Welcome to Metaworld

Source: Images from two dueling opinion articles on a rise in violent crime in the US – both from John Minchillo (AP)

Let’s start with an assignment.

Take a look at the graphic below. It is a network graph visualization built using the software from Quid, much like the network maps we publish all the time. A dot (or node) in this visualization is a single news article. Articles with the same colors have been arranged into a cluster by linguistic similarity. Connecting lines likewise indicate linguistic similarity, only between nodes in different clusters. Up, down, left and right don’t have any meaning, and the colors for clusters are arbitrarily chosen. Distance and connection are the only dimensions that matter.

Which cluster would you say is the most similar to everything else? Where is the beating heart of this network visualization?

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

If your eye is drawn to the lavender, purple, red and orange clusters there at the center, you’re on to something. But a 2D visualization is an inherently crude way to present these kinds of relationships. After all, this network graph is trying to represent about 12 million relationships between blocks of unstructured text, and you’d need a lot more than two spatial dimensions (and the sort of pseudo-third dimension you get from the wormhole effect of connectors) to do so faithfully.

So I’ll give you the answer: it’s the lavender cluster, and it’s not especially close. Here are our own mean normalized harmonic centrality scores by cluster, which I acknowledge is a complicated-sounding mouthful. It’s actually pretty simple. It is a measurement of how linguistically similar the average news article categorized in a cluster is to every other article across the network. The units are not necessarily intuitive, so I’ll put it in context: that’s a damn big gap between the top cluster and everything else.

Source: Epsilon Theory

So what IS that cluster? And for that matter, what is the dataset being used to populate the network map itself?

The network map is an arrangement of 4,804 articles from the Lexis-Nexis Newsdesk database published by broad-circulation, US-based outlets between January 1, 2021 and July 15, 2021 referencing violent crime. And the most influential lavender cluster…well, that’s the thing. It’s a cluster defined by people writing about how other people are writing about violent crime.

In short, welcome to Metaworld, in which articles which explain the news increasingly ARE the news.

The easiest way to get a sense of this is to read the articles. Here is a pretty thorough sampling of what you’d find in that lavender cluster:

The Role of Covid Lockdowns in 2020’s Homicide Surge | InfoWars

After a Violent Year, a Search for Answers | Bloomberg

“Perfect storm” drove major surge in 2020 homicides | CBS News

Study: Killings surge in 2020; pandemic, protests play roles | Washington Post

The Minneapolis Effect | Yahoo News

Quiz: How Well Do You Understand Today’s Crime Trends? | New York Times

How crime stats lie – and what you need to know to understand them | CNN

Chicago Is Not the Murder Capital, and Other Misperceptions | New York Times

Horowitz: NYT admits homicides in 2020 likely topped 20,000, most since 1995, but can’t figure out why | The Blaze

New research shows homicides rose in cities that experienced Black Lives Matter protests | The Blaze

Why Is the U.S. Murder Rate Spiking? | Bloomberg

Factcheck: “Crime is escalating to a level we haven’t seen in decades as a direct result of Democrats’ defund the police movement and Biden-Harris open-border policies.” | Politifact

Stop Blaming Crime Rates on Defunding the Police | Mother Jones

NY Post Editorial Board: Murders soared in 2020 – and the anti-policing movement is clearly to blame | NY Post

Nolte: Study Shows Murders Skyrocketing in Anti-Police, Democrat-Run Cities | Breitbart

Fact-checking claims bail reform is driving increase in violent crime | CNN

Most of those articles are opinion journalism – editorials, op-eds and essays from established and well-known opinion journals. Many are vaguely noted as “analysis” pieces, some are of the “fact-checking” genre, and a few are marketed as hard news. And there’s nothing wrong at all with interested citizens and journalists writing opinion pieces, analyzing the events of the day or checking facts. I mean, you may think that some of the opinions are really bad, but unless you live in one of several European countries or Asian metropolises with Epsilon Theory readers where this isn’t the case, bad opinions are still legal.

What IS concerning to me, however, is that in the last 18 months, this emergence of a central meta-cluster dominated by discussions of discussions of the topic has become the rule for practically every topic of any social importance. Network graphs visualizing coverage of America’s COVID response, the January 6th riots, the environment, the future of remote work, voter suppression / voting integrity, CRT / privilege education, and now violent crime, have all demonstrated this property. It even showed up in an analysis we conducted as part of an ad hoc Epsilon Theory Forum discussion about changing narratives of American geopolitical dominance.

I am concerned because it hasn’t always been this way. This isn’t a natural feature of “meta” content being central because of topical language, or because of some tautology of self-referential language spiking linguistic similarity calculations – or at least it isn’t only because of that. This is a more recent phenomenon.

I am concerned because our data indicates that the language patterns, phrases, framing structures and arguments of opinion, analysis and explainer content are increasingly making their way into nominally hard news content.

I am concerned because our data also indicates that opinion, analysis and explainer content are becoming a higher volume of published journalistic content, even before taking into account the disproportionate distribution bias toward such content on the social media channels used as primary news consumption vehicles for most Americans.

I am concerned because the combination of those factors is steadily removing feasible ways to consume real news that isn’t debased by fiat news, our term for opinions stated as facts.

I am concerned because this trend exacerbates and very likely prolongs political bi-polarity. It continues to support a world with two wholly distinct sets of ‘facts’.

So what can we do?

Same as ever for news consumers: never stop asking “why am I reading this now?” Look for hammers and nails. Be mindful of attempts to auto-tune facts and opinions to archetypes. And support your local and regional news outlets. Our work on fiat news has consistently found that well-staffed city papers, even those with a heavy political slant on their editorial and opinion pages (in either direction), do a much better job insulating their news content from their opinion content than national and principally web-based outlets.

Influential individuals and institutions in the media who are interested in stemming the tide of fiat news could do a lot, too. More news organizations electing to be news-only outlets would go a long way, but the economic model on that may have long since sailed. More realistically, a commitment from a group of large news organizations to clearly mark and separate opinion, analysis, feature and ‘fact-checking’ content from hard news where they can control its distribution would be a big step. A set of protocols and standards for doing so that would allow other full-hearted publishers to join in would be a bigger one.

And come to think of it, that sounds like an interesting use-case for a distributed, non-government controlled system for emphasizing and rewarding positive externalities.

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  1. CNN employs two people as so-called media critics. Their job, as best I can tell, is to watch Fox News and then report back what the people over there are saying. It’s an odd business model (and based on how their ratings have been going down it seems not to be a great one). But someone at CNN thought that their viewers would really enjoying hearing what the other guys are talking about but they would also need to keep their hands clean while doing it. See, you could always just watch another station, but what if that other station was full of crazies and weirdos and it’s just too icky for you? Enter the media critic. You get all the information (that they want you to have) without being one of those unwashed viewers of Bad Cable News Channel X. And it works for everyone! Want to hear some disingenuous thing Jake Tapper said? Well there’s definitely like three different right wing podcasts that will tell you about it. Did Tucker Carlson really say that about vaccines? Worry not, Brian Stelter will do a whole segment on it tonight. In a world where access to information has never been easier or cheaper we have built an ecosystem that ensures we are always watching the crowd watching the crowd. The internet revolution didn’t cut out the middle man, it gave us a seemingly inexhaustible supply of middle men. And we absolutely asked for it.

  2. Where does commentary from increasingly popular (? - I don’t think it’s an illusion) “independent media analysts” fit into this equation - like the people writing on substack as free agents who used to work for news organizations.

    It is possible to argue that ET is in this category sometimes as well - not necessarily in service of political narratives - but in analyzing the presentation of news.

    For instance, where would this post be in your narrative map?

    I wonder if there are two types of meta-commentary: (1) the kind that you’re highlighting: articles attacking or supporting other narratives by social, media, and political actors, and (2) the kind of meta-commentary on this platform: where we learn to examine how the information we consume is packaged and shoehorned into larger ideas and narratives.

    What is curious to me is that I would think that the increasing popularity of free agents would make the map more diffuse, or is this an indication that this is not occurring? Or is this contributing to the glut of metacommentary?

  3. I am almost surprised to learn that there is any simple reportage of facts anymore. Both sides know that the issue of crime broadly is an important one for their campaigns. One side gained mightily from the perception of police brutality last year and the other is attempting to exploit the mayhem that ensued and the various issues around that. When the Rothschild’s pigeon’s were carrying the news of Waterloo, no one had access to any facts. Now the sky is thick with them but no one can tell which are real.

  4. Hey, Eric! Really good thoughts and questions!

    I think if you write about narrative, you’re always going to live in the meta. It’s unavoidable. I’d like to think we don’t have an ideological axe to grind, but of course we do. I think it just happens to not be on the most dangerous and divisive axis socially, but that’s my story, not a fact. I’d like to give our genre of media criticism a separate category as you do, but I’m not sure it’s always as distinct a thing as we’d like.

    As for Substack journalism, I think it’s mostly supplanting similar volume coming out of larger publishers (especially the volume of a person who leaves such an outlet to set up their own direct content feed). That would make it more of a fragmentation than a shift, and I wouldn’t expect that to have a material effect on the mix or nature of the meta’s influence on coverage more broadly. That’s mostly assumption work on my part, though. I don’t know if my priors about how free agents supplant mainstream content are correct.

  5. No doubt. FWIW, I think @bhunt watches the shows-about-the-show networks promote when he watches The Bachelor, etc., so while we are all to blame, he may be slightly more to blame.

  6. Even more worrying - I’m not sure if we care!

  7. This is spot on and going on in the the micro level as well as the macro media level. When anyone talks current events 1v1, almost all of what they’re remarking on is the coverage of the event in question. Very little gets discussed about the actual fact pattern.

  8. Could this emergence of a central meta-cluster dominated by *discussions of discussions" possibly reflect that most newspapers (media) have moved online and most news articles now allow readers to “comment”?

  9. From a technical perspective, not explicitly, in that the text we’re analyzing doesn’t include those comment sections.

    But I think it’s certainly the case that writing to induce comments and social media sharing is a big part of ALL content production, including that of hard news, so in a way it is absolutely a part of why this sits at the center.

  10. When the primary job of news media became to shape opinion rather than report news , I guess this was inevitable.

  11. The struggle I’ve been having with this discussion/comment thread - came to the fore with your comment.

    I don’t think we’ve ever done anything other than shape opinion. The idea of the water we live in is that we lose the background for the foreground. We forget we live in a world of dualities (joy is meaningless without sadness).

    Even if I am reporting, accurately, a series of events as perceived by me and others and reported in an effort to remove bias - ie facts - there is a whole other narrative to be told by the facts and viewpoints that escape that process.

    (IF]f you want to go meta - there is a whole discussion to be had on the narrative memetic meaning of the word “fact” and what “facts based reporting” really is…)

    To me, I always find it interesting to look at the negative, at what was not reported, at “the dog that didn’t bark”. From a potter’s perspective, the void inside the vessel (the negative space) is what gives it utility.

    My sense is that what we are expereinceing now is that they are not even pretending anymore. With technology and a #YOLO world in which we seem to live - narratives rule the day and the idea of presenting your narrative as “facts” seems to have massively diminished.

    and, that, I find super fascinating.

  12. It’s not just us, and it is getting crazier, and Covid probably is a reason why. Despite thinking about the narrative world a lot, the snippet attached from Grant’s really jumped out when they published it. It seemed so ridiculous because they talk about these fundamental things - which may or may not be significant, but that you definitely could incorporate into a DCF valuation. And then they sum up with “further weighting on the narrative.” Wut?

    Covid was too perfect for the narrative world because no one knew anything, even the experts, and a vanishingly small portion of talking heads last March and April were actual experts. Meaning, most of us were left talking about people talking about Covid. One consequence of the metaworld is I always remember facts (not fiat news, actual facts) don’t necessarily matter, it’s how those facts are formed, shaped, and used by The Narrative. It’s the voting machine every day all of the time. That’s always been an issue but Covid was tailor-made to strengthen the effect.

  13. The selective inclusion or omission of information, the placement, the amount of emphasis - as you say, all of these things can be done without explicitly expressing an opinion, and can be done either consciously to shape the response or subconsciously to reflect the perception of ‘what matters’ by the author. And that’s been true…forever!

    But I think what we are observing goes beyond not even pretending any more. I think it matters to know that the intention of publishers and authors is explicitly to shape opinion, and more powerfully that it is becoming knowledge that it is not only acceptable but desirable to do so. Even if we should always be cautious of the natural, unavoidable ways in which framing and story shaping will happen, I think that the new common knowledge world we are describing here is specifically the one which permits the emergence of two sets of facts.

  14. Really shrewd find here. We’re updating our work on Fiat News and meta-narrative (discussion of the narrative) and this is indeed a prime example of the emergence of that genre.

  15. Maybe I am being too cute or too zen - I just think that the narrative that we have told ourselves is that some time back we had entered a period of enlightened “news” - you know, “all the news that’s fit to print” - that finally was the truth.

    And now, we’ve realized - it’s the same as it ever was.

    Rusty - I totally agree with your comments that it matters to consider this. I think it also matters to consider that it may not be a degradation from an objective truth reporting standard. It’s just our narrative nature as humans expressing itself in a myriad of ways.

  16. I agree the media has always had a slant and the primary tool they employed was in their choice of which stories to cover and how much time to allocate. This was a very powerful tool because they could still retain the facade of objectivity.

    Like you said - they are not even trying anymore , for me when I saw network after network standing in front of cities on fire - using the words “ peaceful protest” it was beyond debate that this was a collaborative effort to create a narrative. We have seen it many many times since .

    The real problem becomes , IMO, is that it further erodes the trust we have in our institutions. In a world where everything is political, and the people that provide us our information have taken a political stance, either way ,half the population will distrust that information.

    Times come when it’s vitally important to get facts and trust those facts —by everyone. Like a pandemic :mask:.

    All these institutions have been viewed as apolitical for a reason , the CDC , the WHO , FBI , IRS, Justice Dept etc etc. This has now changed and we will pay a dire price.

  17. Only if those institutions don’t pay the dire price.

  18. Here’s one from ESPN today, and I know it’s obvious when they use the actual word, but notice how they don’t ask the question: “What are Middleton’s chances of winning the MVP over Giannis?” No instead let’s talk about people talking about that.
    Sports narrative

  19. Another good one. Pretty sure we could fill a thread in the forum with these just about every day.

  20. I might be remembering an old ET note, but is there an analogy with financialization? Everything is a derivative in news as in finance. I understand financialization as the result of the big guy’s need to invent new products so as to maintain an edge over the little guy. In both contexts, the process is aided by consolidation of institutions into fewer, larger, easier-to-coordinate entities. [Fun fact: the Clinton administration deregulated both!]

    One difference is that, in news, everybody seems to have positive gamma. You can push a narrative for months or years, and if the underlying facts break the other way you can just move on to something else without much cost. Or maybe all the negative gamma is being concentrated in the commons.

    As narrative gets more reified into a concrete subject of discussion, does that make public support for censorship easier to build?

  21. Yep! Not just an analogy with financialization, but with functionally all ET concepts, I think: A financial derivative and news about news are both abstractions of a thing.

    What I DO like about the specific analogy you mention, however, is the clever description of “negative gamma being concentrated in the commons.” 10/10 will absolutely steal. And yes, consistent with that description, I think that it is almost universally true that those who benefit from the promotion of the abstractions are rarely the ones who bear the increasing (and accelerating) costs.

  22. yup…the proverbial free option…reminds me of the hf industy

  23. So here’s something that I cannot quite wrap my head around and maybe it’s because I am (as impossible as it seems) not cynical enough: would we ever willingly accept this kind of construct in any business other than media?

    If Proctor & Gamble released statements every day discussing what Unilever was doing would we be the slightest bit interested in it? Would we ever in a million years just take their word for it when it came to the accuracy of their statements? I’d like to think we would be critical enough to laugh this notion off entirely. And yet…

    CNN says Facebook is dangerous and killing people. They followed up by saying something similar about Fox. Now my contempt for those three entities is pretty high, but isn’t this just one group of people with a financial interest in their network’s success trash talking their competitors? Why is that deemed to be newsworthy? Facebook has, for better or worse, obliterated dinosaur Boomer media. Every single time you read something bad about Facebook it is likely being put out by someone who is losing their audience to the company they are bad-mouthing. Again, we used to understand this. Cable news is wrestling with the reality that they’re all Gimbels and the last four years gave them a brief stay of execution. But their demise is back on schedule and the race to the bottom is going to get much uglier.

  24. If anything, other industries have been moving almost exclusively in the “target-huge-TAMs-and-ignore-competition” direction.


    More reason to believe that “look how stupid / immoral / incompetent the other tribe is” IS the product of a goodly portion of explainer media IMO.

  25. Only two set of facts?

    I define, therefore I am.

  26. There are two kinds of people in the world - those that think there are two kinds of people and everyone else.

  27. Avatar for O.P.A O.P.A says:

    Disclaimer: I don’t have measurements for any of this. This is conjecture.

    shape opinion rather than report news @lpusateri

    I don’t think this is new, information has always been weaponized. Is this any different from old school propaganda? Or even Ceasar’s military reports (literally titled “Comments on the Gaulic Wars”, as if they were just matter of fact statements and not political ads)

    Maybe @Zenzei is correct and “it’s the same as it ever was”, however I think the all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print period actually was somewhat different in content, not just that it was less criticized than “main stream media” today.

    One theory is that in the age of just radio and TV, you couldn’t target viewers very well (as a broadcaster or as an advertiser). So your content had to appeal to a wide audience, and your advertisements did too which only put more pressure on the broadcaster to be mainstream. That meant fringe ideas were harder to promote. The internet and advanced tracking/surveillance changed the calculus on all that, so now you can be hyper targeted, and you only need to worry about your narrow audience.

    Now, was that era of mainstream targeting more truthful/factual? Probably not as much as people then liked to believe, but I do think there was a stronger focus on maintaining your reputation based on facts - and thus more rigor. Because your audience was broader you could be challenged by a broader group. Nowadays, with a much narrower audience one is less likely to be challenged as long as you fit in with the echo chamber.

  28. Haha at least two, anyway.

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