How Availability Cascades are Shaping our Politics

How Availability Cascades are Shaping our Politics

Vincent Harinam and David Kopel
Vincent Harinam and David Kopel
10 min read

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”
– Eric Hoffer, 1955

We are the company we keep. Although our beliefs and actions are personal, they are often heavily affected by the people around us. When everyone else seems to be thinking the same way, we may succumb to crowd pressure rather than thinking for ourselves.

When all available information seems to indicate that everyone is falling in line with a certain belief, we may be under the influence of an “availability cascade.” Today, our politics and public discourse are being poisoned by availability cascades. Thanks partly to partisan domination of the media and academia, many people are being pressured into publicly espousing beliefs that are not their own.

Two components make up an availability cascade: an informational cascade and a reputational cascade. An informational cascade creates genuine changes in people’s beliefs by providing plentiful but misleading information. A reputational cascade is a vicious cycle in which individuals feign expressions of conviction to retain social approval.

In the 2007 article “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation,” professors Cass Sunstein and Timur Kuran described how availability cascades can cause poor decision-making. For example, in the late 1970s in Niagara Falls, New York, an old chemical waste dump, the Love Canal, began leaking. Government officials monitored chemical levels in the area and found that the leaks were too small to cause adverse health effects.

Nevertheless, a local woman, Lois Gibbs, began telling her neighbors that their whole neighborhood was highly toxic. People began blaming their health problems on the Love Canal. As the panic spread, politicians fell in line with their terrified constituents. Soon, anyone who dared to question the unscientific assertions that Love Canal was a disaster was vilified for not caring about sick children. The government evacuated everyone from the Love Canal neighborhood. Hysterical reporting in local and national media spread the terror. Even decades later, opinion polls showed that Americans thought toxic waste dumps were the number one environmental problem—although many other environmental problems are actually more dangerous.

Societies are vulnerable to bad cascades because cascades in general are evolutionarily helpful. Because an individual can’t know everything, she usually increases her chances of survival by copying the behaviour of others. In the aggregate, a group of people often knows more than any single individual. Mimetic herding—doing as others do—can be a good shortcut in decision-making. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” according to a saying attributed to St. Augustine. If you live in Milan and are visiting Rome, then fast on the days when Romans fast. Copying the Romans when in Rome will help your reputation among the Romans. Besides, food markets in Rome won’t be open on Roman fast days, so you might as well go along.

The more you know

Cascades that lead to foolish choices are typically driven by a lack of complete information. We all lean heavily on cognitive shortcuts—“heuristics”—in evaluating our world. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut whereby the perceived likelihood of any given event is tied to the ease with which it can be brought to mind. Thus, the probability assessments we make are often based on our ability to recall relevant examples.

If a physician has recent experience with a particular medical condition, the physician is more likely to diagnose the same condition for other patients. Likewise, consumers’ self-reported ease in recalling product failure is correlated with their judgment of the likelihood of the product failing. For example, if you remember that your best friend’s KIA broke down last year, but you forget that a workplace acquaintance’s Ford had a similar problem that year, you may think that Fords are more reliable than KIAs.

The news has many stories of gun crime and of people declaring that the United States is facing a new epidemic of gun violence. In fact, homicide and other gun crime has fallen by about half since the early 1990s. As a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center put it: “Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware”. A misinformed 56 percent of Americans believed gun crime to be higher than it was 20 years before; 26 percent thought gun crime had stayed the same. Only 12 percent knew it was lower.

Today, people who know little about American history are bombarded with assertions that slavery is a uniquely American evil caused by capitalism. Millions believe these claims. In actuality, slavery was endemic globally throughout human history, including in the North American Indian tribes. For example, as Andrés Reséndez describes in The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (2016), the economy of the Comanche empire, based in central Texas, was based on human predation and the slave trade; the Comanches sold captured Indians, Mexicans, New Mexicans, and other Americans to any willing buyer.

A leading antebellum defender of slavery, George Fitzhugh, accurately recognized the incompatibility of coerced labor (Southern slavery) with free labor (Northern capitalism). His books Sociology for the South, or, the Failure of Free Society (1854) and Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters (1857) argued that slavery was more humane than capitalism, and that most whites would be better off if they were formal slaves, rather than subjected to the “wage-slavery” of free markets. According to Fitzhugh, “Slavery is a form, and the very best form, of socialism.” Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 House Divided speech echoed Fitzhugh’s observation that the United States would not remain half-free and half-slave; the nation would eventually become all one or the other.

The notion that economic freedom is the cause of slavery is contradicted by the existence of slavery all over the world in societies that were not capitalist. Including in Communist China today. Yet if all you know about slavery is what you’re told by today’s mainstream media, you would think that capitalism causes slavery.

Availability cascades can produce grossly inaccurate perceptions of problems. The less we think for ourselves, and the more we go along with whatever information is available, the more distorted our understanding of the world becomes.

The lies we tell

Importantly, availability cascades are reinforced by reputational cascades. Reputational cascades operate via “preference falsification,” a term introduced by Timur Kuran in his book Private Truths, Public Lies.

Preference falsification is misrepresenting one’s views or desires because of perceived social pressures. Conforming to prevailing public preferences yields security, acceptance, and respect. People lie about their views in order to avoid the fate of dissenters: cancelation and ostracization. Preference falsification makes a society stupider and in the long run leads to the society’s failure.

Consider the Soviet Union. Single party rule was maintained by a culture of mendacity. Only a minority believed that Lenin and his successors were good rulers, but everyone pretended to think so. Speaking one’s perceived truth was too dangerous.

As preference falsification takes over a society, the next step is denouncing alleged dissidents. Examining Stalin’s Soviet Union, Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski described the common survival strategy of talebearing. Spying on and reporting friends, neighbors, and co-workers was the path to rewards and material wealth.

One way or another, almost everyone took part in the punishment of other citizens. Individuals applauded speakers they disliked, joined organizations whose mission they opposed, ostracized dissidents they admired, and followed orders they considered nonsensical.

Preference falsification impoverished public discourse in the Soviet Union, leading to many systemic shortcomings. Unable to challenge the defects of communist central planning, citizens were stuck with shoddy goods, food shortages, and endless queues. It was hazardous to question the wisdom of a communist policy or to profess ignorance as to its rationale—for any hint of unorthodoxy could be interpreted as sedition.

According to a Cato Institute poll, 62 percent of Americans say that the current political climate prevents them from expressing their views. Majorities of Democrats (52 percent), independents (59 percent) and Republicans (77 percent) now self-censor. The only group where the majority did not feel pressured into silence were leftist Democrats. Another study found that the higher the level of education, the greater the self-censorship.

Moderates may be the worst off. Whereas the right wing and left wing can retreat to zones where their views are reinforced rather than vilified, moderates cannot. The moderate who rejects the dominant views of the Left and the Right is shouted down by both sides. For moderates, there exists no safe haven from the culture wars.

Infectious diseases can spread faster today than in the past because of better transportation and mobility. Likewise, availability cascades spread faster and wider because of improvements in communication. Part of the problem is social media’s utility for propagating half-truths and worse.

Availability cascades can only occur when an influence network exhibits a “critical mass” of early adopters. For an availability cascade to occur, a minimum number of individuals must first adopt it. Once this threshold is reached, the cascade becomes self-sustaining with more and more adopting it. Persons A and B declare support for a particular position. Person C disagrees but is worried about retaliation if he dissents; so, he pretends to agree with the position. Person D sees that C is going along, so D goes along too. As social media drives information flows and connects swaths of people, critical mass can be achieved much faster. Social media is a cascade builder.

Social media also allows unscrupulous organizations with small support to appear much larger than they really are. For example, former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson in her 2017 book explained how Media Matters, a left-wing pressure group, uses a tiny but incessant number of Twitter users to bombard corporations with messages that—to a naïve corporate public relations department—have the appearance of a large grassroots movement.

Cui bono?

In every industry and institution there exists a metagame: hidden yet fundamental strategies that confer success and strategic dominance. Those who win the metagame capitalize on knowledge of structural mechanisms and system-level quirks. They know how “the game” should be played.

To win the metagame one must ask the right questions. Those who aren’t playing the metagame ask the wrong questions.

When it comes to our divisive politics, those who aren’t playing the metagame ask: “why are we divided?” or “to what extent are we divided?” In contrast, persons cognizant of the metagame ask: “who benefits from this division?” The ones who foment political polarization are the ones who benefit from it. These are the actors who initiate availability cascades.

Social agents who understand, create, and exploit availability cascades are called availability entrepreneurs. Be they government officials, news anchors, or activists, availability entrepreneurs trigger cascades to advance their agendas.

While many entities benefit from political tribalism, the mainstream media often benefits the most. After all, it is the media that controls the availability of most information. The media are the masters of establishing social proofs, manipulating cognitive heuristics, and propagating black swan events as if they were the norm.

The economics of the news business have changed in ways that make the media less inclined to report the news, and more inclined to be availability entrepreneurs pushing one social panic after another.

Data show how media content has changed. In 2011, data researcher Kalev Leetaru measured the sentiment of every article published in the New York Times between 1947 and 2005 and an archive of translated broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Leetaru found that the tone of the news sources became progressively negative over the decades, with an acute plunge into negativity starting in the late 1990s. Similarly, a Rand Corporation study of the presentation of news between 1989 and 2017 found that pre-2000 broadcasts used more precise language and relied on public sources of authority—whereas post-2000 broadcasts were awash with emotional language, unplanned speeches, and personal anecdotes. What explains the shift?

It is no coincidence that the media’s descent into negativity began in the late 1990s. The period marked the rise of the Web and birth of the online competitors that traditional media struggles against today. Sensational news captures the public’s attention and attracts far more readers and viewers than a dispassionate summary of statistics and a presentation of accurate information. The choice appeared simple: sensationalize or perish.

According to Pew, US newspaper circulation in 2018 was the lowest since 1940, with an estimated 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday. Those numbers were down eight and nine percent, respectively, from the previous year, with revenue also falling 13 percent. From 2016 to 2017, the portion of Americans who relied on local TV for their news fell nine percentage points, from 46 to 37 percent. Moreover, the average audience fell in key time slots in 2018, down 10 and 14 percent for morning and late night news, respectively. According to Forbes, CNN’s total primetime audience was well under a million viewers (767,000) in 2019. For context, there are more sex workers in the United States than there are people who watch CNN primetime. Between 1994 and 2014, journalism shed over 20,000 jobs, a 39 percent decline.

At the same time, the portion of Americans who get their news online, either from news websites or social media, grew from 38 percent in 2016 to 43 percent in 2017. As of 2018, 24 percent of all media consumption in 2018 was mobile. Online advertising expenditure surpassed TV ad spending for the first time in 2017.

The technological pressure exerted on traditional media drives negative reportage as a means of maintaining a shrinking market share. Very few media in the United States have ever been able to break even just on subscriptions; the media have always depended on advertising revenue. Gone are the days when a general circulation daily newspaper could sell dozens of pages of advertising in every issue.

So as general audiences decline, and the remaining audience becomes more digital and thus easier to quantify, the ratings and clicks become more important than ever. A journalist can produce a well-researched story with accurate data about gun crime in the US past and present. Another journalist can write a hysterical story designed to terrify readers. Which one gets more clicks?

A 24-hour news cycle that features sensational anecdotes, ill-informed opinions, and panel discussions among panelists who all think alike is designed to trigger availability cascades. While there is plenty of political bias in the news media, the controlling bias is viewership bias. If Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, and Don Lemon could attract higher ratings (and thus, more advertising revenue) by reporting accurately, they would. But instead, it’s more profitable to trigger availability cascades.

Think for yourself

Availability cascades can be harmful to the survival of a society because they choke off accurate information and thoughtful discussion. Constructive policies regarding race, arms, the environment, and law enforcement must be based on true information. Information can be brought forward by advocates and experts with diverse perspectives, each of them contributing to public dialogue.

Yet with availability cascades, all the information that most people see comes only from the extremists on one side. People who dare to dissent—or even to ask that certain claims be carefully examined rather than blindly accepted—are cancelled. Reputational cascades ensure that fewer and fewer people challenge the brand-new orthodoxies. More conformity leads to even more conformity—and to ever-lessening accuracy or depth in social understanding of real problems. Superficial conformity prevents honest discussion that can lead to effective solutions, and so the conformist society weakens itself in the long run, as the Soviet Union did. The result may be harmful, counterproductive policies adopted because “everyone” supposedly agrees.

One of the advantages of human society is that people can learn from the diverse experiences and knowledge of others. Two heads are better than one, and three hundred million heads are also better than one. Availability cascades replace the vast knowledge of many with the narrow agenda of the few. When availability entrepreneurs make everyone think like them—or at least pretend to think like them—it is guaranteed that society will be worse off than if we received diverse information and expressed diverse views. The trouble with conformity is that it can sometimes lead entire groups to their demise.

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