Incentivizing Bad Behavior

by Will on September 9, 2010

Some xenophobic idiot in Florida thinks it’s somehow going to be helpful and productive to burn Korans. History teaches that burning media is totally a good way to combat ideas you don’t like, which is why the Nazis succeeded in eliminating liberal democracy from the world with their book burnings and why 60s religious conservatives erased the blight of the Beatles from the earth by burning their records. Matt Yglesias has what I think is the right take on this:

[T]here’s always going to be some jerk somewhere doing something ridiculous. “Guy in Florida deliberately trying to antagonize Muslims” can’t become a global news story every time it happens.

This is yet another case where the news media’s incentives do not align with those of the public. It’s quite possible that this guy knows that burning books is dumb, but just wants to get attention and win some admirers in the bigot community. The media dutifully amplifies his bad behavior, because its outrageousness makes it interesting and it will increase page views and viewership. But it’s not really newsworthy, and the media is in fact rather irresponsible to take the guy’s bait and make him famous. It gives other idiots throughout the country the knowledge that they can do some provocative idiot thing and be rewarded with celebrity and idiot followers. Sadly, the collapse of traditional media, and the decentralized, low-profit nature of the new media, seem like they will only make this problem worse going forward.

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