Mild Dermatographia

The Prisoner's Dilemma for Politicians and Journalists


Have you ever watched an interview with a politician or company representative where, instead of answering a seemingly straightforward question, they beat around the bush endlessly? Or spout some empty catch-phrase? It’s infuriating. Justin Trudeau does it. Donald Trump does it. It really seems like everyone does it. I’ve theorized on why privately in the past, but I think I’ve finally figured out why; the prisoner’s dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

According to wikipedia:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison
  • If A remains silent but B betrays A, A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

This can be generalized to (my own interpretation):

Two parties can either choose to collaborate (act in good faith) or compete (act in bad faith). As before, there are 4 outcomes:

  • If A and B act in bad faith, everyone gets kind of screwed
  • If A acts in good faith but B doesn’t, A ends up being screwed over
  • If B acts in good faith but B doesn’t, B ends up being screwed over
  • If A and B act in good faith, then neither group ends up screwed

The Politician’s Dilemma

So lets apply this to the situation of a politician in an interview with a journalist. First, we need to understand their motives, which I’ll bullshit here because, eh, don’t feel like doing a ton of research. I’ll try to do it in good faith. More or less.

What Motivates Politicians and Journalists?

Politicians, I would imagine, want two things:

  1. to implement the policies they/their party believe in and
  2. to not get fired.

As a politician, how do you ensure your policies are implemented? By convincing citizens that they’re a good thing. How do you avoid being fired? By keeping a good public image of yourself and your party. In both cases, keeping the public on your good side is essential to getting what you want.

Journalists also want two things:

  1. to report on world events and
  2. to not get fired.

How can you report on world events? By investigating. How can you avoid being fired? By bringing in enough money to keep the news agency running.

Either Or

In a perfect world, we get the fourth situation, where politicians transparently present their policies and ideas, and where journalists report those details in an impartial way. Citizens get accurate information on what politicians are trying to do, receive said information with a level head, and are able to make a well-informed decision. Unfortunately, like many times the prisoner’s dilemma is invoked, this option is rarely chosen. Let’s explore the second and third hypothetical options, where one party acts in good faith and the other doesn’t. First, the politician doesn’t act in good faith; they lie and conspire, manipulating public sentiment to stay in or gain power. If the media is acting in good faith, they’ll take everything politicians are saying at face value, effectively feeding false information to the public. Now the opposite scenario in which the politicians are acting in good faith; they’re transparent about their policies and their beliefs, and care less about staying in or gaining power, than being the best civil servant they can. Unfortunately, incentives in media are no less perverse than in politics, and sensational stories sell far better than rational, level-heading and frankly boring ones. So in order to maximize profits and keep their news agency (and their job) afloat, journalists will ask tricky questions and try to coax politicians into saying something that can be misconstrued, twisting a genuine and well-meaning statement into a monstrousity.

The Unfortunate Reality

Both situations end with one party or the other screwed over. What are we left with? The scenario where both parties play defensively. Journalists pry for any crack in a story, for any sentence or word that can be taken in the most awful way possible to maximize outrage and eyeballs on their site or newspaper. Politicians hide details behind empty platitudes and avoid tough questions, knowing that slipping even a bit can result in their subsequent demonization. As a result, citizens are doubly screwed; first, politicians give few concrete details and instead hold the line in the safest possible way. Second, journalists inflate the worst talking points of politicians. As a result, regular people are left with a mangled, empty message. Hardly inspires confidence in either party involved, but it must certainly be effective, as the politicians that spout platitudes and the news agencies that contort them are both alive and well.

This is Our Fault Too

Writing this all down, I’ve realized that ultimately, regular citizens have a certain degree of responsiblity for this mess. Why do politicians lie or spout empty platitudes? Because it works. It’s enough to satisfy most people. We don’t seem to want good ideas, we want to hear what we agree with on a superficial level, or at the very least hear about how awful the opposition is. Why do newspapers publish inflamatory or defamatory content? Because it gets the most attention. We live in an era where everything online is “free” and we expect it to stay that way. Media companies need ads to survive, and ad profit is driven by views and engagement. What drives views and engagement the most? Disaster and controversy. I highly recommend reading The Toxoplasma of Rage by Slate Star Codex or We are not prisoners of group-think by obsessive facts, if you’re interested in some perhaps tangential, but very interesting articles.

I think these phenomenon are just a manifestation of human nature; it seems we’re tuned to be aware of conflict and optimized for making shortcuts. The world is messy and virtually never binary, but we want everything to be black and white, right and wrong. All it takes is someone saying something that we agree with, as easy as a catch-phrase, and the critical thinking part of our brain shuts off. You’ve figured it all out, now onto the next thing! As for conflict: it gets our blood pumping and drives conversation, a staple of any social animal’s life.

While I see these as part of human nature, I think it is our responsibility to go above our biological programming (I’m tempted to write an article on the topic, probably equally vapid as this). We know/can learn our weaknesses, and try to fight them. We should make an effort to do research into the stances and logic behind political platforms instead of taking platitudes and smear campaigns at face value. It’s easy to discount the opposition as wrong; we should really consider their ideas, and turn our critical thinking inwards and question our own beliefs and stances. We don’t necessarily need to change our stance, but at least now we can have a justifiable degree of confidence in our views. We shouldn’t expect politicians to have a perfectly smooth plan with a flawless understanding of all the dynamics at play in their policies; instead, we should tolerate some uncertainty. We should question how important someone’s slip-ups really are in contrast to their policies, and what factors are motivating articles. We shouldn’t expect reality to be exciting; boring news is good news! We should realize the incentives which are in play for both politicians and journalists, and change them. Pay for good news. Vote for politicians who espouse the above values.

Finally, we should demand accountability from both politicians and journalists. For politicians, stop spoon-feeding us a perfect ideology and demonizing the opposition, and actually present your platform in detail. I want to know what your concrete plans are for our country, not some offhand comment the opposition made 10 years ago! Find common ground between your party and others; don’t go into every interaction with the intent of painting them in the worst possible light with loaded questions! We all want what is best for our country, so focus on that. Fess up to your mistakes and just say when you don’t know everything and are figuring it out. I can imagine running an entire country is incredibly complicated and I don’t expect you to be omniscient or omnipotent. For journalists, stop the sensational bullshit. Give us a clean, dry, boring account of what has happened. No speculation, no pulling quotes out of context. We’ll pay! (and should!) Just do it right.

I’m sure my take is incredibly na├»ve and idealistic. I’d love to hear your thoughts, contributions and criticism. You can email me at: milddermatographia at gmail dot com.