A few months ago a rich man hired hitmen to go kill something. On August 26, 2016 that thing died.
THIEL VS. GAWKER
Gawker was a “journalism” website. They posted gossip according to the “cheap/fast” model. One of the things they posted was a sex-tape made for private use by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Hogan sued Gawker.
Hogan won the suit, to the tune of $150M, making him the highest paid porn-star of all time!
And then the plot thickened.
Shortly after Hogan’s victory, someone did some good journalism and found out that Hogan’s suit was funded by venture capitalist Peter Theil.
I’ve been following Peter Thiel since he helped fund Facebook back in 2005. He also helped fund Paypal, among others. He taught a really interest class on startups at Stanford that I’m sure changed quite a few minds on how things are and should be done in the startup world.
But I digress.
Thiel is known for thinking, a lot. Anyone who talked with him prior to the Gawker suit described him as thoughtful, philosophical, intellectual, and articulate. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of person I’d love to spend time with.
In other words, I was a Thiel fan.
So, when he decided to take down Gawker, which is why he funded Hogan’s suit, I was intrigued and asked why.
OF TRUTH AND FREEDOM
Journalism, or the freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s protection is so primary that it’s alongside freedom of religion, and the freedom of speech.
Religion is protected because the framers were fleeing what became a structured dictatorship with the establishment of moral authority on top of the legal authority of the state. They knew, thanks to The Spanish Inquisition, that such a convolution gets really scary really fast.
The freedom of speech? That’s kind of a no-brainer. A democracy, or a republic can’t exist without people being able to freely express their opinions. If that gets infringed on, then people don’t feel they can vote the way they want and the whole idea of a republic collapses again.
And it’s the opinion of the people that matters most in a republic. If people believe something is wrong, they will/should vote to correct it.
The problem is, and this is where journalism comes in, people need to have access to useful, accurate information for them to make their choice. When that happens, you get what’s been called a “well-informed populace.” Journalism, not gossip or idle speculation, is where that populace gets its information.
If journalism becomes corrupted or contaminated to the point where it no longer represents the truth, people can’t have informed opinions and again, the republic falls.
A PROMISE THAT REQUIRES WORK
Freedom can’t exist purely for its own sake. That’s called Hedonism. It was tried in ancient Greece and it fails pretty quickly. If we pursue pleasure for its own sake, without restraint, we quickly get fat, lazy, and dead.
The Greeks saw the flaws in Hedonism and established Epicureanism. One of the logical conclusions of Epicureanism is that pleasure should be pursued, but only in so much as doing so doesn’t prevent the future pursuit of pleasure.
In the same way, freedom should only be pursued as long as it doesn’t prevent the future pursuit of freedom, either of the individual or of the group.
I can go into the desert by myself and yell “Fire!” all day long. No one will care. It won’t affect anyone except me. I may even explore the various meanings of the word while I’m out there, yelling.
But, if I go into a confined space, filled with people, and yell “Fire!” the definition is assumed to be that chemical reaction that causes heat. People are afraid of fires in closed spaced because it often kills us. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded confined space is illegal.
In other words freedom of speech is available but with limits.
We’ve taken that idea even further, with laws about harassment, hate speech, and threatening the life of a political figure. Hate, harassment, murder threats, those things eat at the edges of the republic, they degrade our tenuous cohesion as a society.
BRAIN CHEMISTRY AND EXTREME EMOTIONS
Here’s why. Allow me to summarize/simplify that article: The part of ourselves that we think of when we speak of ourselves exists in the front part of our brains. It’s called the frontal lobe. It lets us focus, think clearly, stay-on-task, and be logical. It’s the part of our brains that animals don’t have, and if they do have it, it’s not nearly as developed as ours.
When we used to have those aforementioned strong emotions, it was because there was a tiger nearby and our lives were in danger. The people who ran without thinking lived. The people who sat and speculated about the threat of the tiger died. And, according to the rules of micro-evolution (and basic logic), that means that we now have that trait of running instead of thinking when our lives are in danger.
It works like this: when we experience extreme emotions, our brains emit a chemical that paralyzes our frontal lobe. Our capacity for reason, logic, staying on-task, those things get turned off temporarily until the threat is gone and the chemical causing the paralysis dissipates.
THE CAUSE OF THE SICKNESS
We’ve made society pretty safe by now.
Our lives aren’t in danger very often anymore. That’s awesome! But the systems that remain in us because of our dangerous past still remain.
It turns out people click on things that make us angry, afraid, etc. This is because we’re hard-wired to do so. If something makes us afraid and we don’t investigate, we could die. Our tendency to click on those types of things is a very good thing. It’s one of the reasons humans are still alive.
Journalism is now funded by advertising because journalistic outlets have learned (and as a filmmaker, so have I) that the days of people paying for things is coming to an end.
But, stuff still costs money.
The solution is advertising.
Advertisers don’t pay upfront anymore, like they did with newspapers that had subscribers. Now, they pay based on clicks. They often pay after-the-fact (though that gets a little hazy when after-the-fact is measured in nanoseconds). Functionally, that translates into journalistic outlets (I’m tired of writing that. I’m going to call them what they are: websites) writing things that get more clicks.
THE DISEASE REVEALS ITSELF
The two primary flaws of click-based journalism may mean that the disease is fatal, if a cure isn’t found soon.
The first flaw is that not every article/essay is going to get a lot of clicks. This is made up for in volume. The problem with volume is the “good/fast/cheap, pick two” truism.
The journalists aren’t being paid well (at least, not well by writer’s standards (an in-demand script doctor in Hollywood can make $600k/week), which means that “cheap” is one of the choices by default.
“Good” and “fast” are therefore at odds.
Again, even if and article is good, there’s no guarantee it’s going to get clicks. Remember, people click because of fear/anger, not because of quality.
Thus, websites chose fast/cheap, to the exclusion of good. Or, if you prefer a slightly more optimistic approach, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually create a Shakespeare-level play. But, it won’t be on purpose.
The “fast/cheap” model was adopted pretty early (relative to tech) in the system. Ryan Holiday (head of marketing for American Apparel) realized this problem and exploited it, and described how to exploit it in a paradigm-shifting book called “Trust Me, I’m Lying.”
In that book, Holiday describes the problem I re-described above. He realized that the need for content reduced the ability for trained journalists to practice their profession in the way they were trained. Time, research, multiple sources, those things were gone. They were replaced by one, often unverified source, which could be something as unreliable as a tweet.
Using that exploit, Holiday got a lot of free advertising for American Apparel. But, that hole has been plugged (it hasn’t actually, it’s been commodified, but I’ll get to that).
THE DISEASE CAN BE FATAL
The second major problem with click-bait journalism is much, much worse than the first. The journalists learned that we click on things that scare/anger us (I know, I already wrote that). We’re programmed to respond to those things (I know I already wrote that too. (The next one is another repeat too)). Here’s where it gets all too real. In order for the republic to function, people need good information and then they need to make an informed choice.
But, if the source of their information is corrupted (see: Holiday’s Exploit) and if it’s designed to elicit strong emotions, emotions that we know paralyze our ability to reason/stay-on-task/think, then what was once vital to the republic becomes the very thing that can destroy it.
When we get our information about the world of politics from click-bait websites that make money based on anger, we get bad information and even if it was good information, it’s emotionally biased to turn off our reason. In other words, the citizens of the United States can no longer vote rationally.
That’s one way to kill a republic.
CANCER IS PROFITABLE
Companies that make drugs to treat diseases have a vested interest in diseases continuing. That’s how they make their money. It’s true with computer viruses and with biological viruses.
It’s also true with idea viruses. We laud things that “go viral” online. But, historically, in every sense of the term, viruses were a very bad thing. It seems we’ve forgotten that.
The websites that are the most profitable are the ones that pander to click-bait journalism (if it can even be called “journalism” anymore). And, when rich Person A sees rich Person B with an idea that makes rich Person B richer, rich Person A does what rich Person B does, with a slight improvement on what’s working for rich Person B.
And thus, click-bait became the norm.
IS THIEL A PATRIOT?
I don’t know what Peter Thiel believes. As much as I want to, I’ve yet to have a conversation with him. I want to hear some of his stories and find out why he does what he does. But, if his motivation is to return quality to journalism, then he’s a patriot. Even if Thiel’s motivation is deeply flawed or entirely selfish, does that make his take-down of Gawker a bad thing?
There’s a subset of Philosophy called Logic. Within Logic there are philosophical fallacies, one of which is ad hominem. Paraphrased in English: the source of a truth doesn’t determine the validity of the truth. A thing is true regardless of its source. One more time, Thiel’s motivation is irrelevant, just as Edward Snowden’s motivation is irrelevant, just as Daniel Ellsberg’s motivations were irrelevant when he published The Pentagon Papers.
THE DISEASE HAS EVOLVED
Peter Thiel may have taken down a single source of bad journalism. That’s a victory. It’s important. It continues to establish limits on free speech to buttress the deeply fragile thing that is a free republic. But the heart of the problem is quality journalism. And that has not gotten better.
As I mentioned above, Holiday’s exploit has been commodified. It’s called Native Advertising. I’ve seen this all over the place. It’s been in Hollywood’s so-called “Trade Journals” when they give more space to a movie/studio/actor than is warranted. I even wrote an essay about when I first noticed it, called “This Post Likes You”.
Native Advertising (in case you didn’t click on the link above) is advertising that’s designed to trick you into thinking it’s actually a legitimate news/blog article, when in fact it’s existence was paid for, and may have even been written by a company in order to promote it’s product/brand/idea.
Native Advertising is to click-bait as the flu is to ebola. Sure, the flu can kill you, but ebola is so horrible that the only reason it hasn’t wiped humanity out entirely is because it kills people too quickly for them to travel anywhere and spread it. Native Advertising is the death of journalism. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but in real life.