Seeking Sanity: An Idea for Saving the World

banksy-think-tank-2003We’ve all had fake news on our minds, but truly, “fake news” has always been with us. It’s just that no one has paid attention. We know now that social media and active online opinion communities have made it much easier for formerly marginal assholes like Alex Jones and Roger Stone (and Vladimir Putin) to sow fear and loathing in the public mind. But we need to be honest about the challenges in determining what news is fake and then deciding how to neutralize it. This focus on obliterating fakery endangers free speech and will do nothing to heal the profound social divisions in this country, and around the world. We need instead to reimagine and rebuild trusted information sources and stable discourse communities that can restore the epistemological foundations for political communication. This is not a trivial task, but we already have models that demonstrate how to create online communities that bring together diverse populations rather than sequestering them. Here are 10 bullets from this writer’s loaded gun (Banksy inspired) to outline what I am imagining.

  • House Divided. Whatever one’s politics might be, most people agree we’ve been through a hideous election cycle, and generally a hideous year for the nation, with no respite in sight. The divisions in our nation remind me (and many other people) of the nation’s collapse into two warring parties just prior to the Civil War.
  • Cognitive Chaos. We are used to a politics organized around a diffuse, but identifiable and bounded, center, with annoying/interesting fringe elements clustered at the rim of our political awareness. However, we now find ourselves with a center that has collapsed. We find evidence for this collapse and for polarization in the nation in the inability of people on each side of the divide to trust, communicate with, or even recognize as human their “enemies”.
  • Fake News and Trusted News. Leaving aside for the moment the obviously troubling issues of trolling and hacking and manipulation of social media, the question (for me, at least) is less how we get rid of “fake news” without destroying freedom of speech, and more how we rebuild sources of trusted news around which the political center can reform and reconstitute itself.
  • Seeking Alpha. The crowdsourced financial and investment research platform and online community, Seeking Alpha, gives us an incredible model for creating a durable, successful framework for responsibly sourcing information and managing commentary. With more than 5 million registered members and about 1.3 million unique visitors each month, Seeking Alpha is the leading (and very trusted) destination for investment research, ideas, news, and conversation.
  • Yahoo Finance. Before Seeking Alpha, Yahoo Finance was the dominant player in the online investment research and commentary space. And it was a sewer. Really not much different than what one finds on Breitbart (about which I have become something of an expert). The problem, of course, was the absence of clearly communicated and consistently enforced community standards. The other missing piece was the absence of an organized way to source and disseminate high quality research.
  • Seeking Alpha Again. The great achievement at Seeking Alpha (and these days, it seems greater than ever) was to build a high-quality crowd-sourced financial research platform paired with and supported by (remarkably) high-quality comment threads. From my perspective, the role of research editors and comment thread moderators at Seeking Alpha has made all the difference. The editorial team has simply required people to adhere to reasonable standards of investor relevance, topical specificity, and civil discourse. They’ve set clear expectations, and because the result benefits Seeking Alpha authors and readers alike (they’re often one and the same), the website has established trust between its editorial team and its audience, and between audience members themselves. So while one might quibble about the underlying political biases of the Seeking Alpha demographic (retired white guys and moneyed tech bros), which can lead to conversations or statements that often make me uncomfortable (or piss me off), the reality is that it is quite easy to overlook that stuff because the value of the service is so clear and the faith in its editorial integrity is so manifest.
  • Yahoo Finance Again. Of course, the Yahoo Finance message boards still exist, and there is now also the ridiculous StockTwits. But the reality is, these digital dregs matter far less because Seeking Alpha has established an alternative, and far more stable, center of gravity for investment research and investment conversation. It also matters that the organization’s editorial foundation also supports the Seeking Alpha business model (which is very successful).
  • Seeking Something Else (Politics, Policy, Virtue, Justice, Trust). I have fanatically persuaded myself that the Seeking Alpha editorial and business model would work incredibly well for creating a crowd-sourced, non-partisan policy and politics “think tank”. Obviously, the organization already has the technology and editorial infrastructure, so there could be a plug-and-play quality to creating this new adjunct political/policy platform. Political news is of course sizzling hot right now (traffic on Politico and FiveThirtyEight is through the roof), probably for the foreseeable future. But neither Politico or FiveThirtyEight (and probably no other “mainstream media” organization) has the capability or the vision to create a trusted community of policy and political junkies across the political and ideological spectrum.
  • The Crowd-Sourced Think Tank Model. My idea is to use/extend Seeking Alpha’s existing platform and editorial team to create a political analog to the Seeking Alpha community, one that would source bipartisan contributions on politics and policy, and filter them not by ideological purity, but by rigorous editorial standards. I think many policy professionals would contribute to this site for the same reason so many financial and investment advisers and members of the professional (and amateur) investment community do now on Seeking Alpha. “Political” Seeking Alpha would get support from policy wonks from academia, from government, from non-profits, from think-tanks. And by establishing and enforcing clear community standards, this politics, policy, and “real” news platform could organize really interesting and high-quality conversation threads about these research contributions.
  • My Perspective and My Commitment. This political/policy application of the Seeking Alpha model would be a terrific business that would build and reinforce the great work the organization has already done for investment research. But honestly, it may also be exactly what we need to save our nation politically (and in other ways). We need a new way to set standards for dissemination of news, ideas, and facts and we need to marginalize purveyors of cognitive chaos (agents of normalization, confusion, and misdirection) on sites such as Breitbart and Infowars and Fox News, which have achieved a frightening critical mass on the basis of a dark energy that has very little to do with free speech. At the same time, this political/policy version of Seeking Alpha could also deeply and constructively influence and repair the damaged relationship between “town and gown”, which threatens (along with many other things) to destroy higher education in the United States.

So a lot is at stake, but I am excited about the potential of this idea to reset the conversation about politics and policy in this country.