The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Political News and You

In the field of game theory, there’s something called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Let’s imagine that two friends, Joanne Red and Keith Blue, were arrested and imprisoned for being suspects for a crime, but the police don’t have enough evidence to convict them. Keith and Joanne are separated and cannot speak to each other. The guard wants to know who committed the crime, and makes a deal with each of them. If they testify against the other, they get out free and get some money. Their other choices, then, are to stay in prison, or come forward for it, which spares their friend, but lands them in prison.

Image from linked Youtube video

Recent studies have pointed out how different our feeds are on Facebook, in particular, based on our political views, likes, friends, etc. The Wall Street Journal did a great visualization side-by-side about how people get different information about the same topic. What’s more, people are even receiving tailored ads from politicians based on their ads for what’s important to them. Kathryn O’Neill describes this in awesome detail in her book Weapons of Math Destruction. And if that’s not enough, partisan news sites, both left and right, give us very different      information, too. Combine that with fake news, anti-intellectualism, debunked myths being sold as facts, and a response from scientists assuming that the facts alone will speak for themselves, it’s no wonder things are divided and people are having a hard time communicating. It’s almost like we’re prisoners in this prisoner’s dilemma, and the selling out was our vote. We live in the cells of our informational bubbles, every time we assume the other group is just the worst and post or click as such, we “sell them out” and are rewarded with more information that confirms our beliefs.

There are a couple of things in this scenario that make things different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma. First, we aren’t actually prisoners. We can choose to “walk out” of our cells by adding variety to the information we consume. Joanne and Keith can talk to each other. A question, though, is whether Joanne and Keith can communicate.

In a culture of memes, buzzwords, catch phrases and viral videos, it’s likely that data alone will only persuade people who are persuaded by data. If left and right are ever going to have a meaningful, intelligent conversation, it’s going to take some serious work. The problem, as I see it, isn’t just that Joanne and Keith have different opinions about the same information. They have different opinions about DIFFERENT information, and likely have no idea what information the other consumed. This puts a burden on both of them to have to discuss not just the differences in opinion, but the differences in information that led to those differences in opinion.

What is that likely to require? It’s likely to require a lot of patience, for one. It’s also going to require openness to discussion. It’s going to require valuing the other’s perspective, even if there isn’t agreement. It’s going to require a clear, persuasive, and compassionate explanation of WHY the other is wrong. It’s going to require the willingness to be wrong. But most important, it’s going to require invitation back into the circle for those who were wrong, on those issues where there is a wrong and right.

In no way am I advocating for ignoring the rampant prejudice, hate and bigotry that is going on here. And in no way am I advocating that every Keith and every Joanne need to talk. But for those who are open to it and who can, I think it’s important to remember how much is required to get to the point where we can even have a conversation. Can you let the other person explain why? Can you point out the holes in their reasoning? And can you defend your arguments? Here’s a great guide about how to have these debates online. A lot of this is relevant to conversations in person, too.

The difference between Keith and Joanne and you and your coworker, family member, sports team member, is that I made Keith and Joanne up to make a point. You have to live with (or without) them. If we as a country are ever going to have meaningful discourse, I believe it’s a big part of what we need. Or we can stay in the respective cells of our information bubbles. Because that’s working so well.