I am a mass media hater as much as anyone. I hate how it manipulates people through fear and soundbites. I hate how it dumbs down issues requiring thought and analysis to the detriment of accuracy. I hate how it proliferates through the enhanced sharing capacities we have today. And I hate how it leaves victims in the dust with no recourse or accountability.
The good news is that I am not alone. People are tired of being played to generate more clicks and ad revenues for an Estate that absolved its responsibility to maintain a healthy Democracy through an informed populace.
The sad news is that because of its legacy of negligence, the media has created a real problem. We’re numb to real crises. And the consequences could be significant.
The latest chapter in this is Ebola. A shock-weary society is fighting back against the hype, saying that we are unduly concerned. “More people die from flu and cancer than Ebola. Focus there.”
I joined this chorus. “Stop the hype” I told my mother, who routinely forces me to consult Snopes.com. My sister (a nurse) joined arms with me in trying to stem the tide of what was (certainly in my mother’s case) media-induced paranoia.
Then – ironically via clickbait outlet BusinessInsider – my sanity was restored by (my) new favorite author, Nassim Taleb. Best known for Black Swan, Taleb is known for establishing pragmatic (though perhaps not intuitive) ways to think around risk, unpredictability and uncertainty.
Here’s a rare moment of me appreciating the conciseness of an ad-driven pub, allowing me to call out the salient bit:
The argument that the US should be more worried about a disease like cancer — which has more stable rates of infection than Ebola does currently — is a logic that Taleb calls “the empiricism of the idiots.”
The basic idea: The growth of Ebola infection is nonlinear, so the number of people catching it doubles every 20 days. Because of this, you have to act quickly at the source of infections, he says. “The closer you are to the source, the more effective you are at slowing it down … it is much more rational to prevent it now than later.”
The problem Taleb sees is that if there is not more urgent action in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — to the point of restricting travel and other measures that may now seem like an overreaction — then there will be consequences here.
Thankfully we are not limited to BusinessInsider and can get a bit more analysis from the likes of Zeynep Tufekci.
In short, it’s not unfounded paranoia, despite the media’s self-interested position to generate it. And it’s not an issue of looking at gross numbers. It’s an issue of risk. I’m ready to put my media hate away if it means we can think and – better yet – act rationally. There are high stakes.