Monday, March 19, 2012

The Law and Economics of Market for Ridiculous Ideas - The Case of Lady Gaga Fatwa

I guess most of the people know about the latest fatwa issued by one of the National Ulema Council (MUI) members, Mr. Cholil Ridwan, stating that viewing the concert of Lady Gaga is prohibited under Islamic law. In this post, I will not discuss the validity of his opinion under Islamic law principles, rather, I want to discuss a more pressing matter, and that is the market for ridiculous ideas. The distribution speed of such fatwa is ridiculously high as everyone want to give their comments, either agreeing with the content, or just for the purpose of mocking the fatwa.

I find the overall conduct as highly inefficient. Although the article did say that Mr. Ridwan did not represent MUI and that it was only his personal opinion, the title might give a misleading perception to the readers (especially in a world where most people focus only on the headline instead the content of the news), at least evidenced by the multiple comments that I read in my Twitter timeline. And it goes on and on, from saying that such fatwa is a part of fundamentalist thoughts, that the fatwa is being used to blackmail the music promoter, and not to mention people who spend their time explaining to other people that the news is actually misleading. What a waste of time!

Sure, people might say that this is only a single case and the argument of efficiency might not be applicable. But we should also see the facts that this kind of news is only a part of many other stupid news, spreading ridiculous ideas that do not have any social benefit other than to attract readers for the relevant medias. For the media, it is an efficient system. After all, whether the news has a good quality or not is not a problem, the most important thing is that the media can gather as many readers as possible at an instance and engage them in useless debate that will promote the ideas to a new level.

I am a supporter of freedom of speech and I will not say that ridiculous ideas cannot be spread to the general public. But for God's sake, media should act as an effective screening mechanism for useful ideas, somewhat similar to the role of underwriters and investment bankers in capital market. The laws in many countries require these bankers to give their best effort and to satisfy a very high standard of conduct in order to ensure the integrity of the market. We want them to ensure that only the best products that will go to the public or at least that they can give adequate information to the public so that the public can make an informed decision.

The problem with the market of ideas is that it is far more difficult to set the standard for determining a good idea. Different with capital market where we can tag prices to the securities being sold, the value of spreading an idea for a media corporation is not in the idea itself but on how it can attract viewers. And even if the idea is a complete failure and also wasteful, as long as the actual monetary damages to the society is not clear, no one can go to the court and sue the media for spreading such stupid ideas.

I guess this is a good example of market failure where asking for intervention from the government might be more costly than the perceived benefits since I do not want to open any possibilities for the government to censor ideas, even if it is utterly ridiculous. I hope that Indonesian readers would start to treat this kind of news as unimportant and therefore reducing the value of news itself. The more people choose to ignore this kind of news, the more incentives for the media to pick better news to satisfy their readers. That would be an acceptable solution for both parties.

My suggestion for medias, please pick a better source of news, especially when you know that your source is not reliable. Each man is entitled to his own opinion, but it does not mean that each opinion should be treated as important and therefore good for publication. In the short term, doing this kind of thing might be profitable for the media, but I doubt that it will be good for the long term, along with the increase of education level in Indonesia. Smart medias should take this opportunity to establish their own niches as medias that only broadcast high quality materials and attack medias that spread wasteful ideas to attract readers. Who knows, competition might effectively solve this problem sooner that we all expect.

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