, I argue, a distracting effect. This is not such much that they don’t feel the need to address their obligations to the public, but that they are not even motivated to find out what the public wants. If you come to believe that the public is overwhelmingly fickle, partisan, irrational or dumb, and that the way to change opinion is to disinform, nudge or entertain then there is no motivation to persuade, educate and discuss. The idea of an irrational public is dangerous because it closes off the deliberation before it is even attempted. When the public is only conceived as of as the target for adverts, slogans and spectacles it generates a self-fulfilling prophecy that drowns out voices of reason.
The public is not like this. Under every slogan is an iceberg of deliberation - within organisations, within families, at the bars and the playgrounds (and, yes, even on social media). Karpf’s essay is a warning that believing the hype of political advertising can act to diminish the reality of deliberative democracy.
Telford’s Iron Bridge, Photo by Michael Beckwith, CC
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The idea of the Maven makes visible an invisible iceberg of discussion, but in a different domain. Mavens are not celebrities, not Influencers. The original research suggests they are spread throughout the demographic - not just men, or just rich, or just young. Mavens are motivated by altruism - they like helping (Price et al, 1995; Walsh et al 2004).
A key idea of is that these market Mavens contribute to the overall function of the market, distributing high quality information about price and value and so stopping large players (e.g. retailers) using their cognitive advantage over fragmented and attention-limited consumers. You don’t need many, but they play a vital role.
Politics is not the market, and people don’t shop for politicians like they shop for food.
One difference from markets is the disconnect between facts and beliefs in politics is greater than for prices and value for consumer goods. The public, Karpf points out, has always been more or less misinformed about many matters of political fact:
What we have had in lieu of a well-informed citizenry is what might be termed a “load-bearing” myth—the myth of the attentive public. This myth has had adherents, to a greater or lesser extent, among the country’s media and political elites. It has influenced their behavior, buttressing norms that prevent some of the worst excesses of unchecked power.
While Karpf wants to highlight the dangers of stopping believing in this myth, I’m also interested in what currently supports it, and what we can do to make it more - rather than less - true.
How many citizens need to be diligently attentive for democracy to work? How likely are lies to be called out, or unlikely truths to be surfaced? If a party you hated started promoting a policy you loved, is there anyone who would tell you about it? If they did tell you about it, is there anyone you would believe?
In short, how many fact checkers do we need for the marketplace of ideas to work?
And how many of us need to care to impose a large enough cost on politicians for persistent dishonesty? These are probably unanswerable questions, but recognising that democracy is sustained by norms and beliefs which can be attacked by both disinformation campaigns, and by our cynical reaction to them, is a good start. Public life has always been full of lies and dishonesty, but if we believe that is all it is we further undermine the value of what truth and honesty remains.
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David Karpf On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths (10 December 2019)
Feick, L. F., & Price, L. L. (1987). The market maven: A diffuser of marketplace information. Journal of marketing, 51(1), 83-97.
Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. 2000. The quote about Mavens is from p62
Price, L. L., Feick, L. F., & Guskey, A. (1995). Everyday market helping behavior. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 14(2), 255-266.
Walsh, G., Gwinner, K. P., & Swanson, S. R. (2004). What makes mavens tick? Exploring the motives of market mavens’ initiation of information diffusion. Journal of Consumer Marketing.
I recommended 3 books on persuasion and rationality for Matt Webb, over at interconnected.org
Newsletter: Never Met a Science
Kevin Munger, who you may know from his study creating bots to admonish racist language from twitter users (“Tweetment Effects on the Tweeted: Experimentally Reducing Racist Harassment”) has a new newsletter. He had a great recent post (really an early view of scholarly work): “Theorizing TikTok”, which does a great job of unpicking the way TikTok interfaces with individual cognitive psychology and the wider attentional economy of (potentially) political communication.
Since we’re talking about it, user @rose_freya does a good line in historically and philosophically motivated lockdown tiktoks, if you are looking for somewhere random to start investigating the format.
Also: don’t install the TikTok app!
Newsletter: https://kevinmunger.substack.com/. Subscribe!
The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it - Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity (2009, p218)
I’ve been re-reading Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. Neiman’s argument is that the faith in reason of the Enlightenment has been misconstrued. It was not the ur-rationality of logic (rationality as calculation), or even the empirical rationality of fact gathering (rationality as a net to capture truths which can then be stored). Instead, it was the rationality of judgement, which weighs context, circumstance and emotion and cannot be purely taught but which can be learnt.
She has a brief discussion of legal reasoning, and the recognition inherent that no set of (legal) rules can be consistent and complete, and so judgement is always required. It seems a useful sketch of a middle ground, where reason can exist in between being pure logic or descending into an irrationality where all systems are equivalent. If you have any recommendations for reading on the theorisation of legal reasoning I’d love to hear them.
Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (Carter & Nielsen, 2017)
By creating user interfaces which let us work with the representations inside machine learning models, we can give people new tools for reasoning.
The interface-oriented work we’ve discussed is outside the narrative used to judge most existing work in artificial intelligence. It doesn’t involve beating some benchmark for a classification or regression problem. It doesn’t involve impressive feats like beating human champions at games such as Go. Rather, it involves a much more subjective and difficult-to-measure criterion: is it helping humans think and create in new ways?