An emergent alliance between interest groups such as corporations or activists, and intellectuals who produce narratives and arguments, is shaping the information ecosystem. Many intellectuals respond to incentives from the interest groups to argue for predetermined positions in exchange for money, prestige, and an audience. Arguments with no backers are not disseminated as widely and often go unheard. This piece uses several brief case studies to illustrate how this affects reporting and public discourse. An open society requires an awareness of why and how our information is produced and shared, as well as the wider social norms necessary to keep interest groups from overly polluting the information environment. As the paralysis of the American political system in recent decades has shown, these critical capacities are essential to ensure that partisanship and selective reporting do not drown out accurate analysis.
To make sense of the information and arguments we read, we have to understand where that information comes from. The ecosystem in which arguments are written and information gets distributed is complex, and it doesn’t only reflect the information’s truth or its justification or its importance, but also factors such as whether the information supports an ongoing narrative or whether the argument is useful for some faction’s goals.
A key recurring pattern is a symbiosis between, on the one hand, an interest group with an agenda—such as a corporation, activist group, or political party—and, on the other hand, intellectuals who produce arguments. The interest group will use its resources to boost and disseminate arguments useful to its goals. Intellectuals who produce these arguments will receive fame, jobs, interviews, book deals, and the pleasure of having their ideas matter. Every argument presented in major media outlets is necessarily shaped by this process, at least in part. In addition, most political arguments shared through in-person interactions or social media consist of people repeating arguments that were first spread widely by this process.
In some cases, an intellectual will deliberately “sell out,” aligning their career and arguments with an influential interest group or funding source in order to receive these benefits. In other cases, an intellectual will be uninfluenced by the prospect of these rewards and simply say what they think, and then the interest groups that happen to be served by their arguments will promote their ideas to a wider audience. Far more often than either of these cases, the intellectual will bend themselves subconsciously, fitting themselves and their arguments into a mold cast by an interest group to which they are already sympathetic. There is no need to ascribe malintent to this subconscious process; people naturally gravitate towards saying and doing the things that are, for whatever reason, well incentivized by others.
These motives are almost completely irrelevant to how this kind of intellectual production impacts society. Out of the mass of complex personal motivations, two trends emerge. The first is that the arguments that get amplified, true or not, are those that serve someone’s purpose. The second is that when a well-resourced group has a purpose, arguments will be produced to support it, and the most plausible-sounding of those arguments will then be amplified.
Of course, there are plenty of arguments that don’t serve any particular interest group or faction and cannot be turned to support any ongoing narrative. These arguments have a much harder time finding a niche in the information ecosystem, since there is no natural constituency for the dissemination of such an argument and no organized interest group willing to invest serious resources in promoting it. Before long, these arguments will usually fade away without being widely heard. To pick one example, many people arrive at arguments for reducing the length of copyright law, but these ideas have no organized backers who stand to gain from their adoption, and so receive little attention in the media which drives our discourse.
Sometimes, when an argument useful to someone gets promoted, it happens to be true and well justified; for example, manufacturers of electric cars arguing that their products result in less greenhouse gas emissions than internal combustion engine-powered cars. Or on occasions it can be false, misleading, or incoherent; for example, arguments that pallets of bricks near some Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 indicated a widespread conspiracy to provoke violence. Sometimes the argument holds together within a particular narrative frame or context, but leaves out important complexity and misses alternate perspectives; for example, arguments that vaping tobacco is bad for public health because it is harmful compared to abstention, or arguments that vaping tobacco is good for public health because it is less carcinogenic compared to traditional cigarettes, without looking at actual usage patterns. In any of these cases, the social factors described above operate in the same way. The argument’s quality does play some role in how far it gets boosted—after all, a more plausible argument is a more useful narrative tool—but this role is far from overwhelming, as the examples below will demonstrate. In the short term, the push towards truth and plausibility serves mostly as a filter selecting against the truly egregious arguments. The deeper work that filters the genuinely justifiable from the merely plausible is a much slower process, often too slow to be perceived from the perspective of news cycles and public discourse operating on the scale of weeks or months. Frequently, the public discourse moves on before this process has time to run its course, and only a small handful of the initial audience sees the reliable results.
How Big Ideas Get Big
One of the clearest examples of interest group influence in action is political think tanks. Their explicit purpose is to construct and publish arguments in favor of a predetermined position, partly in service of research, but also largely and explicitly in service of persuasion and advocacy. The arguments they create are frequently picked up by traditional media, online commentators, and average social media users alike, as well as by legislators directly. Partisans accurately—if selectively—point out that their opponents are biased because their funding and social position depend on staying in the good graces of donors with an agenda to push, but this does little to slow the uptake of their arguments.
In 2020, there were 2,203 think tanks in the United States. The industry’s annual spending is measured in the billions. On politically contentious issues, there are often opposing think tanks on each side of the debate, providing stable careers for people who produce arguments for their predetermined conclusions. These are some of the most stable niches in the information ecosystem, supported by a pipeline of money and talent to hold each other in place by their equal and opposite action. Because they are not directly in the public eye like elected officials or the news, these think tanks’ niches are largely unaffected by the public’s opinion of their track records.
The field of economics provides a more specific example of the very strong influence of interest groups. Compared to many other intellectual fields, economics is perceived to have greater-than-average authority when it comes to judging or making policy proposals on a very wide range of topics. As a result, politicians often rely on intellectual support from economics, and political needs can thrust convenient economic theories into the public consciousness. While the validity of any economic theory is beyond the scope of this article, the paths to prominence taken by some theories provide instructive examples of how certain narratives develop.
Arthur Laffer spent much of his career as an economic advisor to Republican presidential administrations. In 1974, at a dinner with Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and the columnist Jude Wanniski, Laffer sketched a simple curve to illustrate the idea that raising taxes beyond a certain point could lead counterintuitively to lower tax revenue by stifling economic activity. Wanniski later wrote up the idea in the neoconservative journal The Public Interest, popularizing the idea of the “Laffer Curve.” This concept became one of the cornerstones of supply-side economics, which was championed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to justify his administration’s economic policies and tax cuts. This curve has been a major subject of debate in academia and public policy ever since. In 2019, President Donald Trump awarded Laffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one year after Laffer co-authored a book called Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy.
A more recent case is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which argues that governments can normally pay their bills by printing money, rather than by taxation, without causing inflation. Many MMT advocates also favor using the money obtained this way to establish a federal program to provide guaranteed jobs to anyone who wants one. A handful of academic economists have spent two decades working on and advocating for the theory. A large community formed around blogs arguing for MMT, but the ideas remained relatively fringe until 2019, when it was thrust into the limelight by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who also favors a federal jobs guarantee. Since then, MMT has been the subject of a great deal of academic debate and public discourse, much of it explicitly partisan. While its proponents have not yet achieved the power to determine American economic policy, it seems reasonably likely that more influential politicians whose policies require deficit spending might endorse MMT in order to justify their budgets.
In some cases, popular entertainment can also follow a similar pattern. Once a political coalition emerges and people begin identifying with a new set of ideas, market demand from this new demographic can spur the production of ideologically sympathetic entertainment, without the need for elite backers. In addition to swaying the undecided and galvanizing the believers, well-crafted politicized entertainment can bring its authors fame and wealth if a large segment of the public is receptive enough to consume it. In these cases, a coalition within the public uses its distributed market power to incentivize the production and distribution of a favorable narrative.
Bestselling examples of this kind of entertainment are common throughout American history. In the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped crystallize the growing abolitionist sentiment prior to the American Civil War. Two generations after that war, The Birth of a Nation sparked the revival of the defunct Ku Klux Klan and popularized the costumes that are still associated with the Klan today. More recently, Brokeback Mountain was released to widespread acclaim just as mainstream opinion was beginning to turn in favor of gay marriage in the mid-2000s.
In recent decades, we have also seen a rise in celebrity political talk show hosts such as Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck, whose broadcasts blur the line between news and entertainment. The niche occupied by these non-fiction shows is much the same as with fiction. There is a substantial audience for this self-conscious propaganda—which is to say, many people very naturally want someone to explain how new events fit neatly into their existing worldview, and how apparent challenges to their ideology can be justified. Competition for these established audiences guides the output of many entertainers towards ideas that some specific faction will find appealing.
Finding Niches in the Information Ecosystem
To understand how an idea fares in the information ecosystem, we must understand each of the ecosystem’s major parts, including consumers of information, producers of information, and sources of funding and legitimacy. To carve out a niche that will enable it to survive, any narrative must have appeal to some group within each of these three categories.
These narratives and their supporting arguments are meant to create a constituency behind some action—political, economic, social, or otherwise. Sometimes the goal is to get the constituency to do something directly, such as smoking in the 1920s or, later, not smoking. More often, the goal is to mobilize voters, or to gain more nebulous popular support in order to influence third parties such as school boards or business leaders.
The whole process therefore involves three groups: the interest group, the intellectuals and influencers, and the mass public. The interest group wants to make some change to mass belief or mass behavior, yet it cannot do this directly. The public will not change their beliefs or actions merely because some interest group tells them they should. It takes arguments and justifications from the intellectuals—the writers and speakers and pundits and commentators—in order to persuade. By amplifying convenient arguments and setting up career incentives to create new arguments in favor of the position it seeks, the interest group creates the levers needed to move public opinion.
Interest groups usually act through formal organizations. An example is the late 20th-century campaign to reduce cholesterol levels. The narrative in this case involved changing diets and selling profitable new statin drugs. While much of the impetus came from the drug manufacturers, who funded sympathetic studies and spread a great deal of money throughout the medical profession, the campaign was rarely framed in these terms. The American Heart Association marketed to the public, raising awareness of cholesterol as a threat to health. Meanwhile, most medical professionals deferred to the gold-standard recommendations on the use of statins from the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) within the National Institutes of Health. This position, however, was gradually reversed after a 2004 scandal in which journalists revealed undisclosed payments from drug companies to the authors of NCEP’s recommendations.
Less frequently, this process of spreading ideas is achieved through informal networks, such as the intellectuals and scientists who collaborated to publicize the idea of “nuclear winter.” In the early 1980s, many scientists opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world and sought to slow or reverse their spread. Preliminary computer models suggested that a nuclear war could send smoke and dust high into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and rendering the Earth uninhabitable. A conference of about one hundred scientists discussed the hypothesis in April 1983. In October of that year, scientists including Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich began a campaign to popularize the idea and use it to argue against the use of nuclear weapons. They began with a widely-published newspaper supplement, followed days later by a feature on ABC News, before publishing in December in the academic journal Science, and the following year in the pop science book The Cold and the Dark.
In an effort to prevent nuclear war, these and other scientists presented nuclear winter as though it were a proven theory rather than a plausible hypothesis, and most media reports followed their lead. However, the climate models used to support the hypothesis depend on a number of speculative assumptions. In particular, there is continued debate over whether or not nuclear attacks are likely to loft smoke high into the atmosphere, which would be required in order to produce a lasting cooling effect. Notably, while most of the people behind the idea were apparently more motivated by altruistic desire to prevent global catastrophe than by partisan or personal goals, the dynamics of information creation and spread were much the same.
Many members of the public are willing participants in this process. This stems partly from trust in authorities or narrative leaders, but also from the daunting complexity of the world in which we live. It is far easier to receive narratives uncritically than it is to think through every subject thoroughly, seeking out comprehensive information and considering motives. As with the intellectuals who subconsciously bend themselves to an interest group’s mold, there is no reason to ascribe malintent to the public here either. People are busy. Rigorous thinking, evidence collection, and sound argumentation are frequently time-consuming and by no means instinctive or simple tasks.
It is important to note that many of the arguments offered in favor of a given position are not the proponents’ real reasons for holding that position. The public-facing arguments and persuasive narratives are often crafted after the decision has been made to push for a particular position. This is of minor importance to most consumers of arguments, whose most immediate motives include having talking points for discussions with ideological allies and foes. A large collection of weak or tangential arguments serves this purpose almost as well as strong arguments.
This process is far from foolproof, and just because an interest group has marshaled its case and amplified its message does not mean it will successfully persuade the public. Many of these campaigns flop. Once the intellectuals have marshaled their best arguments and spun their best narratives, the result might simply be far-fetched and unpersuasive, or it may be too far beyond the limits of comfortable public thought. For example, while there has been a good deal of public advocacy in favor of vegetarianism for reasons of environmental conservation or animal welfare, these arguments have generally not changed people’s behavior, and the proportion of Americans who are vegetarian has remained constant over the past two decades.
A narrative might be directly countered by a more successful campaign from its opponents, such as the Intelligent Design movement, which achieved significant popular and political support in the late 1990s and 2000s due to think tanks like the Discovery Institute, but has since been relegated to the political fringes by the efforts of biologists, science communicators, and atheist activists.
Or, as is frequently the case with aspects of impassioned political activism, a narrative might achieve support from one faction but be unable to influence the faction that actually makes the relevant decision. This was colorfully captured by Kurt Vonnegut: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”
This process of interest groups influencing intellectuals, who then influence the public at large, is far from the only thing that determines which information gets shared and distributed. Other concerns also play their roles, from profit-maximizing sensationalism to a genuine desire to inform the populace. Certainly, the influence of interest groups can be overridden in individual cases. Still, this process is among the strongest factors at play in determining the topics of public conversation.
How, then, should our society respond to this phenomenon? We cannot simply do away with interest groups altogether, nor can we expect them to stop pursuing their interests. Rather, a healthy information ecosystem occurs when the interest groups are constrained by strong epistemic norms, and when individuals are intelligently analyzing the information available to them.
On an individual level, it is important to track the whole process by which a narrative or a piece of information reaches you. Why was it paid for? Why was it written? Why was it broadcast? Why was it shared? What were people’s motivations for taking the actions that led to this information reaching you? Answering these questions about an article or video can sometimes reveal more than the actual content. It can reveal which perspectives are being promoted and which are being left out. Coupled with the uncomfortable willingness to realize when we are wrong, it can let us notice when our picture is distorted, incomplete, or simply false. For any individual this takes both work and a degree of personal humility. We suggest that this work is worth doing, not only to enhance our understanding of base reality, but also to enable better collective sensemaking. Without the ability to understand where our information comes from and why it is reaching us, we are less able to work together to seek the best outcomes for society.
On a wider level, public debate should place far more importance on rationality and good faith. While no one can achieve perfect objectivity and fair-mindedness, those who strive for it get far closer than those who do not. This is true at both the scale of an individual and the scale of a society. Certain social norms can help in this process, including respect for reason, considering issues from opposing perspectives, and valuing the ongoing search for ever-better approximations of the truth, while viewing partiality and cliquishness as embarrassments that diminish one’s stature. The worst arguments will find less traction in such an environment, and people will find it easier to abandon positions when they become untenable.
No society can remain functional if its key decision-makers are focused on debating trivialities and ephemera, or if their debate cannot reach well-justified conclusions. In a functional democracy, the key decision-makers are the public. A functional democracy, therefore, requires healthy public debate. If interest groups are able to flood the public sphere with noise and nonsense, if we let ourselves be carried uncritically by the tide, then public debate will be unable to make progress on the important issues. Democratic political institutions, which depend on public debate and consensus, will then grind to a halt. We have seen this paralyze the American political system in recent decades.
The challenge, then, is to get there from here. How do we become better at interpreting the information we receive or seek out? How do we form a culture that instills skepticism over tribalism? How do we build institutions that police each other in the direction of truth and good faith? These are the questions we must answer to resolve our society’s epistemic crisis.
“Were Pallets of Bricks Planted at Black Lives Matter Protests?” The Consilience Project, March 1, 2021, https://consilienceproject.org/pallets-of-bricks/ ↩
James G. McGann, “2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report”, TTCSP Global Go To Think Tank Reports 18 (2021): 44. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=think_tanks. ↩
“America’s Top Think Tanks: A One Billion Dollar Business,” Transparify. December 11, 2014, https://static.squarespace.com/static/52e1f399e4b06a94c0cdaa41/t/548979afe4b042224cd35987/. This report finds that 21 of the largest US think tanks collectively spent just over $1 billion in 2013. If we suppose that think tank spending follows a standard Pareto distribution, then we can crudely estimate that this largest ~1% of think tanks would account for about half of all think tank spending in the United States, for total annual spending of about $2 billion. ↩
Samo Burja, “Intellectual Authority,” December 30, 2020, http://https://samoburja.com/intellectual-authority/. ↩
Arthur Laffer, “The Laffer Curve: Past, Present, and Future,” The Heritage Foundation, June 1, 2004, https://www.heritage.org/taxes/report/the-laffer-curve-past-present-and-future. ↩
Jude Wanniski, “Taxes, Revenue, and the ‘Laffer Curve’,” The Public Interest (Winter 1978), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/storage/app/uploads/public/58e/1a4/c54/58e1a4c549207669125935.pdf. ↩
Major MMT theorists include Stephanie Kelton, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Stony Brook University and author of the 2020 bestseller The Deficit Myth. Other notable theorists include Bill Mitchell and L. Randall Wray, professors of economics at the University of Newcastle and Bard College, respectively, and co-authors of the 2019 MMT textbook Macroeconomics. ↩
See for example Dylan Matthews, “Modern Monetary Theory, Explained,” Vox, April 16, 2019, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/16/18251646/modern-monetary-theory-new-moment-explained ↩
“Torches of Freedom,” Wikipedia, updated May 5, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Torches_of_Freedom&oldid=1021660408. ↩
“Tobacco Control” The BMJ, accessed June 14, 2021, https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/. ↩
John Abramson and Barbara Starfield, “The Effect of Conflict of Interest on Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice Guidelines: Can We Trust the Evidence in Evidence-Based Medicine?” The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 18, no. 5 (2005), https://www.jabfm.org/content/18/5/414. They note: “There were no such conflicts of interest disclosed in the July 2004 update of the National Cholesterol Education Program’s (NCEP) recommendations for lowering cholesterol with statins published in Circulation. Just 1 week after the recommendations were published as conflicts started to appear in the press, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) put the complete list on its website: 8 of the 9 authors had financial ties to statin makers. […] [O]ne of the authors of the NCEP update, a full-time employee of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) overseeing the formulation of the cholesterol guidelines, received $114,000 in consulting fees from statin makers between 2001 and 2003 in addition to his full-time salary.” ↩
David Willman, “The National Institutes of Health: Public Servant or Private Marketer?” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2004, https://www.latimes.com/news/la-na-nih22dec22-story.html./ ↩
Lawrence Badash, “Nuclear Winter: Scientists In The Political Arena,” Physics in Perspective 3, no. 1 (2001): 76-105. ↩
Jeffrey Ladish, “Nuclear War Is Unlikely To Cause Human Extinction,” LessWrong, November 6, 2020, https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/sT6NxFxso6Z9xjS7o/nuclear-war-is-unlikely-to-cause-human-extinction.See especially the section “The Robock group’s models are probably overestimating the risk.” ↩
Zach Hrynowski, “What Percentage of Americans Are Vegetarian?” Gallup, September 27, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/267074/percentage-americans-vegetarian.aspx. ↩
Kurt Vonnegut, “Aggressively Unconventional: An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut,” interview by David Hoppe. Utne Reader, May/June 2003. ↩