Future Babble

On media, politics, riskā€”and experts with crystal balls

Beware The Killer Feedback Loop!

Even factual news reports can create dangerous illusions.

If you follow the news, you heard about the thousands of birds that suddenly dropped from the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve. How could you not? The incident was reported around the world.

You also know about similar bizarre events occuring in Texas, Kentucky, Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere. And it's not just birds. Crabs, fish, and other critters have suddenly expired in shocking numbers. It was all over the news. Maps of the incidents showed clusters across the globe. Taking all this in, it's pretty hard not to feel a chill. Was this some sort of global environmental disaster? A sign of the Apocalypse?

Fortunately, scientists spoke up. This isn't unusual, they said. Incidents like these happen all the time. What's unusual is that the die-offs are being widely reported. Perceptions of a frightening new phenomenon are an illusion.

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So who or what is responsible for that illusion? 

Let's start by exonerating the usual suspect: It wasn't caused by media sensationalism, at least not to any significant extent. Journalists didn't go with these stories because they thought they would scare the public and boost audience share. They went with them because they were intrigued by them, just like everybody else, because, just like everybody else, they didn't know this frightening new phenomenon was neither frightening nor new.

If we must blame someone, blame human nature. As the New York Times noted, humans constantly connect dots. We don't see disconnected incidents. We see patterns that reveal what's really going on. For the most part, this compulsion serves us well, which is why it's part of our cognitive hardwiring. But it also causes us to see faces on burnt toast, cancer clusters, and countless other patterns that don't exist. Then we make up stories to explain them. Which can get us in heaps of trouble.

But this explanation isn't enough. We hear about various incidents; we connect the dots; we see a pattern that does not exist. That's simple enough. But why did we hear about those incidents in the first place? They happen all the time, after all, and we've never noticed them in the past. So why did these particular incidents get worldwide attention?

It was thanks to a very simple feedback loop.

Unlike most such die-offs, the initial incident was widely witnessed by people. Thousands of birds dropped from the sky. Thump, thump, thump. It must have been a horrible, disturbing sight. And the cause wasn't immediately obvious. Naturally, the incident was reported. It was news.

But news where? Local news, sure. State news, maybe. But it became national and international news, which is a little surprising for a story that can be boiled down to "some birds died far from here." Why did that happen? Note the timing: It was the New Year's weekend. There wasn't much happening. And for the media, that's a problem. They report constantly, whether there's something important to report or not. In a lull, a bizarre and creepy little story about birds dropping from the sky can get a prominence it never would otherwise.

Also note where the story happened: in the United States. The news media in other countries pay close attention to the American media and so American news stories tend to spread beyond the borders of the United States -- especially when it's a holiday and there's not much to report.

And so lots of people around the world heard that birds dropped from the sky in Arkansas. And guess what happened next? More birds dropped dead! This may not have been noticed earlier, and certainly wouldn't have reported widely, but this the second dot! It's a pattern! What's going on? What can it mean? And now -- this just in! -- there's another report of birds dropping from the sky. This time it's in Sweden. And there are reports of crabs dying in England. And something else in Italy. These incidents may be very minor, but that doesn't matter. They fit the pattern, which makes makes them important, so they're reported -- which makes the pattern appear even stronger, which encourages reporters to look for more incidents. And so on.

It's a classic media feeback loop: More concern, more reporting; more reporting; more concern.

I looked at many examples of this phenomenon in The Science of Fear. Remember "road rage" in the 1990s? An illusion. But a powerful feedback loop made it feel real. Or how how about "the Summer of the Shark" in 2001? A single shark attack led to a feedback loop so strong that even "shark chases spear fisherman" became an internationally reported news story.

One of the most dramatic examples followed the Columbine massacre of 1999. It was a stunning tragedy. It was all anyone was talking about. The media reported on nothing else. And, inevitably, absolutely any incident that even hinted at young people being violent in schools was reported across the United States and around the world. A student somewhere pulled a knife on a teacher! A boy somewhere else wrote a violent short story! On and on it went. No story was too trivial. Inevitably, the media created the impression that an entire generation of young people was deeply disturbed, that schools were dangerous, that anyone's child was at significant risk of being killed in the next massacre. And it was all false. Department of Justice research showed that school was the safest place an American kid could be, and that violence wasn't surging -- it was plummeting. Sadly, that research went largely unreported and unnoticed. And so schools across the United States took money that could have gone toward books and lab equipment and spent it on metal detectors, guards, and security consultants who taught American kids what to do when a maniac shot up their classroom.

The "Aflockalypse" was more amusing than harmful. But not all illusions end so happily.

Dan Gardner is an author, journalist, and lecturer living in Ottawa.

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