The information silo

This is my first time posting in a week. There was a combination of factors that kept me away from the newsletter like pressing work at Real Vision and a lack of revealing economic data flow. But, the biggest factor was the coronavirus news flow. It was getting me down and making me angry. You can’t write objectively in that state of mind.

I was talking to my daughter yesterday, sarcastically but caustically advising her not to tell fellow university students in Germany that she is American, lest they think lesser of her. She responded saying something like, “no, no, I don’t want to think that way about America.” Neither do I, of course. And I don’t. But, it also pains me to write tweets like the one below.

Notice the part about the US being akin to a developing country.

I want to dwell on this today, instead of the economic data.

The information silo

I had a telling media experience this morning that I wanted to run by you because it’s making me think about how our consumption of information shapes our world views. As you may know, I don’t watch TV except for sports. I do get sucked into binge-watching shows with my wife, like the Apple TV+ show “The Morning Show” with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon that we just binged on last week. And sometimes I’ll watch Bloomberg TV. But, I don’t generally get my news from TV. I get it from multiple online sources.

But, today, I woke up early and decided to go to our little sun room where my wife starts her day after walking the dog. And I turned on the TV to Hulu Live. That’s now our cable TV alternative. And when I logged in, they had selected shows for me. First on the list was Fox and Friends. So I watched it. And, let me tell you it was very slanted.

It wasn’t what they said per se. It was what they didn’t say that was slanted. It was the choice of topics they chose that mattered: protesters hitting the police in New York, a hotel turned into a now out-of-control homeless shelter in San Francisco, Joe Biden listening to AOC and Bernie Sanders for policy advice on the Green New Deal, the police union endorsing Trump in 2020 after not endorsing in 2016 and endorsing Obama-Biden in 2008 and 2012. As someone who doesn’t watch TV, the slant was jarring.

For me, it was reminiscent of RT, the Russian news organization I (now regrettably) worked for during Obama’s second term. My show was about the economy and very fact-based. And I had the dominant editorial imprint on it. So I was keen to ensure it wasn’t slanted. But, in retrospect, the news RT presented was slanted by omission – meaning they reported mostly on bad things happening in the United States and in liberal democracies. In keeping with that slant, RT’s motto is “Question More”. But, if you zoom out your lens, it’s clear their questioning was completely one-sided i.e. question the US-centric world, but never Russia. And so, in retrospect, I believe they had an anti-American agenda, though they were never explicit about it.

What I saw on Fox was the same slant by omission in an almost “Question More” kind of style – where the thing to question is left and left-leaning mores, values, and policies. And conversely, just as at RT, never question the other side. That’s what was going through my head after about 15 minutes of watching this stuff.

Then my wife came in and asked to take over. I switched to her profile. And up popped the Today Show on NBC, which she watches daily. I sat and watched it with her for 5 minutes. And it was like night and day compared to Fox and Friends – nothing about protesters beating police or drug-filled hotels turned homeless shelters in San Francisco. Instead, they reported about the shake up in the Trump election campaign and Trump’s poll numbers. They then went on to talk about coronavirus. Then we turned it off and I left.

What I saw were two information silos. If you got your information from one silo, you’d have very different views than if you got them from another silo.

How the silos work internationally

Here’s my question: how common is this? And what are the driving forces? For example, back in, say, 1980, everyone watched the same news shows and read largely the same newspapers in the US and, say, Frankfurt, Germany. So, there was no information silo. But, when I look at the US, with MSNBC, CNN and Fox, I see big information silos now. It’s not about the accuracy. It’s the slant. It’s about what they choose to show you. Conversely, when I look at Germany, I don’t see the same level of polarization.

If I had to choose a progenitor of the silos, it would be the UK, where the tabloid press and even the mainstream news is siloed. Perhaps it is because all of the broadsheets in the UK are national, which makes it easier to create an information silo; local media sources need to be less siloed because they have to serve a broader range of viewer and reader world views. In the UK, the information flow you get from the Guardian is very different from the Telegraph. And so, I read both as well as the Times of London, so as to avoid the information silo.

For me, having multiple and international news sources is important because it means I see dramatically different news flows. And my job as the reader is to filter it into a collage and spit it out to you in some recognizable and useful form. I look my utility as being someone who predicts outcomes based on reliable data and widely sourced information, not as someone who wishes for a preferred outcome and synthesizes based on motivated reasoning.

But, if, as a English-only speaker, you are forced to rely solely on US news sources or solely on UK news sources for your information, you are in trouble. The information silos are too polarized in both countries to be reliable. For me, it doesn’t matter if Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung is more ‘left’ than the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The ‘German view’ is different enough, both in terms of news flow focus and opinion, to add value. The same thing goes for Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter in Sweden. All I want is to cast a wider net in terms of my news flow. I realize all media sources have filters. But, it’s the composite that counts.

What are the foreign media silos telling me?

What I am seeing – and what caused my writing hiatus – is failure. The last post I wrote on the W-shaped recession taking hold gets at that. If we focus narrowly on the economic data, the failure is in the V-shaped recovery to sustain itself. But, the wider news flow net says the failure in the US (and to a degree in the UK but less so) is more all-encompassing.

It’s not just the coronavirus policy failure in the US, which my daughter’s accounts from Germany make clear to me are deep. It’s what is driving that failure – information silos and the partisanship they create. Now, one could argue this is solely a Trump problem. The logic there is that the Trump Administration is filled with incompetence because Trump has driven out anyone not loyal to him, leaving only the loyal, not necessarily the competent in positions of power. Maybe. All I know is the news flow – in terms of what media focus on and how they tell it – shows every country in the developed world to be dealing with this pandemic better than the United States.

In Germany, for example, they write incessantly about Wirecard rather than people dying from coronavirus, simply because there aren’t hundreds of people dying there every day. Foreign press do talk about what’s going on in the US, not just because the US is so important internationally, but because the dysfunction is so compelling. It’s like a car crash. So, the US response to coronavirus and the polarized election lead-up is everywhere I turn in the foreign press.

That’s a badge of failure.

Where is this going?

Even though I say I am not being cautiously optimistic, in my mind I am hoping that some of my less positive predictions get proved wrong. I want the data in the US to outperform. But, so far, during this crisis, the situation has been pretty much as expected.

So, with the US topping 60,000 cases per day and a fight brewing over whether school systems should hold classes in person, the worst is probably yet to come. That means deaths will increase through the summer. And along with those deaths will come a consumer chill, economic lockdowns, job loss and a falloff in growth. These outcomes will be much more severe in the US than elsewhere in the developed world, simply because the US has been uniquely bad in the developed world in responding to the pandemic.

We can hope for better outcomes. But, if you’re a reality-based person, you have to expect that things will get worse before they get better in the US.

As for the information silos, we now live in a world where there are at least two alternate realities in the US. And those realities are starkly different, as my TV watching this morning showed me. I don’t have a prediction. I think they will continue because they are self-reinforcing. But, a massive rise in deaths in so-called red states, disproportionately affecting older Americans, might bring the silos closer together regarding collective action to stop this pandemic. It’s a very grim prospect. But, right now, in the US, I see it as the only hope we have. If things aren’t under control when children hit the schools in the Fall, it will be a lot more grim still.

P.S. – I am still trying to ascertain what impact the Great Influenza of 1918-19 had on the economy.

P.P.S. – US jobless claims came out just now. They were down to a seasonally-adjusted 1.3 million initial claims. The actual unadjusted number was 1,503,892, that’s more than the 1,395,081 who filed the week prior. So, jobless claims in the US are now INCREASING, not decreasing.

Comments are closed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More