Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Airport Conference Center (steps from the light rail station!), attending the Washington State Wire’s first-ever Re–Wire conference, where I was on a panel with WSW founder Jim Boldt, TVW president Renee Radcliffe Sinclair, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. The topic: Polarization, fake news, and the future of media. The topic was way too big for four people to handle in 45 minutes, obviously, so I spent my 10 minutes or so (gently) pushing back against the notion that newspapers are going to save us (they aren’t) and the idea that local news consumers can’t tell the difference between “real” news and “fake” news. Boldt, in particular, seemed sold on this notion, claiming that nearly 9 in 10 news stories we read are generated by artificial intelligence. I find that number highly implausible, simply because local coverage is obviously generated by human beings; you can follow their bylines and see them in the flesh if you go to a community meeting or hang out at city hall. It could be that what he  meant is that nearly 9 out of 10 things that are posted online, or 9 out of 10 things that are posted on Facebook are AI-generated, but that’s a different problem than “why there isn’t much reliable local news.”

At the local level, I argued, the problem isn’t so much that there’s “fake news” (Nextdoor and your neighborhood Facebook group excepted), but that the interpretations of the news that does get reported are increasingly polarized. (Maybe this happens more in Seattle, where an army of newly minted socialists swarms my Twitter feed every time I sound too skeptical about a policy they support, than it does in, say, Tacoma or Kent). A neutral headline like “Rents increase for fourth quarter” will be spun as “excessive regulations force landlords to avoid poverty by increasing rents” by those on one end of the spectrum and as “greedy landlords bleed tenants dry” by those on the other. The problem arises, I said, when media who are deeply invested in one perspective being true dispense with fact-checking and rely on anecdata and alternative facts (or seem to eschew fact-checking altogether) to support their preordained conclusions.* For example, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon insisted, in the Stranger, that “hot money” flowing “out of China” was one of the main reasons housing prices have been going up in Seattle, and the paper, whose endorsement undoubtedly helped push Moon through the primary, did not dispute those claims.

Ultimately, Moon was never able to present evidence supporting her assertion that “hot money” was to blame for high housing prices, and brushed off evidence that refuted it with statements like, “We need to look at the data” and “Something’s going on.” But her supporters had already taken her initial sweeping claim—that foreign capital is a major reason housing prices are high in Seattle—and run with it. Foreign buyers snatching up property and leaving it vacant, creating an artificial market shortage? Feels true. And it’s certainly easier to blame “wealthy foreign investors” than have a complex and heated debate about Seattle’s restrictive zoning codes.

Recently, I’ve encountered the same resistance to numbers and reliance on anecdata in the debate over Airbnb regulations. (This week, the council passed new rules restricting most short-term rental operators, except those already operating in the downtown core, to two units total.) Opponents of services like Airbnb argue that they obviously increase housing prices by taking units off the market. And it feels true, especially when you happen to live near an Airbnb that used to be a long-term rental.  (As, it so happens, I do.) But when you confront them with facts, they often respond with anecdotes or observations, which are data points but are not the same thing as data.

Fact: There are, according to the website Inside Airbnb, a total of 426 units that meet the definition typically used by advocates who argue that short-term rentals are removing apartments from the long-term rental market. These units are whole units (that is, not rooms in someone’s house) that are frequently booked (too often to allow a long-term renter to live there), highly available (meaning they are listed as available to rent most or all of the time) and owned by people with more than one listing (meaning that they aren’t someone’s primary residence.) Even assuming that every single one of those Airbnb hosts would switch to being a full-time landlord (unlikely, given that, according to occupancy numbers, most hosts rent their units out only part-time), 426 units simply isn’t enough to influence rents one way or another in a city with hundreds of thousands of apartments and thousands more people moving here every month.

And yet anecdotes seem to win the day. “I know two people who have Airbnbs that they could be renting out as full-time units.” “We live in an era of landlords sitting on vacant properties.” “I watched two neighboring buildings get converted to full-time Airbnbs [in San Francisco] It’s a thing.” I mean—no one said it wasn’t “a thing.” There’s an important argument we should be having right now about revisiting ex-mayor Ed Murray’s decision to preserve restrictive single-family zoning across the city, but that’s such a difficult, fraught conversation. Easier to blame foreigners and rich people making a killing off their Airbnb empires. It feels true.

This is not to condemn people for basing their policy views on anecdotes from people they know, or their gut feelings. Everybody does that sometimes, especially when they lack full information. Instead, it’s a lament that there aren’t enough local media sources with the time or inclination to challenge assumptions that feel true—rent control will lower rents citywide because my rent won’t go up anymore; offering homeless people a bed in a crowded shelter will work because a shelter is obviously better than a tent—by presenting facts that are true.

* I should say here that I have my own biases—I’m pro-housing,  favor moving people over moving cars, and oppose punitive approaches to crimes of poverty and addiction—but I’ve changed my mind on issues plenty of times when the facts have pointed in a different direction than I thought they did. But this is usually in favor of a more nuanced position (it turns out some kinds of involuntary treatment do work) rather than a polar opposite extreme view (addicted people should be dragged off the streets and thrown into hospitals against their will.)

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4 thoughts on “Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

  1. Pingback: News Roundup: Everything But 501

  2. This is not so much a comment as a question. I agree with what is written here. Except – Nextdoor as a source of “fake news” needs some explanation. I would think that to be fake news, it has to be something that presents itself as information being disseminated from a legitimate source but actually is not. There is nothing I know of on Nextdoor that presents itself as such, it is all discussion threads. …There are plenty of times when people in the discussions present information that is false, but that’s not fake news because it’s not news at all, it’s somebody spouting falsehoods. Don’t we need to keep a distinction between fake news and drunk uncle?

  3. A. I’m a fan and greatly appreciate your efforts. B I share your biases and I would never stay in a hotel. Who does that? I’m 70 yo incidentally and recently stayed in amazing airbnbs in Paris, Chartres, Blois and Chinon. However, the discussion of homelessness, housing and airbnb’s part in it all, requires specificity, or in a way it’s fake: the phrase ‘except those already operating in the downtown core,’ What is the downtown core? My CH informant tells me that the boundaries in the legislation that passed are Cherry and Olive what’s the eastern boundary? How did they arrive at these boundaries? This is much smaller than what most people consider ‘the urban core’.
    One question I have is: To what degree does a block of high end apartments on airbnb affect homelessness in Seattle? Does the housing pressure actually go downstream in terms of rent? Does it matter if these apartments are occupied longish term by techies or short term by visiting techies or families with a member here for medical treatment, or nurses. Amazon has 1000 interns or so every summer. Think about it. These are vacant apts that could easily be leased to tenants but there are often no takers at those prices, so the owners are happy to lease to a highly reliable long term lease and airbnb operator.
    I think we agree that not nearly enough housing is being built for low and modest incomes. Is it possible or desirable to pressure the tech employers to stop paying so damn much. Is it possible to engage the tech corporations in actively becoming part of building housing for the whole community in the city and not pushing everybody whose not high income out?

  4. Thanks in particular for your first two grafs. (A) Somehow I hadn’t heard about the Washington State Wire. (B) The “fake news” syndrome is part of why I stay out of Facebook as much as possible – the service designed to further enrich its billionaire owners is not worth wasting much time on, given that it’s full of people sharing frivolous links from clickbait sites. I like to think that will all eventually collapse inward on itself like a dying star. Thankfully there are still MANY people who will go out to the open web to find real info, “generated by human beings” as you describe it. That said … we too have to get back to our next round of generating.

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