Sunday, August 5, 2012

The media are largely responsible for the decline in civic discourse

Via Insty, we find a chin tugging complaint that while the whole Harry Reid is a Pederast meme is funny, it's wrong:
Nonetheless, while giving someone a “taste of his own medicine” is no doubt satisfying and perhaps even instructive, wrong is wrong, and spreading intentional lies, even about a public figure as devoid of decency and scruples as the Senate Majority Leader, is unethical. No conduct, no matter how nauseating, by its target can justify this. Stooping to Reid’s level can only further degrade civility and dignity in American public discourse, which is the objective of political sewer-dwellers like Reid, not anyone with the best interests of the nation in mind.
That last sentence strikes me as particularly wrong.  The Media in an earlier and less degraded age actually did act as a referee.  While there was probably never a time when they weren't biased, there was at one time a basic expectation of standards.  Harry Reid would have been pilloried by the media in the 1970s and 1980 for his "sumdood told me that Romney like totally didn't pay taxes" charge.

Quite frankly, when the media enforced basic standards, we did have a higher level of civility in the public discourse.

And then that all turned into 60 Minutes airing 30 year old Microsoft Word documents, and the baiting of Joe the Plumber, and the silence on the media's part towards Reid.  The media have decayed to the point that they see no need to enforce minimum standards of decency on one side, while imposing absurd standards on the other side ("You don't support Obama?  I wonder if it's because you're racist.").

And so to Mr. Marshall's complaint on ethics grounds.  What's interesting is that there's quite a lot of theory about this.  If we are interested in a long term enforcement of ethics norms, can that theory give us guidance as to the strategies most likely to result in higher levels of civility?  It can indeed.

Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making, and has been well studied for generations.  The Prisoner's Dilemma is one of its most famous problems - two prisoners are each offered a choice: give evidence against the other or not.  If neither rats the other out, they both will get light sentences.  If both rat out the other, they will both get longer sentences.  If one rats and the other doesn't, the rat goes free and the other serves a very long sentence:

Prisoner B stays silent (cooperates)Prisoner B betrays (defects)
Prisoner A stays silent (cooperates)Each serves 1 monthPrisoner A: 1 year
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays (defects)Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 1 year
Each serves 3 months

What's interesting is that politics falls very neatly into an "iterated prisoner's dilemma" model, where a series of incidents are played out, one following the other, in a never ending ethical dilemma.  So what strategy does Game Theory recommend to increase ethical outcomes (in this case, to prevent ratting)?

Tit For Tat is the model that optimizes outcomes.  The rules are as follows:
This strategy is dependent on four conditions, which have allowed it to become the most successful strategy for the iterated prisoner's dilemma:[1]
  1. Unless provoked, the agent will always cooperate
  2. If provoked, the agent will retaliate
  3. The agent is quick to forgive
  4. The agent must have a good chance of competing against the opponent more than once.
In the last condition, the definition of "good chance" depends on the payoff matrix of the prisoner's dilemma. The important thing is that the competition continues long enough for repeated punishment and forgiveness to generate a long-term payoff higher than the possible loss from cooperating initially.
It's a perfect fit, and one that quite frankly used to be played by the media.  In days past, Senator Reid would have found that retaliation for his bogus charges would have come from them, in the form of increasingly disbelieving questioning and increasingly negative reporting about him.  He would have learned not to take that sort of tack in the future, as we see when Tit For Tat computer models run for multiple iterations - they fairly quickly reach a stable equilibrium with a minimum of rats.

Alas, the media have abdicated this role, and so the Internet has stepped up as an alternative channel.  My fundamental disagreement with Mr. Marshall is that he is not advocating for ethics in the long term, but only in the short term.  His quote again:
Stooping to Reid’s level can only further degrade civility and dignity in American public discourse
Tit For Tat disagrees, and in a world where the media no longer enforce the same ethical norms on both sides of the debate, the ethical payoff to "turn the other cheek" is precisely the continued degradation of civility that Mr. Marshall so rightly deplores.  In fact, the Harry Reid is a Pederast meme is precisely the correct response, because it is becoming so successful that the media may have to cover it - and there's simply no way to cover it without reference to Reid's own original charges.  In short, more of these may in fact nudge the media back towards a more neutral referee stance.  If not, the very success of the memes will hasten the media's demise.

In either event, we're likely to see increased levels of civility as one side finds that it is no longer able to rat on the other with impunity.

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