In business as in politics, people are too often looking for easy, short-term solutions to demonstrate action and therefore fail to solve the right problem resulting in making the real problem harder to solve in the long run.
For example, Twitter and Facebook, seeking an easy-to-implement short-term solution, after some extremists stormed the United States capital on January 6th, 2021, stated that they are permanently banning Donald Trump from their platforms. Their short-term solution to silence him will ultimately not permanently censor Donald Trump and will make solving the real problem of propagating inaccurate or biased information, which they stated as the real problem, far worse because their solution failed to solve the right problem.
As I see it, the real problem with Twitter and Facebook is the echo chamber created by their recommendation algorithm. We all know that when a user reacts to a post, the recommendation algorithm is designed to show users more posts of the same type as those they have engaged with. By filtering out posts that do not fit the recommendation algorithm, users get only one side of the argument. Moreover, most social media users are lazy and do not engage in lateral reading to discover opposing views on their own to distinguish truth from misinformation. Just because someone on social media says it is true doesn’t mean it’s true.
In addition to social media’s algorithm problem is the fact that today, news outlets are much more focused on making money than reporting events based on facts supported by proof and evidence in an unbiased manner. Today, news networks are less concerned about the accuracy of what they report as they once were when there was only a hand full of networks and, are more focused on crafting fear-based stories that tap into a person’s emotions to promote greater viewership.
Coupled together, users are pawns in a volatile game to line the pockets of media companies. Trying to solve the real problem of unbiased and fact-checked news is much harder and would have short-term consequences to the fortunes of most media companies. Therefore, attempting to address the real problem is ignored in favor of a quick fix. Hence, they are content to offer more of the same and make decisions that are likely to enrich them in the short term at the expense of making the real problem much worse in the long term by their actions.
Freedom of the press used to mean that media companies had the right to hold the government accountable without any fear from government oppression as they strove to be watchdogs to ferret out government wrongdoing. However, that definition has been modified and perverted. As A. J. Why said: “Today freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” implying that the new interpretation of the freedom of the press gives publishers the exclusive right to control what they choose to publish and to squelch any content or person they see fit to silence that does not support their narrative since they are free to do so based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
While the action of Twitter and Facebook to remove Donald Trump’s accounts are within the current interpretation of freedom of the press and may suggest to some a responsiveness by providing a short-term solution, their actions do not solve the real problem that they invoke as the rationale for their actions. Trying to solve the real problem of the recommendation algorithm and creating a forum for open and honest civil debate for people of different ideologies to discuss their fears and concerns related to climate change, use of force by police, guns, election irregularities, etc. is much harder to accomplish but would solve the right problem.
Actions that result in creating mere optics of short-term solutions that fail to solve the right problem should be a lesson of what “not to do” for all small business owners. As I discussed in a previous post, when you fail to target the right problem with your solution, you don’t solve the underlining issue that caused the real problem, making any future attempt to solve the right problem even harder. By failing to ask: “And then, what will happen” to discover the second-order effects of decisions, makes your future options for finding the right solution more difficult and costly.
Twitter and Facebook failed to solve the right problem when they decided to ban users such as Donald Trump from their platforms. While some will see their actions and may say it is about time, this is the classic stage-one thinking. Twitter and Facebook should ask themselves: “Will banning Donald Trump solve the real problem or make it worse in the long run?”
“One of the advantages that we had when those fringe groups were available and communicating in the open, with Facebook, Twitter, and Parler, is that it was an open-source way to track the flow of protest interest, That was like a nice slow-pitch softball. It was easy to see coming and easy to make contact with but that was taken away”Sgt. Nick Street, a public information officer for the Utah Highway Patrol
Here is how I think it will play out. Shutting down Donald Trump’s access to his followers will only heighten the already volatile political divide, forcing people to take sides more vehemently. As a result of this action, their platforms will, in the future, mostly appeal to a liberal audience, as many conservatives will move off the platforms and find ones that appeal to their conservative values. This will further intensify the echo chamber of information between liberals and conservatives, making the problem of honest debate of the issues harder to solve in the future. And then, what will happen? Twitter and Facebook will lose their appeal to many advertisers except for those that want to appeal to the ever-narrowing demographic of users they serve. And then, what will happen? This will hurt their future advertising profits. Moreover, by failing to target the right problem, their oligopoly market structure and their preeminent social media leadership will be eroded by the splintering of their user base, hurting any future ability they may have to influence the narrative to solve the right problem. In fact, whatever platform ultimately accepts Donald Trump will be rewarded with an influx of users as many will choose to flee these popular platforms and reward the competitor.
In another example, while the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to focus primarily on drug smugglers, they too are looking for short-term solutions that fail to solve the right problem, ultimately worsening the problem of drug abuse in the US because their efforts do not address the real problem of users’ appetite for drugs.
Focusing on hunting down and capturing drug dealers and not on the question of why drug users turn to and abuse drugs in the first place is not solving the real issue. Solving the right problem involves understanding the psychological reasons people abuse drugs, which is much harder and mostly avoided by the DEA.
Since the DEA does not target the right problem, here is how it plays out. When the DEA targets drug dealers vs drug users, they drive up the price of illegal drugs. The DEA and many of its supporters may say that driving up the price of drugs is a good thing as it will render illegal drugs too expensive for many users, but that is another classic example of only applying stage-one thinking. After driving up the cost of illegal drugs, the DEA should ask: “And then, what will happen?” The higher cost of illegal drugs results in higher profits for dealers and invites more organized crime. And then, what will happen? Higher profits from the sale of illegal drugs attract better and more sophisticated drug dealers, making the problem of drug enforcement much harder. However, my guess is that the DEA’s secret goal is not to curtail drug use but to create an escalating business model that would warrant more money being allocated to the agency, but that is for another future post.
It also reminds me of the shallow copyright infringement victory against Napster after they developed a peer-to-peer file sharing platform where people shared copyrighted music files. The result of shutting down Napster did not address the real issue of piracy. Rather, this only made the problem worse as the demise of the centralized Napster gave rise to the likes of Kazaa, Limewire, and many other decentralized peer-to-peer file sharing platforms. These new platforms not only allowed users to continue to share copyrighted music but also allowed the sharing of videos and games. Plus, the decentralized nature of these new platforms made it much harder to find and prosecute copyright infringement cases. In the end, the problem worsened and efforts to resolve the core issue were harder because people failed to ask: “And then, what will happen” as they considered the second-order effects of their initial decisions.
Just as Twitter and Facebook’s decision to remove individuals’ accounts they deemed as violating their rules failed to solve the right problem and will not silence them for long, the second-order effects of these decisions will further polarize social media users based on the platform. Moreover, their actions will give rise to more obscure upstarts like Gab or Parler and their successors eroding Twitter and Facebook’s preeminent status as category leaders. Each new entrant will learn from the previous generation’s mistakes, making it harder and harder to solve the real problem.
The real lesson here for businesses is to make sure that you solve the right problem. If you target the wrong problem to create the optics of an easy short-term solution, you will often make solving the real problem much more difficult. In business, you have to consider the consequences of your actions by asking: “And then, what will happen” to discover the second-order effects so you can accomplish your overarching goals even if it is hard.
Are you guilty of failing to solve the right problem and instead opting for short-term solutions that will make the problem worse?
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